Gunshi Kanbei [2014]

Gunshi Kanbei is NHK’s 53rd taiga drama.

This one portrays the life of Kuroda Kanbei.

Before I begin this review, I’d like to mention that the actor who plays Toyotomi Hideoyoshi is the same man who had the exactly same role in Hideyoshi (1995 taiga drama). As far as I am aware, this is the only case where the same actor plays the same role after two decades. So, it’s worth mentioning it.

Kuroda Kanbei was a samurai who was rather unique. In Sengoku era or any ancient era, for a man to succeed, physical perfection was required because a man had to lead armies on front line.

In Kanbei’s case, he was a disabled man. However, it wasn’t a birth defect. I will talk about this later. His life was also unique in a fact that he still led armies after retirement. Now, this was also very rare in Sengoku era.

The taiga drama begins with his father, Kuroda Mototaka.

The Kuroda clan started out as a senior retainer for Kodera clan of Himeji region. It’s safe to say now that it was more or less a minor clan in a big picture.

Kodera clan never had a firm grasp of their domain, and minor conflicts with other numerous tribes broke out frequently. The only reason it lasted as long as it did was because of an informal Military alliance between several clans around their home against the Mori clan.

From episode 1, you will watch Kodera clan having numerous small but potentially dangerous conflicts within. The current, and the last, head of the Kodera clan is Kodera Masamoto who is portrayed as a wimp and a coward in this drama. Perhaps so, given the ultimate fate of his clan. But, if you read his history, he fought until the end but he never committed seppuku for his failure which is perhaps why he is portrayed as a wimp here.

There are some filler episodes in the early part of this drama. It is because Kodera clan was more or less peaceful on surface until Oda Nubunaga starts to show interest in the region.

The Oda clan wants to tackle the Mori clan which was one of three powerhouses in Western Japan, and the domain Kodera clan holds is a key strategic point.

When Nobunaga makes an offer to the Kodera clan which is basically yield or die, the clan is perhaps predictably divided into two. Kuroda clan is pro-Oda while almost all others are pro-Mori. It is understandable from their point of view. By choosing to side with the Mori, they’d keep their status quo. Nothing would change by choosing to side with the Mori. They’d keep their land, and that is it.

Choosing the Oda would have meant 100% uncertainty. Walking into unknown is something most people would refuse. Kuroda Kanbei, at that moment, chooses the Oda because he sees a brighter future with the Oda than the Mori.

I’d like to add that Kuroda Kanbei is the clan leader at this point. Motokata has retired and is mostly an advisor at this point.

Initially, Masamoto listens to Kanbei and chooses to support the Oda. However, because everyone else is against the idea, frequent whispers are sent to Masamoto to persuade him away. It does take time, but Masamoto is eventually persuaded by his inner circle, who are pro-Mori, to make a stand against the Oda.

At this point, Kanbei has already been working with Hideyoshi for some time and he sees his future only with the Oda. This creates internal friction within Kodera clan. This friction bears its fruit with Araki Murashige’s revolt against the Oda clan because they now see how cruel Nobunaga can be if someone betrays him.

Historically, Murashige’s family (wife & children) were executed in an open field not far from a castle he was defending in, meaning he saw his family being murdered right in front of his eyes.

Long story short, Kanbei attempts to persuade Murashige to surrender but Murashige imprisons him instead for a whole year before he is defeated by a military force. This is where he gets his dead leg as well as a loss of eye sight to one eye due to malnutrition and lack of space for any exercise.

From this point on, his loyalty is no longer questioned.

And this is where the story really begins to kick off. This is episode 24.

Kanbei is also rewarded 10,000 koku which propels his clan to a daimyo. Before this promotion, Kuroda clan didn’t really have any land, and the amount of men they could summon was less than 500 men.

From this point on, if you know the historical flow of Sengoku era, you know what will happen.

The Oda tackling the Mori means Honnō-ji incident is imminent, and when it happens, all hells break loose. If you’ve watched numerous taiga drama dealing with Sengoku era, you will probably know how it will exactly go down.

I will just say that a lot of stuff have been basically omitted. It doesn’t cover a lot, and the story narrator does the most of the job.

What it does cover well is the peace negotiation with now Toyotomi and Mori. It’s no longer Oda and Mori anymore.
Basically, where Kanbei shines is well covered while everything else is a bit excessively shortened.

Now, I do not know whether Kanbei foresaw this in reality. But he retires near the end of Hideyoshi’s life. In Sengoku era, once a clan head retires, he generally takes his hands off all clan and mortal affairs and usually becomes an advisor at the best.

However, while Hideyoshi allows Kanbei to retire and pass the clan leadership to his son, he does not allow Kanbei to completely disappear from politics. Kanbei could still have insisted to retire but did not. Furthermore, Hideyoshi grants lands to Kanbei personally. Normally, lands are rewarded to a clan.

This creates a very interesting situation at the battle of Sekigahara. Again, if this was what Kanbei planned, it was probably one of the most brilliant moves I’ve seen as a military strategist.

You see, his son sides with Tokugawa while Kanbei himself sides with Toyotomi-ish. I say “ish” because it is not entirely clear what his true intention is. You see, he attacks Kyūshū and almost single-handedly conquers the whole island for seemingly himself. He basically sides with no one and looks like he aims to establish his own nation.

Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually puts a hard stop on Kanbei, unsure of what his intention is. Now, here is the funny part. he has no way of punishing Kanbei. Kuroda clan sides with him, so he can’t punish the clan. Nobody knows exactly why Kanbei conquered almost all Kyūshū, either, so there is no ground to punish him, either. Ieyasu is simply skeptical of what his true intention is.

My personal opinion on Kanbei’s intention is that he wanted to establish some sort of a second nation on Kyūshū. And, if required, fight Tokugawa. Kyūshū island is very far from the center of Japan. Therefore, it has always been sort of independent, basically free from Shogun’s influence. The island is also easy to defend from outside if naval force is strong enough.

Well, we will never know.

Last words

Acting quality is especially good in this taiga drama, and they added pretty reasonably thought-out artificial events for filler parts. This is a stark contrast from Fūrin Kazan where artificial events felt unfit to the era.

Overall, it is a decent taiga drama to watch. I especially like that they cast not-so-beautiful/cute women in the series. Doll-like women do not really fit into taiga drama settings.

And I really love that they cast Naoto Takenaka as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. As mentioned, the same actor played the same role in Hideyoshi (1995 taiga drama).

His experience as Toyotomi Hideoyoshi really shines when he receives an urgent letter, explaining that Nobunaga is dead in a revolt.

He really does sound like he is totally breaking down. For him, Oda Nobunaga was everything. He was his God. Without him, he wouldn’t be where he was. After all, he was just a farmer.

I’ve watched a lot of taiga drama and have seen a lot of Hideyoshi break-downs. This was the best reaction.

BUT it got better. When Kanbei told him that his time had arrived, the shock on his face was really telling.

Hideyoshi never thought about it. He never thought about standing on his own. Nobunaga was always there. He never thought about it …

That was a golden scene, and Naoto Takenaka played this part to perfection. He was, at that moment, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

I’ve reviewed four taiga dramas at this point. I shall rank them in this order.

  1. Komyo ga Tsuji [2006]
  2. Sanada Maru [2016]
  3. Gunshi Kanbei [2014]
  4. Furin Kazan [2007]

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