by Andrea Grunert

Mitani Kōki’s (1) The Kiyosu Conference (Kiyosu Kaigi, Japan, 2013) deals with history in a highly entertaining way, nevertheless giving the viewer the opportunity to reflect on human behaviour and the relationship between history and modern politics.

The film and its historical context

The conference held at Kiyosu Castle (2) in July 1582 is a crucial event in Japanese history. Its purpose was to discuss the matter of succession in the Oda clan and the redistribution of its territories after the death of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). One of the most powerful warlords of his time and considered in Japanese history to be the first of three unifiers of the country after more than a hundred years of civil war, Nobunaga was either killed or committed seppuku when attacked by Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his vassals, while he was resting at the Buddhist Honnō-ji Temple, his headquarters in Kyoto. That same night, his oldest son and designated heir Nobutada (1557-1582) also died when attacked by Akechi’s men. Hashiba Hideyoshi, another of Nobunaga’s vassals, avenged his lord’s death and defeated Akechi’s troops at the Battle of Yamazaki two weeks after the attack on Honnō-ji Temple.
Following these events, Nobunaga’s vassals and their retainers were summoned to Kiyosu Castle, the clan’s former residence. At this conference, held a month after Nobunaga’s death, were four of his senior vassals – Shibata Katsuie (Yakusho Kōji), Hashiba Hideyoshi (Ōizumi Yō), Niwa Nagahide (Kohinata Fumio), and Ikeda Tsuneoki (Satō Kōichi). Shibata (1522-1583) was Nobunaga’s chief vassal. Hashiba Hideyoshi (1537-1598), better known under his later name Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was the second of the three unifiers of Japan, after Nobunaga (3). Hideyoshi is undoubtedly one of the most colourful personalities in Japanese if not world history, his rise from a mere sandal bearer of his lord, Nobunaga, to become the mightiest man in Japan is uncontroversial proof of the social mobility that was still possible in 16th century Japan (4).
Until 1568, Hideyoshi was called Kinoshita Tōkichirō, but he was granted his new name Hashiba Hideyoshi after Nobunaga’s successful siege of Inabayama Castle in 1567, to which Hideyoshi had made a significant contribution (5). In the film, he is referred to as Hashiba Tōkichirō most of the time, but generally called Tōkichirō by members of his family as well as by other vassals who continue to use his former first name. However, in official announcements he is addressed as Hashiba Hideyoshi or Lord Hashiba.

A light-hearted approach to history

Born into a period of unrest, Nobunaga was one of a number of Japanese lords in the 16th century who tried to expand their territory and unify the country under their rule. His violent death put an end to these ambitions, and as Tōkichirō puts it in the film, the future leader of the Oda clan should concern himself not only with the welfare of the clan but should also achieve Nobunaga’s political goal. This required choosing someone of great ability. The plot revolves around the rivalry between the chief vassal Shibata (1522-1583) and the upstart Tōkichirō, who tries to assume control of the clan by supporting Nobukatsu (Tsumabuki Satoshi), one of Nobunaga’s two surviving sons. Shibata, on the other hand, favours Nobutaka (Bandō Minosuke II), who is Nobukatsu’s brother.
The film starts by showing an emaki, (a narrative picture scroll) with animated elements, for example a fire destroying a building, which is a reference to Honnō-ji Temple. A lively tune functions as a counterpoint that contrasts with the tragic events shown in the next shots – Nobunaga being attacked by Akeshi’s forces. The mighty warlord Nobunaga is not depicted as the heroic warrior of familiar descriptions but as a rather uninspired character. Torn from sleep, he finds himself in the middle of the fighting, the buildings of the temple already on fire. He fights courageously, but the expression on his face when he burns his fingers while trying to pull his sword out of a wooden post into which he has accidentally rammed it is highly comical and detracts from the serious tragedy inherent in the situation. The irony in this scene depicting a moment of great violence and of one of the mighty figures in Japanese history is supported by the music on the soundtrack and immediately reveals the film’s light-hearted approach to history.
However, this does not mean that Mitani is not interested in historical accuracy and detail. Although exaggerated and sometimes to the extent of being caricatures, the main historical figures fit the descriptions given by historians. The settings are also carefully constructed, with costumes (6) and make-up corresponding to the fashion of the time, and some of the furniture and the props – for example wine glasses, a saddle and a globe – imported from Europe are reminders of the arrival of the first European ships on Japanese shores in 1543 (7) and the fact that Nobunaga was greatly fascinated by all kinds of objects from the west. This attention to detail is also obvious in the shots in the burnt-down building where Nobunaga died. Shibata and Niwa are talking in the foreground with a group of eager onlookers in the background of a wide shot. Among those that have gathered outside the blackened ruins, the viewer can distinguish a few people dressed in the special robes and headgear worn by nobles of the Imperial Court in Kyoto. They have no particular dramatic function and the emperor is never mentioned, but their presence serves to remind the viewer that Nobunaga died in Kyoto, the Japanese capital and where the emperor had his residence.
The Kiyosu Conference starts a few days before the conference with Shibata being urged by Niwa to take action and assure Nobutaka of his support, and Tōkichirō establishing Nobukatsu as a rival candidate. Taking some liberties with historical facts (8), Mitani’s intention is to highlight the conflict between Shibata and Tōkichirō as the two most important players. The film’s focus is on the five days of the conference during which the struggle for power is fought out in debates and through scheming. In Niwa’s words, the event is war in the guise of a conference.
Mitani’s The Kiyosu Conference is a period film with almost no sword fighting (9). Instead of fighting sequences, The Kiyosu Conference makes liberal use of humour. Witty dialogues and lively performances create a great number of comic moments, and the actors and actresses also succeed in bringing to life fully-fledged characters. Shibata, whose nickname as a younger man was “Shibata the demon” (“Oni Shibata”), is presented more like an old war horse than a politician. He is the typical rustic samurai, a true country bumpkin who does not care about etiquette or refinement. Clearly not the brightest among Nobunaga’s vassals, he apparently has not the slightest idea about how to treat women. He is besotted, with Nobunaga’s sister Oichi (Suzuki Kyōka), and having heard that she likes fragrant things, he offers her pickled shallots, a speciality in the northern region that he comes from. He seems to like his food, talking about it a lot and trying to bribe Ikeda with crabs, another speciality in his home region. These scenes create hilarious moments, with the expressions on the faces of both Oichi and Ikeda revealing how much they are irritated by Shibata’s behaviour.
Shibata, always dressed in the same bluish cotton garment, is the opposite of the upstart Tokichirō, who wears kimonos with lively patterns. Yellow and gold are the dominant colours of his embroidered silk kimonos, underlining his rise in society from peasant to a powerful general and one of Nobunaga’s influential vassals. According to descriptions in history books, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was small in stature and looked rather frail, and his nickname “Monkey”, which is used several times in the film, was a reference to his wizened face and oversized ears. Ōizumi’s face is smooth but its small size and his ears, made prominent by a bald head, produce a resemblance to the historical Hideyoshi, something that is supported by the acting. Ōizumi plays the quick-witted Tōkichirō in a very flamboyant, sometimes clownish manner as a man who cannot hide his peasant origins but who is clearly an extrovert and capable of making people feel at ease. His humble origins are referred to in one of the film’s first scenes, which shows Tōkichirō in his mansion. He is watching his wife Nene (Nakatani Miki) and his mother working in the garden, which is not the usual ornamental garden of a samurai residence but a vegetable garden. The women tease him, saying that he has forgotten his roots, but his vociferous participation in the ensuing light-hearted banter shows that he is anything but a strict samurai. Ōizumi is also capable of highly nuanced acting, for example in the sequence before the battle against Akechi, when Nobutaka joins Tōkichirō’s army and haughtily declares that he will avenge his father’s death. Tōkichirō’s sardonic smile reveals his low opinion of this offspring of his late liege lord.
Nobukatsu is a very comic figure, portrayed as a real moron, and he plays a central role in a number of slapstick-like sequences. In one of these, his attention is distracted by the sight of a young and attractive maidservant, and he stumbles and falls to the floor. This kind of physical humour occurs at several points in the film, one key sequence being the running competition between the two opposing camps. Maeda Toshiie (Asano Tadanobu), the first participant for the Nobutaka team, is not a good runner and, indeed, he does not run but walks, taking odd-looking long strides. Ikeda, competing for the Nobukatsu team, pulls a muscle while running, an occurrence accompanied by highly comical grimaces. The last runners are Nobutaka and Nobukatsu, who is much faster than his brother, but instead of taking the trophy at the finishing line, he just keeps on running.
Takigawa Kazumasu (Anan Kenji), a friend of Shibata’s and a vassal who should have been at the conference but was delayed by a battle in a different province, is a central figure in a running gag, a dramatic device that here literally involves running. A number of shots show Takigawa running through the countryside on his way to Kiyosu, where he arrives exhausted on the last day of the conference, his clothes tattered and his face grimy. In one wide shot he is seen running through a field with Mount Fuji in the background. The music on the soundtrack accompanying this shot – and also in others that show Takigawa running – is reminiscent of the music in spaghetti westerns, thus reinforcing the irony already created by the sight of this lonely runner with Japan’s sacred mountain as a backdrop.
The performances by the actors and actresses add considerably to the humour. Satō Kōichi plays the opportunist Ikeda, wooed by both Shibata and Tokichirō, as a grumpy and irritable man. Ōizumi’s skilful sudden changes of facial expression are not only comical but also indications of his character’s charm, something for which Toyotomi Hideyoshi was famous. All the performances are flawless. Niwa’s earnestness contrasts with Shibata’s changing moods. The extravagant Nobukane, Nobunaga’s younger brother, is played by Iseya Yūsuke, who fills this supporting role with life, creating a rich character despite limited screen presence. On the last day of the conference, he sits on the dais with other members of his family, facing the assembled vassals and retainers. Suddenly, and framed in a medium long shot, Nobukane looks towards the entrance, visibly surprised. Tōkichirō has arrived, holding in his arms two-year-old Sanbōshi, the son of the late Nobutada. A little later, Nobukane, now filmed in a wide shot, shows his respect for his grandnephew by bowing to him, his knowing smile revealing that he has understood Tōkichirō’s manoeuvre.

Schemes and schemers

Shibata is a very complex character and is played by Yakusho in his usual skilful way, revealing the many facets of this Falstaffian figure – the boldness of the warrior as well as the timidity of a man who has just discovered love. Lacking political experience, he depends on Niwa to survive in the network of intrigues. However, obsessed with Lady Oichi, he often ignores Niwa’s advice. Unfortunately for him, Oichi dislikes the boorish Shibata, but she makes use of him to try to thwart Tōkichirō’s rise to power. Tōkichirō had defeated her first husband, forcing him to commit suicide, and had also killed their young son (10). Her decision to marry Shibata is thus mainly a gesture of revenge against the hated Tōkichirō, who is also in love with her.
Shibata sees his engagement to the woman he loves as a triumph, suddenly appearing younger and full of energy. When Tōkichirō is informed about the forthcoming marriage, he turns red with rage in an exaggerated fit of despair. This behaviour may seem ludicrous, but Tōkichirō never makes a fool of himself as the love-stricken Shibata does, allowing his emotions to dictate his political actions. The Kiyosu Conference presents Tokichirō as clever and cunning and able to win over his opponents with his disarming charm. He also knows how to appeal to the lower classes and make himself popular. On his arrival in Kiyosu, he throws rice cakes into the crowd lining the streets, and at Kiyosu Castle he gives a party for the servants. Maeda calls this “Tōkichirō’s war strategy in action”. A smooth talker and talented negotiator, he does not lack courage, and when Oichi, encouraged by Shibata, tries to assassinate him, he asks Shibata to protect him.
The film suggests that Tōkichirō relies on a wise adviser, Kuroda Kanbei (Terajima Susumu) 11), but he is himself resourceful and capable of developing his own strategies. However, is his meeting with Sanbōshi pure coincidence? When Tōkichirō meets Sanbōshi and his mother by the river, both Kanbei and Nene refer to the boy’s resemblance to his dead grandfather Nobunaga. Tōkichirō sees this too, immediately knowing how he can use the child and present him as the true heir (12).
The council agrees to this. The quick-witted Nobukane realizes that Tōkichirō’s long-term ambition is not to save the Oda clan but to become Japan’s ruler. This intention is expressed visually in the shot showing him with Sanbōshi on his lap and sitting on the dais in front of Nobunaga’s armour, the symbol of the late warlord. This shot makes it quite clear who will be the de facto ruler of the country.
By establishing Sanbōshi’s position in the clan, Tōkichirō has outsmarted his rival Shibata and curtailed his power, at the same time presenting himself as the most influential figure in the Oda clan. He spitefully explains to Shibata that there will be no place in the new Japan he is imagining for a man like him who only knows war. However, when Shibata leaves the castle, Tōkichirō and Nene run after him, mud on their faces just like peasants, and they prostrate themselves in front of Shibata, Tōkichirō asking forgiveness and offering him a role in his plans for the future. Disarmed by this odd-looking couple and believing that Tōkichirō is sincere, Shibata forgives him before riding proudly towards the camera. Tōkichirō and Nene watch him, and Tōkichirō explains to his wife that he has lulled Shibata into a false sense of security, adding that within a year he will defeat Shibata and become the ruler, “the king of the world”.
Indeed, one year later, Tōkichirō/Hideyoshi and Shibata met on the battlefield, Tōkichirō, the victor the Battle of Shizugatake and Shibata committing seppuku (13). The Kiyosu Conference does not show these events instead depicting only the conference, regarded as the first meeting of this kind in Japanese history and as an important step in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s career and his subsequent rise to power. Mitani presents him as a modern man, someone able to turn Japan from a country of war into a peaceful nation. By exploring human behaviour rather than depicting battle scenes, The Kiyosu Conference, only seemingly light-hearted, is a film about political strategies and intrigues imaginable not only in the past but also in the present.

The Kiyosu Conference (Kiyosu Kaigi). Japan, 2013. Director: Mitani Kōki. Writer: Mitani Kōki (adapting his own novel). Producer: Maeda Kugi, Wadakura Kazutoshi. Cinematographer: Yamamoto Hideo. Editor: Ueno Sōichi. Music composer: Ogino Kyōko. Production designer: Taneda Yōhei. Art director: Kitagawa Miyuki, Kurotaki Kimie. Set decorator: Satō Takayuki. Costume designer: Kurosawa Kazuko. Cast: Yakusho Kōji (Shibata Kazuie), Ōizumi Yō (Hashiba Tōkichirō), Kohinata Fumiyo (Niwa Nagahide), Satō Kōichi (Ikeda Tsuneoki), Bandō Minosuke II (Oda Nobutaka), Tsumabuki Satoshi (Oda Nobukatsu), Iseya Yūsuke (Oda Nobukane), Asano Tadanobu (Maeda Toshiie), Terajima Susumu (Kuroda Kanbei), Suzuki Kyōka (Oichi), Nakatani Miki (Nene), Takigawa Kazumasu (Anan Kenji) and others. Distribution: Tōhō. 138 minutes. Release date: 9 November 2013 (Japan).

(1) Names are written according to the Japanese custom, putting the surname before the first name.
(2) Kiyosu Castle is located in the town of Kiyosu in present-day Aichi Prefecture.
(3) The third of the unifiers was Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the first shogun of the House of Tokugawa. The Tokugawa shogunate lasted from 1603 to 1868.
(4) Hideyoshi’s father was a mere ashigaru, a foot soldier, the lowest rank in the Japanese military hierarchy of his time, more a peasant than a samurai. His son also started his amazing career as a foot soldier but rose very quickly in the ranks, becoming one of Nobunaga’s most trusted generals. However, it was under Hideyoshi’s rule that social division increased, hindering social mobility or making it almost impossible. This policy of strict class division was reinforced during the Tokugawa era. For Hideyoshi’s policy ontowards social division see Mary Elizabeth Berry, Hideyoshi, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 106-111.
(5) Following Japanese custom, Hideyoshi changed his names several times. His childhood given name was Hiyoshi-maru. When he entered the service of the Oda clan as a simple foot soldier, he called himself Kinoshita Tōkichirō, Kinoshita deriving from his father’s name, Kinoshita Yaemon. It is worth noting that in the film he is sometimes called Hashiba, whereas Shibata is generally called Shibata, using his surname. It is for this reason that I have chosen to use the names Shibata and Tōkichirō in this article.
(6) The costumes were designed by Kurosawa Kazuko, Kurosawa Akira’s daughter.
(7) The first Europeans to arrive in Japan were the Portuguese.
(8) According to historians, Nobukatsu was never considered a serious claimant for the succession. Hideyoshi’s choice from the very beginning was Sanbōshi, Nobunaga’s grandson. See Berry, op. cit., p. 74.
(9) Exceptions are the sequence showing Nobunaga at Honnō-ji Temple and the attack on Tōkichirō by a group of ninjas.
(10) Oichi (1547-1583) had married the warlord Azai Nagamasa for political reasons However, he defected on his alliance with Nobunaga and was defeated by Nobunaga’s general Hideyoshi, Nagamasa committing seppuku during Hideyoshi’s siege of Odani Castle. Following his lord’s orders, Hideyoshi also killed Nagamasa’s and Oichi’s young son.
(11) Kuroda Yoshitaka (1546-1604), also known as Kuroda Kanbei, served as Hideyoshi’s adviser and chief strategist.
(12) According to historical sources, Sanbōshi was from the very beginning considered a possible heir. See Berry, op. cit., p. 74.
(13) His wife Oichi followed him into death.