The very name Sekigahara is evocative for anyone who knows anything about Japanese history. It is the site of Japan’s most famous -- and most decisive -- battle, a watershed event that saw in 250 years of peace and stability.
Much has been written about the famous battle, which took 30,000 lives in the space of six hours on October 21, 1600, including a 3-volume, 1,500-page novel by Ryotaro Shiba. It is this novel that forms the backbone of director Masato Harada’s latest movie: “Sekigahara.”
Adapting such a huge novel to a movie, even one that’s 2½ hours long, must have been a monumental task. Even the movie promo characterizes the movie as a “spectacle”. Under Harada’s direction, it all comes together, although viewers who don't know the underlying story well may struggled a bit with the timeline — there are a lot of flashbacks — and the massive cast of characters.
The movie begins with a flashback to how Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Takito Kenichi) met and engaged Ishida Mitsunari (Okada Junichi). Mitsunari serves Hideyoshi through his final years and prepares for what will happen after Hideyoshi’s death, including by engaging ninja spies and an outlier advisor: Shima Sakon (Hira Takehiro).
As the story develops, we see that its central feature is Mitsunari’s loyal struggle to preserve the interests of Hideyoshi on behalf of his young son after Hideyoshi has died. The movie poster bills the story as a “collision between love and ambition”, and perhaps that is accurate.
On the other side, behind closed doors, we also see Tokugawa Ieyasu (Yakusho Koji), once a close ally of Hideyoshi’s, strategizing his grab for power that ultimately results in the battle at Sekigahara. He, too, uses spies, although generally he keeps his own counsel and seems always to be one step ahead of Mitsunari.
Mitsunari is outmanoeuvred in more ways than one. Initially, he seems unable to accept that Ieyasu is actually planning a takeover. Mitsunari’s own moral code forbids even considering such action and even as events conspire to hurtle the parties toward conflict, he is convinced that “justice” will prevail. (In fact, there is a case to be made that the real “collision” in this story is not between love and ambition but between justice and ambition.) But Ieyasu has hedged his bets by convincing a couple of faction leaders of Mitsunari’s “West” army to defect to Ieyasu’s “East” army. (Ultimately a number of defections as the tide of the battle was turning decided Ieyasu’s victory.)
Amazingly, Mitsunari survives the battle notwithstanding his loss. Although he is put to death a few days later, the movie portrays his ending in a manner so dignified as to give him the justice that he had been expecting all along.
Many of the battle scenes are shot tight (one of Japan’s best known directors, the late Akira Kurosawa, famously said that Japan’s penchant for powerlines and retaining walls has left little unspoiled scenery for movie makers), but one still gets the sense of the landscape, a broad open valley sloping upward into wooded foothills from which each side’s leaders could observe and deploy troops. Harada used locations around nearby Lake Biwa for some scenes of the movie, but it seems doubtful he would have been able to use the battlefield itself, as it is criss-crossed with modern roads.
Although the story is a complex one, with a number of sub-themes accompanying the principle event, the staging of the scenes, the locations used, the costuming and make-up, and of course, the individual performances, all draw the viewer in. In fact, more spectacular than spectacle.
It is likely that the movie will also spawn a surge in tourists visiting Sekigahara, now a small, rural town in Gifu Prefecture.
The town of Sekigahara takes great pride in preserving the history of the battle site, and one can easily spend a few hours or even a day exploring it.
The ideal time to visit may be in October. Each year the town commemorates the battle with its “Battle of Sekigahara Festival”, including costumed re-enactments, a market and the ubiquitous fair food. This year, the festival will take place on October 14 and 15. For details, click here.
Visits to Sekigahara best begin at the Tourist Information Center just across from JR Sekigahara Station. The center has friendly, helpful staff and dispenses explanatory pamphlets as well as useful maps showing where the different factions were headquartered and where particular key action occurred.
Just an eight-minute walk from the station is the Sekigahara Town History and Folklore Museum, which provides detailed insights into the events of that fateful day. From here one can walk around the battle site (the tourist map shows recommended routes), although key sites are sufficiently spread out that it is more efficient (and more pleasant) to rent a bicycle (available at the museum: 500 yen -- half day; 1,000 yen -- full day).
Each key site is signposted, though not always in English (that’s what the tourist map is good for). Traditional flags flutter above each site, emblazoned with the crests of the relevant side: three hollyhock leaves for Tokugawa Ieyasu, and for Ishida Mitsunari, the stylized characters dai ichi, dai man, dai kichi (loose translation: “one for all and all for one”). A telling aspect of Ieyasu’s ultimate victory and the resultant “Tokugawa Period” of history is the fact that the Tokugawa hollyhock leaves can be seen on temples and other structures across Japan even today, while Mitsunari’s crest is rarely seen outside of Sekigahara.
Of particular interest to foreign tourists may be the role Western cannons played in the battle. According to Hiromi Rogers’ 2016 book “Anjin - The Life and Times of William Adams: As Seen Through Japanese Eyes”, in the early stages of the battle, Ieyasu made good use of cannons removed from the Liefde, a merchant vessel that had shipwrecked off Kyushu in April 1600, just six months earlier. The cannons were fired by none other than Will Adams, the English pilot of the Liefde, who was also the inspiration for the Blackthorne character in James Clavell’s 1975 novel “Shogun”.
As Rogers describes the situation, there was still some morning fog obscuring the targets, but Adams was undeterred as he calculated distance and trajectory rendering actual sight of the target unnecessary and inspiring Ieyasu to an interest in geometry. Alas, this scene did not find its way into the movie.
“Sekigahara” opens in theatres across Japan on August 26. Good news for English speakers, the Toho Cinema Roppongi Hills will be screening a version with English subtitles two or three times per day during the first week. Check schedules for details.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a free lance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in and otherwise enjoying Japan. Find her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today