by Andrea Grunert
When I first watched Sekigahara (Japan, 2017), I was intrigued by its great formal beauty, complex structure and the many outstanding performances. Harada Masato’s film brings to life a crucial moment in Japanese history; and its main protagonists become real human beings of flesh and blood. The battle that took place on 21 October 1600 near the village of Sekigahara on the western edge of Mino province (1) was the crucial event in a campaign that had started in July of that year (2). Its outcome changed the course of Japan’s history, achieving unification and marking the beginning of about 250 years of Tokugawa rule – 250 years of peace based on a complex bureaucratic system and a strict military regime. The battle was a confrontation between two rivals for supremacy in Japan – Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), played in the film by Yakusho Kōji, and Ishida Mitsunari (1563-1600), played by Okada Jun’ichi. At that point in history, Ieyasu was the richest and most influential daimyō (3) in Japan. He was the lord of the eight provinces of the Kantō region in the east of the country and one of the five regents (tairō) for five-year-old Hideyori, the son and designated successor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the general who is regarded as the second unifier of Japan following more than hundred years of civil war (4). Mitsunari was one of the members of the go-bugyō, the council of five magistrates in Hideyoshi’s government, and he defended the young heir’s interests during the Sekigahara campaign.
Narrative complexity meets aesthetic beauty
Adapting for the screen Shiba Ryōtarō’s novel Sekigahara, published in 1966 (5), was clearly a tremendous challenge; and the film reduces the several hundred characters in the three-volume epic to around 50. It depicts the battle as the culmination of a complex series of events that are traced back over several years. Harada’s account of some of these precursors to the final confrontation near Sekigahara reveals the desire for power and revenge, the shifting alliances and the hatred at the core of the conflict.
The focus in the film is on Mitsunari, defeated in the battle, who had previously been belittled for a long time as a mere bureaucrat. Anthony J. Bryant describes Mitsunari as an “inveterate schemer” (6), which is also how a number of films had presented him, including Tanaka Kinuyo’s Ogin-sama (Love under the Crucifix, 1962) and Kumai Kei’s Ogin-sama (Love and Faith, 1978), both adapted from Kon Tōkō’s novel Ogin-sama (7), and Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Rikyū (Japan, 1989), based on the novel Hideyoshi to Rikyū (8) by Nogami Yaeko. In all three films, Mitsunari is depicted as a villainous and treacherous character (9), but this is a view that Harada disagrees with.
After a first brief sequence set on the plain near Sekigahara on the eve of the battle, a series of flashbacks outlines the political context and Mitsunari’s role as Hideyoshi’s confidant. The flashbacks start in 1573, when Hideyoshi, who was to become the most powerful man in Japan a few years later (10), meets Mitsunari for the first time. According to a famous legend, 13-year-old Ishida Mitsunari – then called Sakichi – served tea to the thirsty general, who was taking a rest in a temple near Nagahama Castle in Ōmi province (11). Mitsunari’s origins are obscure, but a remark in the film suggests that he was a peasant. Hideyoshi takes a liking to the boy – perhaps because he reminds him of his own humble background. The following scenes refer to various events showing Mitsunari as a grown man who has distinguished himself in the service of Hideyoshi and has become one of his most trusted collaborators. After Hideyoshi’s death, he kept his position in the council of the bugyō, but real power was exercised by the five regents, the most important of whom was Ieyasu.
The series of flashbacks reaches its narrative climax in 1595 with the execution on the Sanjō riverbank in Kyoto of the wives, concubines and children of Hideyoshi’s adopted son Hidetsugu, who has been accused of treason. This key scene, in which Mitsunari tries in vain to save the life of Princess Koma (11), brings together several of the film’s main characters, namely the samurai Shima Sakon (Hira Takehiro), the daimyō Kobayakawa Hideaki (Higashide Masahirō), Ōtani Yoshitsugu (Ōba Yasumasa), and the ninja Hatsume (Arimura Kasumi), a fictitious figure (12). The sequence on the riverbank reveals Mitsunari’s compassionate nature and at the same time his ultimate powerlessness against the wishes of his benefactor Hideyoshi, thus challenging the rumours that Hidetsugu’s downfall was the result of one of Mitsunari’s schemes. It also provides some clues to the complex relationships between the five characters. The young Kobayakawa Hideaki accuses Mitsunari of having failed to save Koma and the other women. Shima Sakon says that the killing of women and children will bring disgrace on Mitsunari, Hideyoshi’s loyal collaborator Sakon is disgusted by Hideyoshi’s perfidy but Mitsunari nevertheless succeeds in persuading Sakon to serve him (i.e. Mitsunari) despite his alliance with Hideyoshi. And he also saves the life of Hatsume, the ninja woman who becomes his faithful servant.
The sequence on the riverbank combines distance shots and swift action with close-ups and medium close-ups that reveal Mitsunari’s inner torment, his hectic movements emphasizing his inner turmoil. Not unlike a Noh play, Sekigahara switches between movement and stillness, the emptiness of large rooms contrasts with shots packed with human bodies in the fighting scenes and silence contrasts with the noise of the battle. The symmetry of the Japanese architecture and the choreography of the sophisticated movements in accordance with official etiquette is challenged in the battle scenes and also at other moments in which violence erupts among the constantly brawling samurai. Great attention is paid to detail and to authenticity with regard to architecture, costumes, objects and customs, and this is also true for the portrayal of the main protagonists. In one scene in which Ieyasu leaves his bath half-naked, the camera reveals his enormous belly, recalling that this first Tokugawa shogun is generally described as a man with a paunch. The scene in which an excited Ieyasu observes a battle from the balcony of his quarters while dining is described by several historians and other writers (13). It is also reported that while Ieyasu was studying Kobayakawa Hideaka’s movements during the Battle of Sekigahara, “he chewed nervously on his fingernails” (14), a gesture performed in the film by Yakusho, revealing Ieyasu’s emotional involvement while observing the course of events on the battlefield from his quarters.
Harada’s shots of interiors reveal the complexity behind the apparent simplicity of Japanese architecture, with pillars and paravents fragmenting almost empty spaces. This sophisticated spatial structure is mirrored in the episodic style of the narrative, which shifts between events centring around the two main characters and on the ten or eleven other important figures such as Hatsume and Shima Sakon. A number of shots from the sequence at the beginning of the film reappear, now integrated into the chronology of events in the scenes just before the battle. The battle scenes are magnificently filmed, combining choreographed movements of troops and the chaos of violence and death (15). There are also variations on a single motif: Mitsunari, on the eve of the battle, putting a Jizō statue (16) he finds lying by the roadside back in its place in a small shrine and Ieyasu doing the same thing when he inspects the battlefield after his victory. The execution scene in the first part of the film is also echoed at the end of the film, with Mitsunari on his way to the same execution site on the riverbank.
Harada has commented on Shiba Ryōtarō’s approach to Ishida Mitsunari: “The author did a certain justice about recreating Lord Ishida. as a rational, logical person, unlike any other Japanese historical character. His way of thinking is more of contemporary Westerners. and thus, I understand Ishida’s character quite well.” (17) The film challenges widespread view of Mitsunari as an arch-schemer, presenting the bugyō as a man courageous enough to challenge Hideyoshi, who is eager to conquer China. However, when asked why he is “loyal to that tyrant”, he simply replies: “That tyrant made me.”
Emphasizing Mitsunari’s modesty and seriousness, the sombre colours of his kimono and hakama – dark blue and black – contrast with Hideyoshi’s gold-coloured attire and Ieyasu’s less flamboyant clothes with their elaborate design but dominated by shades of yellow, green, beige and brown. Harada depicts Mitsunari as an idealist whose credo “dai ichi, dai man, dai kichi” (roughly translated as “one for all, all for one, everyone happy”) is written on his family crest and who declares: “I want to change the unjust world.” Recalling that Mitsunari once sent back a hostage (18), Maeda Toshiie (19) comments: “You go all the way for what you care. That is also your weakness. You assume that the object of your affection will reciprocate. You may be too pure to become a general of generals”.
However, as the simplicity of his costumes suggests, Mitsunari is presented as an austere figure not interested in the brawling of the other Toyotomi allies – his stern attitude being perhaps a further aspect of his character which distinguishes him from the other daimyō. As Shima Sakon puts it: “You are hard on your allies and soft on your enemies.” Mitsunari’s moral standards and intransigent nature create hostility towards him as Sakon realizes when he reminds him of an incident with Ieyasu, a man Mitsunari mistrusts. When Ieyasu picked up a stick that Mitsunari had dropped and gave it back to him, Mitsunari failed to make even the simplest gesture of acknowledgement. The film suggests that these traits of his personality – his loyalty and moral behaviour close to stubbornness – may have contributed to his defeat at Sekigahara and the defection of over the third of his forces (20). He clings to his battle plan, unable to adapt to new conditions, and right up to the last moment he expects Kobayakawa Hideaki to remain loyal (21). Following historical sources, the film presents the Toyotomi allies as a “disjointed and quarrelsome coalition of rival lords” (22) who pursued their own goals instead of fighting for Hideyoshi’s young heir.
The traditional view of Mitsunari is as a mediocre military leader and magistrate, but Harada sees him as a loyal servant of the Toyotomi family. The focus is on Mitsunari as an altruistic human being rather than on his political achievements. Shima Sakon is depicted as the perfect samurai, who is courageous and selfless, and Mitsunari, critical of himself, says of Sakon: “I retained a samurai who has all the qualities I lack”. Sakon chooses a spectacular death by explosives, killing not only himself and his loyal soldiers but also many of his enemies. It is Shima Sakon who persuades his friend Mitsunari to flee after the battle. In doing so, Mitsunari does not act like the conventional samurai, but far from representing him as a coward, the film implies that he surrenders in order to save the life of the peasant who gave him shelter. Moreover, he stoically endures the humiliations and beatings while he is Ieyasu’s captive, and in the final shots, on his way to the execution site, he is shown as a man who faces death with pride and serenity. He explains to Kobayakawa Hideaki that he decided not to kill himself because he wanted to live a little longer to see what became of the people he cared about. On the way to his execution, he sees Hatsume, whom he believed dead, for one last time. The young woman repeats her master’s credo “Dai ichi…” when he passes by, expressing the hope that Mitsunari’s ideals will survive. Hatsume is one of the people Mitsunari cares about, treating this ninja as a human being and not as a dog, which is how she regards herself. His empathy makes him more understandable for contemporary audiences, but the modernity of his character lies mainly in the way he expresses self-doubt and inner contradictions, and here, Mitsunari’s inner torment is marvellously expressed by Okada’s restrained and sensitive acting.
These characteristics of Mitsunari’s stand out very clearly as they contrast with those of Ieyasu, depicted as an arch-manipulator but also as a pragmatist and a brilliant strategist who has the self-confidence and authority his opponent lacks. Lord Tokugawa is the opposite of the austere Mitsunari and a man who enjoys life – an energetic, pleasure-loving and sensual man played by Yakusho in a most vivid and original way. His Ieyasu is an elemental force, shouting and laughing, and he celebrates a victory by behaving like a football fan in a stadium. He can also behave like a child, when, wearing a hōrō (24) on his back, he cavorts round his room, imitating a galloping and neighing horse. However, when he learns that Mitsunari has left his quarters, he immediately stops his playful activity and returns to his main concern: the quest for power.
Past and present
There is one sequence which breaks with the film’s historical setting, and it shows Shiba Ryōtarō as a child, resting and drinking tea in the same temple in which Mitsunari first met Hideyoshi. From the off, the voice of the adult Shiba explains how close he felt to Mitsunari at that moment. Harada also has an affinity with his main character: “I feel like Ishida Mitsunari is a totally misunderstood character, like how I am misunderstood by some of the Japanese. We fought the same kind of battle, a mental battle against society, and so I sympathize with his character.” (24) Connecting the story of the Battle of Sekigahara and Mitsunari with contemporary Japan, the filmmaker explains his intentions: “Well, actually, most of the Japanese youth, they don’t know what the Battle of Sekigahara was all about. And they certainly have no idea who Ishida Mitsunari was. So, I wanted to do some kind of justice about what Lord Ishida contributed, and what if he won the battle? The Japanese could have been different. Or what if we have a politician with Ishida’s mind? Japan would be much, much better today.” (25) Whatever the answer may be, Harada re-creates a highly significant moment in Japanese history in a most memorable film.
(1) Mino, one of the historical provinces, is today part of Gifu Prefecture.
(2) See Anthony J. Bryant, Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle for Power, Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 1995.
(3) This term designates Japan’s magnates and lords in a feudal system that existed from the 10th century until 1868.
(4) Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was the first unifier of Japan. He was succeeded by his general Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu completed the process of unification.
(5) The numerous historical novels written by Shiba include books about Hideyoshi (Shinshi Taikōki, 1968) and Ieyasu (Haō no ie, 1973).
(6) Bryant, op. cit., p. 17. However, views on Mitsunari are contradictory. Stephen Turnbull calls him “a fine general in his own right but one who lacked the political skills needed to bind the alliance in a genuine commitment to the cause of Hideyori.” (Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2012, p. 17). In recent years, more attention has been given to Mitsunari as the loser of the battle who had apparently often been neglected by both historians and writers of popular novels in Japan.
(7) Published in 1956.
(8) Published in 1962.
(9) Ishida Mitsunari, also known as Ishida Kazushige, was the inspiration for Ishido Kazunari, the arch-villain in James Cavell’s novel Shogun (1975).
(10) The historical province Ōmi comprises today’s Shiba Prefecture. A monument commemorating the first meeting between Hideyoshi and young Ishida Mitsunari stands in front of Nagahama train station.
(11) The 15-year-old Koma was not even officially recognized as Hidetsugu’s concubine when she was executed together with all the members of his family.
(12) Among the many figures in the film, there are also strong female characters, especially the Iga ninja Hatsume, who wins Mitsunari’s heart, and Shima Sakon’s wife Hanano (Nakagashi Noriko), who runs a frontline hospital near the battlefield. In an interview, Harada explains that the information about Hanano was the result of his research on the battle and its historical background. See “Sekigahara director Harada Masato on filming history through a modern eye”, an interview conducted by Diva Vélez at the New York Asian Film Festival, 15 July 2018. https://screenanarchy.com/2018/07/new-york-asian-2018-interview-sekigahara-director-harada-masato-on-filming-history-through-a-modern.html
(13) Stephen Turnbull, op. cit., p. 40.
(14) Bryant, op. cit, p. 72.
(15) The representation of the battle is inspired by a variety of battle scenes in film history, including a combat scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938). Another important reference is to the great battle scene at the end of Kurosawa Akira’s Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, Japan, 1954). See “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit. The soldiers moving in the background of one shot, framed as mere silhouettes against the horizon, are reminiscent of the first shots in Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
(16) In Japan, a Jizō is a highly venerated bodhisattva – any person who is on the path to enlightenment – mainly as a protector of the souls of children. There is a link here between the scenes with the jizō statue and the idea of protection that permeates the whole film.
(17) “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit.
(18) At that time, it was common practice among the daimyō in Japan to give hostages as a means of guarantee used to secure treaties or wartime commitments.
(19) Maeda Toshiie (1538-1599) was a daimyō and a member of the go-tairō, the council of regents. In the film he is played by Nishioka Tokuma.
(20) Bryant, op. cit., p. 84.
(21) Lord Kobayakawa, often represented as a mere traitor, is depicted as a more complex character who is forced by Ieyasu’s men to abandon Mitsunari, and at the end of the film he says to Mitsunari, with tears in his eyes,: “I failed to requite your good faith. (…) I succumbed to injustice.”
(22) Bryant, op. cit., p. 84.
(23) A hōrō is a cloak or garment put over a framework (oikago) of wicker (as in the film), bamboo or whalebone which was attached to the back of the armour of a samurai and had a protective function. As Ieyasu explains in the film, the term means “mother’s covering” and is modelled on the placenta.
(24) “Sekigahara tells the forgotten stories of the battle”, an interview with Harada Masato at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, 16 June 2018, http://nikkeivoice.ca/sekigahara-tells-the-forgotten-stories-of-the-battle/
(25) “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit.