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Old 03-25-2013, 02:22 PM   #1
Talon87
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Atsu-hime


Atsu-hime is the 47th NHK Taiga drama. Adapted from the novel Tenshouin Atsu-hime by Miyao Tomiko, the 50-episode program tells the life story of the 19th-century princess who found herself caught in between her homeland, Satsuma, and the Tokugawa Shogunate into which she married.

Resources:
General:
Atsu-hime (TV series) - Wikipedia
Atsu-hime (TV series) - DramaWiki

Major Important People w/ Wikipedia articles:
Okatsu / Atsu-hime / Tenshouin
Tokugawa Iesada
Shimazu Nariakira
Kimotsuki Naogoro / Komatsu Tatewaki
Cameos / Bit Roles:
Saigou Takamori
Ookubo Toshimichi

Important Places & Events:
Satsuma Province
Satsuma Rebellion
Satsuma-Choushuu Alliance
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Old 03-25-2013, 02:22 PM   #2
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I put this series on hold several years ago because I can wait for good things when I have to and someone was slowly but surely releasing superior subtitles to what were available in 2009. Well, that fansubber wrapped up the last of the episodes less than two months ago, I discovered the other day, and so I decided it was high time I finally checked this series out. Atsu-hime was one of the highest rated historical dramas of the decade. And the book it was based upon was penned by Miyao Tomiko, the same lady who wrote the basis for the 2005 NHK Taiga drama Yoshitsune, based on Tales of the Heike, one of my favorite stories of all time. I don't know what stick the English J-drama fandom had up its ass regarding Yoshitsune (a loud vocal segment of them really hated the series despite the fact that, imo, it was quite wonderful and Japanese viewship comfortably places it in the middle of the pack for the decade), but they lauded Atsu-hime as the #1 drama in years. "Pretty big britches to fill," I said. "Let's see what you've got!"

Well, I'm ten episodes in so far, and I have to say that the series is okay thus far but it hasn't won me over the way it won over half of the English fandom.

The quality of the acting varies between characters. The most serious ones, thankfully, tend to get some of the best actors backing them up: Takahashi Hideki and Matsuzaka Keiko are veteran actors who have appeared in numerous NHK productions over the years and who turn out some really great performances here as Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Satsuma, and Ikushima, Atsu-hime's etiquette instructor, respectively. Miyazaki Aoi does one hell of an impressive job playing Atsu-hime: at the time of filming, she was only 15 years old, yet at that age she already has such a professionalism and good grasp of acting that you truly feel you're watching the real live Okatsu / Atsuko on camera and not a bumbling child actress trying to play her. In some of the other performances there are shades of the super-dopey comical acting that turned me off NHK's Tenchijin and Gou, but it's largely character-appropriate and kept to a screentime minimum.

The plot thus far has gotten painfully slow after an average or slightly above average start. The year is 1853, we've covered ~eighteen years since the series started us off in 1835, and I'm ten episodes in. This might not seem so bad, but the thing to keep in mind is that nothing big has really happened yet. Only the faintest of malcontent amongst the people of Satsuma. Slow, slow baby steps towards getting Okatsu into Edo. (She's still not there yet and I'm 20% of the way through the series!) An inordinate amount of time devoted to a love story I believe is likely the result of the novelist's imagination, a childhood romance between Okatsu and Naogoro, and not based on actual fact. (If it is, then I happily withdraw this criticism. I'm only upset with it because I suspect it's fictional material that is soaking up time that could be spent elsewhere.) However, despite the sneak peek indicating that Episode 11 is nothing but filler material regarding Okatsu x Naogoro, the series does finally feel like it's starting to move forward, and I remain optimistic about the next forty episodes. Certainly, the production so far is better than Gou was, and unlike Gou which I tabled around this very point, I'm in no mood to table Atsu-hime. Starting to get bored, yes, but optimistic things will pick up, absolutely.

I guess the most interesting thing I've gotten out of this series is just how complex the Satsuma Rebellion and the Meiji Restoration were among all historical events. Some revolutions, like the French Revolution, are very, very simple. That's not to say they're not detailed! Don't conflate the two: "simple" does not necessarily mean "not detailed." There're loads of details to the French Revolution, but they're all incredibly simple to appreciate. The French Revolution is obvious to anyone who looks at the events leading up to it. The American Revolution, slightly more complex than the French one but not significantly so. But the Meiji Restoration + Satsuma Rebellion? Man, this shit is complex. Not confusing (again, don't conflate terms! ), just complicated. I'll give one example in brief: Shimazu Nariakira, the current daimyo, colluded with the bakufu to force his father into early retirement and is seen by many of his people as their equivalent of a "Washington insider". Yet despite their complaints about Edo, half of the people of Satsuma support Nariakira. Furthermore, despite Nariakira's reputation as a Washington insider, he actually is plotting to take over influence the bakufu by marrying his adopted daughter (Atsu-hime) to the 13th Tokugawa shogun. Furthermore, despite his aims to do this, his goal isn't a coup d'état: he just wants the bakufu to get with the times and agree that ending the 250 years of isolation from the outside world is something that needs to be done now. Furthermore, this dude ends up not punishing his father's supporters (men who wanted his half-brother to become the next daimyo) ... nor does he end up rewarding his supporters who were punished by his father. It's all very complex. His actions make it so that neither Edo nor Satsuma can fully trust him, and yet he seems to be acting on behalf of both. It will be very interesting to see, once the rebellion comes, which side he falls on, if any. (I'm avoiding looking up when he dies so as that I can remain surprised as I watch.)

Last edited by Talon87; 03-26-2013 at 07:52 PM.
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Old 03-26-2013, 10:23 PM   #3
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I've watched Episodes 11 through 19. The series has picked up from the dullness I'd written about previously, but it's still nowhere near as excellent as people made it out to be. At least not yet. I'm on the very cusp of the story, from what I understand, with the so-called "first half" behind me and the so-called "second half" ahead of me, so here's hoping Episodes 20 through 50 just blow me away.

Obviously, though, the series has to be doing something right if it pulled me in to watch 360 more minutes in about 36 hours. And there are a few things I can certainly point out below.

(contains spoilers for Episodes 11 thru 19)

Spoiler: show

I've backpedaled a bit on my earlier criticism of the heavy focus the series is placing on Naogoro x Atsu-hime. While I do dislike it for what feels like a fictional romance, I enjoy it for what else it is: a story of two people who were connected since before they were born, fell in love with one another before they knew what love is, and were thwarted by the Universe at just about every turn.


The relationship between Atsu-hime and her etiquette instructor Ikushima is easily my favorite part of the show thus far. I mentioned this last time, but Matsuzawa Keiko is simply amazing. She is like the Japanese public television equivalent of an Elizabeth Taylor during her prime: beautiful, powerful, an exquisite actress whom the camera simply loves. As Atsu-hime left her homeland of Satsuma for Nariakira's home in Edo, she tells Ikushima that she dislikes her. Even at the time she says it, it's already something of a half-lie -- Atsu-hime has already started to come around and admire, respect, and love Ikushima -- but by the time you get to Episode 17 or 18 when she says, "I'd forgotten I'm supposed to dislike you," it's pretty clear how much this girl loves this woman. It's going to be heartbreaking if/when we get to see Ikushima passing away.


Tokugawa Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa shogun, is ... uh, quite the character. ^^; I do like how they've dealt with him though. Typically, the NHK seems to go way overboard when it portrays shoguns or emperors as being quite peculiar (Tenchijin's unbearable Hideyoshi, I'm looking at you -_-; ), but I think they've nailed it with this guy. He's superficially mad, so eccentric is he, yet under the surface he's actually quite clever, cunning, and rational. It's going to be great to see how he reacts to Atsu-hime.


Probably one of the best scenes in this second fifth of the series was when Lady Shimazu (Lord Nariakira's wife) removed her facemask before Atsuko, revealing her facial disfigurement. Atsu-hime has a way of winning people over, of melting their hearts. We've seen her do it with many characters up through now, but thus far the one that took the cake was when she finally got her stepmother to love her like a daughter.


Oh, one last thing. (This one's safe for everyone to click on, whether you've seen the show or not.)

Spoiler: show

Man or woman?

Last edited by Talon87; 03-26-2013 at 10:33 PM.
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Old 03-28-2013, 12:22 PM   #4
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Episodes 1 thru 10 made a good, natural block of episodes that corresponded to Atsu-hime's life before moving to Edo. Episodes 11 thru 19 made the next natural block, which was her life in Edo prior to marrying the Shogun. Episodes 20 thru 28 make the third natural block, though what that block is I can't say without it being a spoiler. This is where the series starts to get really good for most viewers, I imagine, as we witness the star of the show, an agent behind enemy lines, falling in love with her target and becoming his greatest support.

Spoiler: show

Life inside the palace is not so bad at first for Atsu-hime, but politics soon get in the way when her mother-in-law finds out that they support different candidates to continue the Tokugawa legacy. Atsuko and Ikushima soon find themselves practically all alone (especially after Elder Abe dies), surrounded by women who all support the Kishu pick, Tokugawa Yoshitomi, and not the Hitotsubashi pick, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Atsuko also discovers that her husband has a concubine: Shiga.


Shiga is crazy. Or at least the show certainly depicts her that way. She's always smiling, always, which unnerves the Shogun's mother, herself a concubine of the previous shogun. When Atsu-hime interviews her, Shiga pretty much gives this borderline obsessed take on the Shogun, though at the time I don't think anyone (self included) saw it as such. It's only after the Shogun starts to neglect Shiga for Atsu-hime that we see ... this. (See picture above.) Shiga starts making paper cranes, swearing that she'll make a thousand before she leaves her chamber unless the Shogun comes to visit her. The image of this smiling woman with crazed eyes fighting back sorrow as she keeps folding crimson paper cranes in a room utterly filled with them is just ... "creepy" is one word for it.


The highlight of this stretch of episodes is without a doubt the romance between Iesada and Atsu-hime. Indeed, what I couldn't say outside the spoiler box (as it would implicitly spoil the outcome of Episode 28) is that this third block of episodes basically constitutes Atsu-hime's married years. That's what this block is. The two are married for such a short time (only one year and nine months) that they never really seem to graduate from their honeymoon phase, but that's in part what makes the two so dear to watch onscreen. Given that it is a political marriage, understandably neither of the two loved the other when they first met. But Atsuko finds herself intrigued by Iesada, who plays the part of the fool before everybody but who can't fool Atsuko. And Iesada finds himself intrigued by his bride, having never met anyone quite like her. While the two have a bit of a rocky start (in large part owing to Iesada's built-up defense mechanisms), they soon find a common interest in games of Connect Five, and before long they fall in love.


This sets the stage for the biggest dramatic point in this third chunk of episodes, which is Atsu-hime's defection to the Tokugawa. While it breaks her heart to do it (and she tries to rationalize her actions to Ikushima as being anything but a betrayal of her stepfather, Lord Nariakira of Satsuma), Atsu-hime abandons her original mission of marrying into the Tokugawa to try and persuade the Shogun to appoint Yoshinobu as his successor and instead decides to become a true member of the family she's married into. That doesn't mean that she's lost her head or that she's settled on becoming another "OOOOOO HO HO HO!" nincompoop lady of the palace. It just means that she's going to support her husband, Iesada, as best as she possibly can: and that means giving him sincere advice even if it's to the detriment of her mission. Given that Atsu-hime is the protagonist of our story, it places the viewer in that very uncomfortable but important position of having to wonder whether what we're seeing happen is a good thing or not. And truth be told, I don't think the situation is black and white period. I mean, there's something to be said for the argument that it "serves Nariakira right!" that Atsuko ended up being "seduced" (as it were) by Iesada when Nariakira planted her there in the first place in the hopes that she'd use her feminine wiles to seduce Iesada. And certainly we wouldn't say that Atsuko is acting immorally when she recommends Yoshitomi over Yoshinobu based on the available evidence. But it's definitely kind of creepy to see her losing herself so much in her marriage, almost ceasing to be the entity we can call "Atsu-hime" and morphing almost completely into the superficially similar entity which is called "Iesada's honey bunny". She seems to live and breathe for him by the end of this arc, and while there's certainly something to be said for that being romantic, I think there's also something to be said for it being a tad creepy from a 21st-century feminist perspective. If on the one hand we have Atsu-hime, on the other we have Ikushima, who has remained staunchly loyal to Lord Nariakira and who is in tears (see above) when Atsuko reveals her sincee intentions to be a faithful and dutiful Tokugawa wife. I've enjoyed watching Atsu-hime and Ikushima interact onscreen, but starting around the mid-20s, these two's relationship has been sort of on the rocks. And again, getting back to how things aren't black and white, I don't think it's easy to say whether Ikushima is the thwarted heroine here, the thwarted villain, a mixture of both, or neither at all. It's a complicated situation, and just as much as we might celebrate Ikushima's fealty to her lord, we might condemn how she permits that fealty to blind her regarding which candidate for the 14th Shogun's seat is best.


One of the most emotional moments in the story thus far was the scene in Episode 27 when Iesada hugged Atsuko for the first time. As in the television series (whether true in real life or not), the two were the most celibate husband and wife you could ever imagine, never having had sex before their time together ended and rarely ever even touching imtimately. But in the climax of their marriage when Iesada hugs Atsu-hime and asks her if she regrets marrying a man like him, she tells him no and that in fact he is the #1 man in all of Japan to her, and he then tells her that he's changed his mind about wanting to be reincarnated as a bird and that he, like Atsuko, would prefer to be reincarnated as himself so that he could have the opportunity to meet and fall in love with her all over again, that was pretty great.


Even though I knew it was going to happen (HISTORY! WIKIPEDIA SPOILERS!), Iesada's death was still quite the sad scene. I think that had I not known it was coming it would've blown me away, so even though there's no way to be 100% certain, I'm willing to give the Atsu-hime fandom +1 point regarding their case that this series was the greatest Taiga drama of the decade. Even for me who knew it was coming and was not blown away, I still teared up a bit (didn't cry, but my eyes sure did start to get a bit watery) when Atsu-hime approaches the funerary altar for her departed husband, having only just found out minutes ago that he'd been dead for thirty days yet no one had told her, clawing at the pillar with her nails and crying, "Where have you gone?"


One last thing: I thought that the scene where Townsend Harris, the first American to ever visit the Shogun's court, met Tokugawa Iesada face to face was pretty cool. I didn't know (or if I did know then I didn't remember) the details of this story from world history, but the show afforded an interesting reminder from the Japanese point of view. Basically, Townsend Harris was an American businessman whom President Franklin Pierce had appointed to be our first Consul General to Japan. Mr. Harris demanded to be given an audience with the ruler of Japan, but the feudal samurai had no intention of letting him meet with either the Emperor or the Shogun. Townsend persisted, however, and when he insinuated that any further delay might mean war between their two countries, the Japanese eventually acquiesced to his demands and settled on letting him meet the Shogun. Well, it just so happens that when the samurai explained to Mr. Harris that he would need to sit down when meeting with the Shogun, he flatly refused and insisted that he would be standing. From the Japanese perspective, Harris displayed no respect for their customs: as Atsu-hime put it, he didn't seem to be following the old "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" policy. I'm sure that from the American perspective, Harris was worried that if he sat, kneeled, kowtowed, etc. to the Shogun or the Emperor, it could very well send the wrong message: that the United States bows to Japan and/or that it acknowledges their rulers as divine. So I can see why he felt he had to "stand his ground" as it were, and insist on being allowed to stand; but from the Japanese POV, he wasn't standing his ground so much as grossly overstepping his boundaries. Anyway, what did the Japanese do in response? As in the TV series, it was Atsu-hime who saved the day. (IRL, I have no idea whether she deserves the credit for this or not. *shrug* Who knows.) Atsuko asked the chambermaids to bring forth tile after tile of tatami mats. She stacked them on top of one another until they reached four or so feet high. She then had them place the Shogun's throne on top of these tatami and coached her husband to ascend the tatami hill and take his seat. In so doing, he wouldn't be seen as having to break with Japanese tradition -- in fact, he, the monarch, would still be sitting royally atop his throne -- but neither would he have to deny Townsend his request to be allowed to stand. Oh, you can stand, Mr. Harris! But you'll be several feet below the Shogun still. For Harris, who had never even seen the Shogun before, this ruse worked like a charm: he had no way of knowing that they had done this especially for him and that normally the Shogun's throne is at ground level. Still, as in the show, when he entered the room he looked quite surprised when he spotted the Shogun atop that pile of tatami, almost as if he hadn't been expecting to be outdone in height. tl;dr the Japanese perspective on this story is that they got the last laugh, not the Americans, because their man's eye level was still higher than the Americans'. In any event, it was just an interesting little peek at this historical event.

EDIT: Just saw this on the Japanese Wikipedia:
Quote:
2008年のNHK大河ドラマ『篤姫』では小松帯刀と共に過ごすシーンが多くあったが、両者の接点を記す史 料は確認されていない。
"In the 2008 NHK Taiga drama Atsu-hime, there were many scenes in which [Atsu-hime] and Komatsu Tatewaki were together, but there are no confirmed records of the two having ever crossed paths." I knew it. XD And damn. ^^; Oh well, I'll still try and enjoy it for what it is.

Last edited by Talon87; 03-28-2013 at 03:39 PM.
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Old 04-17-2013, 04:38 PM   #5
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I finished Atsu-hime last night. I've been delaying the intended post that would cover the fourth segment of episodes, but I'm still not really feeling up to writing an episode-by-episode account with tons and tons of rescaled pictures right now, so for the time being we'll just have to settle for this post. Maybe some time later I'll come back and offer a more in-depth look at the final segments.


Episodes 29 thru 42 make the fourth natural block of the program. This block covers the years of the rule of the fourteenth Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, and introduces several new characters or forces that are going to be important for our story going forward. They include Katsu Rintarou, Sakamoto Ryouma, the Choushuu Domain, and Kazunomiya.

Spoiler: show
The beginning of this arc is a major transition point for the series. On the one hand, this is where the history of the time period finally starts to get very exciting. Alliances are forged, friendships are tested, and a nation prepares for civil war. On the other hand, though, this is where I feel the series started to sort of lose its purpose. In previous episodes, the camera was squarely focused on Atsu-hime, displaying her sometimes-fictional intersection with actual historical events but never losing focus on her, the main star. In the newest episodes, this pattern is forced 50% of the time (and it's painful) while discarded the other 50% of the time. It makes for a rather obvious admission of guilt: "Yes, we realize that the historical Tenshouin didn't play much of a part in anything right up until the surrender of Edo Castle. But bear with us. " The series asks us to believe that she was Shogun Iemochi's #1 advisor and that he treated her like a true mother ... even though she was only ten years older than him. It asks us to believe that important figures in politics like Katsu Rintarou and Ii Naosuke held private meetings with her, even though this seems highly unlikely given the extremely male-dominated nature of the society at the time. And then when the series admits "Yeah, okay, this is bullshit ", it swerves the focus clear off of Atsu-hime (now called Tenshouin) and turns into the History Power Hour with Komatsu Tatewaki, Saigou Takamori, and Ookubo Toshimichi rallying a political and military engine strong enough to wrest control of Japan away from the Tokugawa shogunate.



Episodes 43 thru 50 comprise the fifth and final major plot arc in the series, covering the final moments of the Bakumatsu period and (in the final episode) the first breaths of the Meiji period. Here we get to see a rather sad if pitiful tale unfold: the end of over a hundred women's privileged lifestyles as denizens of the Great Inner Chamber. On a more riveting note, we get to see the shit finally hit the fan between the Satcho Alliance and the Edo bakufu, culminating in the opening rounds of the Boshin War. (And later, in Episode 50, we get a minute-long mention of the Satsuma Rebellion.) It was around the end of the previous arc and the beginning of this one that I started to drag my feet with Atsu-hime. Whereas I devoured whole swaths of the program in just a matter of days before, here I took nearly three weeks to finish the final twenty-two episodes, and more accurately I took nearly three weeks to finish the final seventeen or so (as I had gobbled up a few of the episodes of Part 4 before slowing down to a crawl). I never hated or resented the series while finishing up this final portion, but the sentiment of wanting the series to be over and put to rest grew and grew with each passing episode. The final five or so episodes I had to force myself to watch, and I took frequent breaks during them. I want to reemphasize: I didn't hate the experience. But it certainly wasn't what I'd call a supremely pleasurable experience.

Part of my frustration was that ... is that ... Atsu-hime is set in a fascinating and historically important time period but has for its focus an ancillary character whose impact on history was arguable at best. I was promised a Japanese Cleopatra or Empress Wu, and the series tried its best I think to deliver in this regard, but it was far too afraid to stray too far from the historical mark and as a result we had for our protagonist a woman living in a time of remarkable chauvinism and patriarchy. And while you might say "Well doesn't that make it fascinating, then? Seeing a male-dominated period of history through a woman's eyes? ", the problem is that what she saw was pretty boring given the fact that she was cloistered away in a virtual prison of gold and silk for ten years. ^^; She didn't really see or do much. She was the top-level authority in the harem, yes, but a harem's impact on the military events of the times or the Westernization of the country is pretty darn limited. The story could've been much more fascinating, I feel, had it been centered on Saigo Takamori, the so-called "Last Samurai" upon whom the Tom Cruise film is (very) loosely based, and had we gotten to see more of the Boshin and Seinan Wars.

Perhaps the problem the Bakumatsu period faces, when adapting it to a narrative meant to entertain audiences, is that the players are far too many spread far too thin. You can't really center the story around Emperor Koumei or Emperor Meiji because they led sheltered lives. You can't really center it around the final three Tokugawa shoguns because each ruled for only a few short years before either dying or else being forced into retirement. You can't focus it on any of the generals or notable samurai because most were only involved in one or two of the era's many skirmishes and because most died quite young. There's no silver bullet, no magic candidate of whom you can say "This guy was an important figure out in the field doing stuff from the 1850s through the 1880s." Which is not the same story for the heroes of the Genpei War (my favorite period in Japanese history) or the heroes of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. And I mean ... you don't even have to span forty years of time, that isn't what I'm trying to imply, it's just ... say you even looked at the Imjin War, a fascinating window of time in the histories of Japan, Korea, and China spanning just six years. In that story, you have epic, epic stuff going down. The story of Yi Sun-sin alone is enough to make a grown man cry, and he's only one of the several major players in that tale. From what I witnessed in Atsu-hime, the Bakumatsu period is simply lacking in this regard. I'm at a frustrated loss to explain why beyond what I've clumsily attempted above.


The clearest piece of evidence that I am right, however, and that even the writers of the screenplay knew it ... is that Atsu-hime is sort of a double-bill feature. It is as much the story of Komatsu Tatewaki as it is the story of Tenshouin, and the writer of the novel blended the stories of these two individuals together to craft something of a tragic love story which permitted us to see the world inside the palace through Tenshouin's eyes while seeing the world outside the palace through Komatsu's. I feel like the writers must have thought to themselves, "Tatewaki's life story is interesting, yes, but he died so young that there isn't much to tell, not without boring the audience or else cutting the length way, way shorter than 50 episodes. And Tenshouin's life is the same. It's interesting ... but it's not detailed enough to turn into a 50-episode television series. WE KNOW! We'll just ... have the show be about both of them! The Tenshouin & Tatewaki Power Hour! " But then the author of the novel and the writers of the TV series decided to have the title only mention the girl and not both the guy and the girl. And ... I dunno, I feel that was kind of disingenuous of them. ^^; It becomes very clear by the end of the first or second story arc that Naogoro is more than a childhood crush meant to move Okatsu's childhood plot along and that he's going to serve, as Komatsu Tatewaki, as one of the series' two main characters alongside Atsu-hime.

Overall series review below.

Last edited by Talon87; 04-17-2013 at 05:33 PM.
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Old 04-17-2013, 05:26 PM   #6
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Disclaimer: scoring system follows the MyAnimeList scoring system, e.g. 7/10 means "Good", not C-grade, 5/10 means "Average", not a failing grade, etc.

Plot: 7/10 The story was fine. Good, even. But it wasn't great. It wasn't the NHK Taiga Drama of the Decade as the people on D-Addicts claim it to have been. I've seen two full NHK Taiga dramas now (2005's Yoshitsune and 2008's Atsu-hime), a significant chunk of a third (2011's Gou), and a tiny morsel of one more (2009's Tenchijin), and I can definitely say that Atsu-hime is my second favorite of the bunch ... but is in a rather distant second place to Yoshitsune. But never mind Yoshitsune right now. What about Atsu-hime? Well ... the story is set in the final decades of the Tokugawa shogunate, called the Bakumatsu (lit. "end of the shogunate") period in Japanese history, and tells the life story of Okatsu, a.k.a. Atsu-hime, a.k.a. Tenshouin, who was wed to the 13th Tokugawa shogun, Iesada, and who negotiated the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle in 1868. The story is interesting enough to keep you engaged, particularly if you're interested in Japanese history (or historical biopics period), ... but for your average TV viewer, this is by no means the next Lost or House of Cards.

Characters: 7/10 (see below for commentary on actors' portrayals of characters) The characters were fine. Several were already known to me by name before the series began -- Saigou Takamori and Sakamoto Ryouma come to mind -- but most were faces I'm not too familiar with. Like the Meiji Emperor's father, Emperor Koumei. (Didn't realize he was so anti-Western! Kind of surprising considering the Meiji Emperor is so heavily associated with Japan's Westernization.) Or like the main two characters, Atsu-hime and Komatsu Tatewaki. It was an educational experience watching this program, and I am grateful to it for that. Why not a higher score for the characters? Well ... none of them really grabbed me. ^^; There was no Musashibou Benkei. There was no Liu Bei. There was no Yi Sun-sin. Most of the characters technically mattered to Japanese history ... but were not larger-than-life people. They were just ... normal people who found themselves in privileged positions. And as for whether their personal joys and sorrows moved me to tears ... not really. ^^;

Acting: 9/10 The NHK has some pretty damn good actors on hand for their Taiga dramas, and Atsu-hime was spoiled rotten by some particularly wonderful performances. Matsuzaka Keiko (playing Ikushima) steals the spotlight in nearly every scene she's in. Hot on her heels is samurai legend and personal favorite from Karei Naru Ichizoku, Kitaouji Kinya (playing Katsu Rintarou). These two are supported by some of the NHK's favorites like Hira Mikijirou (who plays Zusho here and played Go Shirakawa in Yoshitsune) and Takahashi Hideki (who plays Shimazu Nariakira here and played Fujiwara no Hidehira, lord of Oku in Yoshitsune). But I have to give special props to the leading lady herself, Miyazaki Aoi as Atsu-hime. This 22-year old did an incredible job convincing us that she was 15 years old during the first arc and a half, 19-20 years old in the remainder of the second arc and all of the third arc, was like a woman in her 30s in the fourth and fifth arcs, and (if a bit anachronistically) was like a woman in her 50s or 60s in the final episode. She did an amazing job with dialogue / language, convincing us she was a tomboyish girl initially, then a princess-in-training later, then a proper princess later still, and finally a serene, wise old woman. Comparing Miyazaki's character acting in Episode 49 to her character acting in Episode 02 is like comparing Luke Skywalker with Han Solo ... were both acted by the same man. It's an amazing display of capacity for portraying a person's growth and change of character over time so, so realistically, and considering she was only 22 years old at the time this series was filmed, she deserves a friggin' standing ovation for her performance here. Well done!

What drags this score down from a 10/10 then? Well ... many of the supporting actors, unfortunately. ^^; The actor who played Nariakira's younger brother made him seem much too comical when he had temper tantrums and as a result he shattered the illusion for me that I was watching real people in the 1860s rather than actors in the 2000s playing them. Likewise, the actors who played Ookubo Toshimichi and Saigou Takamori didn't turn out their best performances imo. I've seen Saigou's actor do better in other avenues, but his Saigou was simply much too much a buffoon. Like a human ape, really. The way he spoke, the way he overreacted when surprised by some great mercy shown to him. I don't know if he was trying to reflect a stereotypical dialect or behavior that Tokyo people perceive of Kagoshima people, but it was way too much and made a hero of the era into such a joke character.

Cinematography: 5/10 to 8/10, depending on the director! There was this one director in particular, Horikirizono Kentarou, who had a predilection for shaky handcam close-ups. He'd use them all the time for the most dramatic scenes in his episodes and thus completely ruined them. The camera would be randomly jittering to the left, to the right, up, down, as the person holding it wibbled and wobbled trying their best to hold the camera straight. USE A FUCKING TRIPOD, YOU JACKASS! This isn't art! This is bullshit! Why am I not scoring him lower? Well, even he did a very good job otherwise -- it's just that his predilection for the shaky handcam during critical scenes reduces his score all the way down to a 5/10. Most of the other directors did fine jobs but nothing that really struck me as Karei Naru Ichizoku-level "you deserve an award for your artistic sense of camera placement and direction" stuff.

Music: 8/10 It was good, with a few particular tracks really standing out. You can check them out here.

Replay Value: Medium Had the story been more amazing, this would've been High; had the production values been worse, Low. As it is, it's plum in the middle of No Man's Land: I wouldn't be against re-watching this some day, but I can think of plenty of other stories I'd rather re-experience first.

OVERALL: 7/10 or 8/10, hard to say. I'm leaning more towards 7/10 right now, but I can't help but to wonder if I'm being too hard on the series and am too let down by the rave 10/10 reviews it got from the majority of the English-speaking J-drama community.
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