Themes In The Fabulous Japanese TV Series, Ryomaden

A few years ago I started watching the NHK Japanese series, Ryomaden. It is based on the true story of the historical Japanese figure, Ryoma Sakamoto (or, in Japanese convention: Sakamoto Ryoma).

If you are not familiar with Sakamoto, first read this fabulous essay that already explains his life, times, and biography really well.

Sakamoto Ryoma: The Indispensable “Nobody”, By Romulus Hillsborough

Ryomaden is an epic TV series. It ran for 48 episodes over four seasons! I don’t know any TV story in the US or Canada that ran that many episodes! It goes to show, is how important Ryoma Sakamoto was to the history of Japan and to the Japanese. 
Part of the Ryomaden soundtrack is the incredible choral singing by the jazz vocalist, Yucca!
The story is told through the eyes of Iwasaki Yataro, who, in real life, rises from abject poverty, to help found Mitsubishi Corporation and become its president. Interestingly, these two very famous and influential historical figures, grew up in the same village, and knew each other. They took very different roads, but crossed paths many times. 
Fabulous Acting and Direction:
Ryomaden has an all star cast with the most incredible acting, and direction. There are so many examples that could be used. But using Episode 15, Ryoma, played by Masaharu Fukuyama has gone “dappan”, deserting his clan. This was a very serious crime. I think this would be as serious as deserting the military is today. He goes to find his childhood sweetheart, Kao Hirai, played by Ryoko Hirosue
She is now a lady in waiting, in the house of a very senior official, and lives with the other attendants in a really big house. When she first sees Sakamoto, she turns away from him, and walks into the house. Then, she reconsiders, and runs to find him. When she finds him, she sees him on the other side of a river, and calls out to him. 
I found this so symbolic. Their lives were very far apart now, represented by the two different sides of the river, and the barrier of society, duty and class between them. They reunite on the bridge. I thought this was excellent direction by Keishi Ohtomo, and Takehiro Shoen.
Later in the episode, they are saying good bye to each other. At one point, both their backs are turned away from the camera, and they are looking down, not at each other. Suddenly, in between the chin, and the shoulder of the actress, I see a teardrop fall! 
See the teardrop under the chin of Ryoko Hirosue!
I backed up the video and watched again. I thought, Wow!  That’s really good acting! And they weren’t even looking at the camera, or each other. 
To give credit, I think all the actors and actresses give outstanding performances. Watch the series to see for yourself! 
Themes in Ryomaden:
I’ve wrote about themes in life before. What really struck me was the many themes in Ryomaden. They just started pouring out. Any one of the themes could make a good essay. Here are some themes that I noticed. 
Ryoma: What should I do with my life? The home town is too small for someone with such big ideas.
Ryoma Sakamoto and Iwasaki Yataro: Compare and contrast between their families, their dreams and their fulfillment. 
Class struggle: Joshi (upper class) vs Kashi (lower class, considered as dogs) 
How restricted are we by our station in life? What can we do, in spite of it? How can we change our station in life?
Iwasaki Yataro: rags to riches story
What is the biggest problem in society? That, if we could change it, would make a much better world?
What is the best society to create? How can we create the best society?
What is the best way to change the world?  
Peace versus War. Peaceful versus violent overthrow of the established order. (No one believes that the Tokugawa shogunate will peacefully step down, but Sakamoto makes it happen!) 
How much can one person change the world? How much help does (s)he need?
Obeying the law, versus, defying it for what is right. (Ryoma went dappan, but never advocated violence, and forbid seppuku.) 
Western ideas: Embracing new ideas versus shunning them from fear. 
Democracy vs rigid class structure
The winds of change. Changes in Society. Politics. War. 
Ryoma Sakamoto, political activist. Or is he more of a James Bond? 
Strong Women
Another theme could be: Are women restricted by their role? While many of the women in the story play a traditional woman’s role, they are actually rather strong women, who also accomplish much in their own right. 
Mother Sakamoto: who defends and saves young Ryoma when he is about to be killed for a minor violation. 
Older Sister Otome Sakamoto: who is tough with Ryoma, but also gives him much love and support. 
Sana Chiba: his sensei who bests him in kendo. 
Oryo Narasaki: who bravely defends Sakamoto, standing between Sakamoto and Kondō Isami,  an official of the Shinshengumi. Later, she helps save him after he is wounded. Sakamoto then marries her. 
Geisha (or Geiko) Omoto: who spies for the Shogunate. Then for Sakamoto. And to avoid persecution and death, keeps her Christian faith secret. 
Oura Kei: the successful Nagasaki trader and business tycoon who helps finance some of Sakamoto’s expensive purchases of Western ships and weapons. 
A Brutal Time Period
Another theme could be to compare and contrast the violence used by the: Shinsengumi, Takechi & Izo, and Public Officials. 
As I watched the series, I thought that it must have been a pretty brutal time. The Emperor was in power, but the Tokugawa Shogunate held the real military power. There were wars between clans. 
But mainly, it must have been a bad time to have your own ideas. You could get killed just for having them. 
Takechi and Izo kill those that don’t support their idea of sonnō jōi (“Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians”), including a senior Tosa government official. Or, others who simply criticize their own group. But contend that they have done nothing wrong. 
The Shinshengumi are similar. They are acting in an “official” capacity, not dissimilar to present day police. But if they don’t like you, you can be in for torture if they catch you, as they do to Iwasaki and Izo. Or death, when they kill most of the people attending a political meeting. In the series, a commoner makes a great comment: “without the Shogunate to control them, the Shinsengumi are just a bunch of thugs!”. 
However, the official authorities can be just as brutal. They torture Izo for a long periods in an attempt to get a confession from him. Then order him executed. Having been raised to Joshi status, Takechi escapes torture, however, he is ordered to commit seppeku. 
How does this compare and contrast to society today? 
If you haven’t guessed already, like some other movies, Ryomaden really made me think about a lot of things! 
One thing I couldn’t help thinking is that Sakamoto accomplished all that he did before he was assassinated at 33 years old. Wow! 
Just like when I studied the biography of Ben Franklin, when you compare yourself to overachievers like these, sometimes you can get the feeling that you have accomplished so little in your lifetime! Hmm. 
More Links
Wikipedia, Ryoma Sakamoto:
– this website actually has the scripts for all the Ryomaden episodes! 
Wikipedia, Ryomaden:

4 thoughts on “Themes In The Fabulous Japanese TV Series, Ryomaden”

  1. Interesting comment about the tears. I've found in Japanese drama people cry a lot more realistically than in Western dramas where it's just a tear or two in the corner of the eyes. You often see people gushing tears in J-dramas. I wonder why it's so different?

    When I travelled to Nagasaki, I saw a tee-shirt in a tourist shop that said "What would Ryoma think of Japan today?" I was never sure if that was meant to be taken in a positive or negative way.

  2. “Yae no Sakura” will tell the story of Niijima Yae, also known as Yamamoto Yaeko, who was born into the Aizu Domain during the late Edo period. Skilled in gunnery, she helped defend Aizu during the Boshin War, earning her the nickname of the “Bakumatsu Joan of Arc.” After the war, she married educator Joseph Hardy Neesima (Niijima Jo) and became a Christian, and she helped Neesima found Doshisha University. –Tokyograph
    Castan an astoundimg japanese woman born in the same period her brother did much to shape the new government as child he was a prodgy, both he and he and his sister were prodergys in thier own rite the t v series about her is on now in 2023

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