Better to be Feared than Loved?

by Raymond H

Sekigahara is a great movie! ...If you already have an extensive knowledge of Japanese history beforehand.
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During the Warring States period of Japan, when every local lord was battling to become the next Shogun, one lord in particular, Oda Nobunaga, managed to rise to the top and unify most of Japan under his rule, until he was betrayed by one of his top generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, and killed. After this, another one of Nobunaga’s top generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, managed to rally the remainder of Nobunaga’s loyal forces and overthrow Akechi, before unifying the rest of Japan and instating himself as Kampaku. Yeah, that’s right, Hideyoshi never actually became Shogun, due to the fact that he was born a commoner and thus barred from the position, and if someone had decided to become the next Shogun during his reign, they would have actually outranked him. Because of this, Hideyoshi made damn sure nobody ever got any funny ideas about the Shogunate, and while this worked out pretty well for him at first, near the end of his reign the tenuity of Hideyoshi’s power slowly ate at his mind, and he grew increasingly paranoid. This all finally culminated in him accusing his heir and noble-born nephew, Toyotomi Hidetsugu, of plotting a coup, and ordering the execution of Hidetsugu and all the members of his immediate family, including his wives, concubines, and children. In turn, Hideyoshi lavished all the care and attention he could on his son Hideyori, to make way for his becoming the next Kampaku, going so far as to establish the Council of Five Elders, a group of five powerful lords who would teach Hideyori in matters of state and rule the country until his reaching adulthood. The Elders were Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ukita Hideie, Maeda Toshiie, Uesugi Kagekatsu, and Mori Terumoto. Those are a lot of names, but the only ones you really need to know are Maeda and Tokugawa. Maeda because since he was so feared and respected, even after Hideyoshi died, nobody dared make a move to power until Maeda was dead and buried. And Tokugawa because, well, it’s called the Tokugawa Shogunate for a reason. Tokugawa had been a close friend and confidante of Nobunaga, and was granted several privileges during Hideyoshi’s rule to keep him in line. However, after Hideyoshi and Maeda’s death, everyone knew it was simply a matter of time before Tokugawa made an attempt to claim the Shogunate and overthrow the Toyotomi clan. Everyone, that is, save Ishida Mitsunari, the personal advisor of Hideyoshi, whose forces clashed with Tokugawa’s at the Battle of Sekigahara. This battle is considered one of the single most decisive moments in Japanese history. Had it gone another way, the repercussions to Japan’s history would have been monumental. However, regardless of what might have been, Tokugawa won, took the title of Shogun, and ended the Warring States era once and for all.

This is the basic backstory you should at least know before even attempting to watch Sekigahara. Even with it though, you’ll probably still be lost for a lot of it. I’m smarter than the average bear on this subject, and even I was seriously lost for about half the movie. Sekigahara just sort of expects you to already know who these people are, and apart from a brief scene detailing how Mitsunari first met Hideyoshi, the most background we get on any of the characters are subtitled names that show up during their first on-screen appearances. I thought at first this might simply be because, as this was made for a Japanese audience, they would already know who these people were. But the film goes into such minute detail over every single player in this battle, I just don’t think that’s the case. Seriously, I can imagine an American movie on the Revolutionary War where we’re just expected to already know who George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are, but John Jay and Baron von Steuben as well?

Don’t get me wrong. This is a film very much deserving all the hype and advertising it got (seriously, last year this film was EVERYWHERE). While fictional portrayals of Ishida Mitsunari tend to range from ineffectual simpleton to outright villain, Sekigahara’s earnest and unashamed portrayal of him as an outright hero is an effort that deserves to be commended. I’ll admit, I tend to hate fictional works that take liberties with the real life events off which they’re based. However, like with the seminal I, Claudius, Sekigahara doesn’t so much alter history as examine it through a more personal lens and at an unusual angle. To anyone who’s a fan of Warring States history and political intrigue, I’d definitely give this film a recommendation, especially since, even with the necessary homework beforehand, Sekigahara manages to juggle some pretty interesting themes of justice, ambition, and the cycles of power and corruption that plague all kingdoms and ruling dynasties. Rather than simply being a clash between two noble houses, the Battle of Sekigahara in this film represents a clash of ideologies, with Tokugawa Ieyasu representing the scheming, realpolitik aristocracy, and Ishida Mitsunari representing the honest, idealistic nobility.

At the film’s beginning, we see how Ishida first met Hideyoshi, when the former was just a boy, working as an acolyte at a temple the latter stopped by at. Hideyoshi admired the boy’s wit, and offered him land and titles. The young Ishida declined, stating that he preferred to simply be given money instead. Titles and land were too much hassle for him, he said. From this, Hideyoshi saw that Ishida was someone he could trust, and took the boy under his wing. By the present day, Hideyoshi and Ishida are not simply nobleman and advisor, but father and son. So when Hideyoshi begins to exhibit signs of paranoia and dementia, Ishida remains by his master’s side, even as others start to abandon their faith in him. Unfortunately, the same qualities that make Ishida such an invaluable advisor (his brutal honesty, his irreverence for noble titles, his insistence on justice and doing the right thing) also make him a terrible bureaucrat, and as the other nobles grow wary and weary of Hideyoshi’s excesses, Ishida’s loyalty only serves to make him even more unpopular.

Finally, once Hideyoshi orders the death of Hidetsugu and his family, Ishida sees what his father has become, and yet even this does not make him abandon his post. Rather, Ishida sees Hideyoshi’s madness as his own, personal failure, rather than a fault on Hideyoshi’s part. And through the child Hideyori, Ishida sees a second chance, to raise a ruler who will not fall into the same traps his father did, and who will make a kingdom ruled by justice and fairness.

This is the ideal that Ishida constantly strive towards. However, as with most ideals, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to reach this goal in the world of political wheeling-dealing and intrigue that make up the Japanese aristocracy, especially when he isn’t even a particularly well-liked or high-ranking member of that aristocracy. Tokugawa, in contrast, is the most powerful nobleman in Japan after Hideyoshi’s death, with hardly anyone to stop him from taking the power he seeks through whatever means he deems necessary. Even as the antagonist though, Tokugawa never becomes a full-blown villain. Rather, he represents Ishida’s antithesis. Where Ishida seeks to rule justly, Tokugawa seeks to rule well, and though we see from his love of drink, women, and power that he is already on the road to ending up like Hideyoshi, he still retains enough mental acuity and noblesse oblige to not fully give in to corruption and vice. Make no mistake, Tokugawa is a schemer, and a slimily skilled one at that, but he has enough awareness of the bigger picture to put this skill towards the greater good of the kingdom at large.

This is the central thematic conflict at the heart of Sekigahara, whether it is better to be an idealistic but ineffective leader or a cynical but skillful one. And while history forces the story to give Tokugawa victory, at the end there is a wistful quality to the film, as though Ishida was simply born in the wrong era, and his ideals, though defeated at Sekigahara, deserved to live on and perhaps become victorious in the future.

I mentioned I, Claudius earlier in this review, and I think that’s a pretty good point of reference for examining Sekigahara and what it hopes to accomplish thematically. Both works take an often overlooked and underappreciated historical player, and weave stories where they are classical anti-heroes trying to make the best of things in a violent and cynical world. Both of them take a smaller, more personal look at the grander political movements of their respective time periods. And both manage to make an entertaining yarn with plenty of action, intrigue, and humor for our enjoyment. However, while I could enter I, Claudius from the perspective of an ignorant and still enjoy myself, even as a dilletante I found myself lost in Sekigahara too many times to do the same so fully. As such, unless you’re already familiar with Japanese history, and are looking for a gripping story told with the backdrop of that history, then I cannot recommend this film to you. I’ll admit, at the end of the day, I’m glad I watched this movie, but I just don’t know if you would get the same enjoyment I did out of it.
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at 10:18 on 2018-11-19
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