“The lord [Nobunaga] is certainly not a fool. He is simply beyond our comprehension. And yet everyone calls him a fool.” -Hirate Masahide
In 2014 alone, there have been three anime series (Nobunaga the Fool, Nobunagun, and Nobunaga Concerto), and two live-action dramas (Nobunaga Concerto and Nobunaga no Chef) on Oda Nobunaga, who is indisputably the most famous historical figure in Japanese history. To say that Japan is slightly obsessed with Nobunaga would be an huge understatement.
A powerful daimyo and warlord, Nobunaga is best known for initiating the unification of Japan in the late 16th century—at that point, there was no concept of Nippon—only a sprawling land of splintered fiefdoms/domains ruled by hundreds of daimyo. His military conquests such as the Battle of Okahazama among others are well documented in history and legend.
What is with Japan’s fascination with Oda Nobunaga? Undoubtedly, he played a pivotal role in shaping Japan’s history, but his historical representations are multifaceted even in popular culture. History remembers Nobunaga as a brutal man who was not above using cruel military strategies to crush armies. In the live-action drama series The Chef of Nobunaga (Nobunaga no Chef), time-traveling French chef Ken recites the senryuu, a type of Japanese poetry, which schoolchildren learn about the three unifiers of Japan and their personalities:
- Nakanu nara, koroshite shimae, hototogisu(If the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.) –Oda Nobunaga
- Nakanu nara, nakasete miyou, hototogisu(If the cuckoo does not sing, coax it.) –Toyotomi Hideyoshi
- Nakanu nara, naku made matou, hototogisu(If the cuckoo does not sing, wait for it.) –Tokugawa Ieyasu
As the senyruu suggests, Nobunaga is generally depicted as violent, power hungry, villainous or even demonic and mad. However, he does get more sympathetic portrayals as well, which range from eccentric but ultimately honorable and values life (Nobunaga no Chef) to well-meaning but destructive (Nobunaga the Fool).
The issue with most anime adaptations featuring Nobunaga is that they tend to pay homage to the guy on a superficial level. Nobunagun is guilty of veering to the far end of superficiality, with its usage of Nobunaga as a convenient means of gifting the main character with fighting powers and nearly avoids all pretenses of historical accuracy. Nobunaga the Fool, which suffered from a genre identity crisis, attempted to have Nobunaga’s story told through the lens of an alternate universe war, and leaves us with a character who vaguely resembles, perhaps a new, more nuanced iteration of Nobunaga—one who is both foolish and cunning, passionate and bitter.
Nobunaga Concerto’s Nobunaga, however, outstrips Nobunaga the Fool and Nobunagun both in execution of plot and characterization. Rather than reinventing an entirely new scenario or world to stick Nobunaga in, Nobunaga Concerto puts a new spin on the manner in which Nobunaga made his mark in Japanese history.
Time travel’s hardly a new concept employed in bringing modern day characters into Japan’s historic past. But it’s a concept that Nobunaga Concerto executes well. While we might be bemused at Saburou’s relatively nonchalant acceptance of his role as Nobunaga (at the suggestion of the real, but sickly Nobunaga himself), we also see how seamlessly Saburou–as Nobunaga–inserts himself into the head of the Oda clan and as future unifier of Japan.
Admittedly, Saburou’s use of his Japanese history textbook to guide him along Nobunaga’s military conquests is a huge game cheat, but it works with the story’s theme of the adherence of the threads of history. Time-travel might be a gimmick we expect of Nobunaga adaptations, but it is the only gimmick that’s used. Nobunaga Concerto does a marvelous job of adhering to the details of the history we know–the viewer is not so much an audience to be entertained but as a historian-in-training. We know what happens–but as for the details as to how it happens–well, it’s up to Saburou to decide.
What’s the point of following a story if we know how it ends? For those who are unfamiliar with Nobunaga’s fate, he ends conquering and amassing a huge amount of territory, all the while making a ton of enemies along the way. At the height of his power, Nobunaga, is betrayed by one of his generals–Akechi Mitsuhide–for reasons that are not entirely clear–and dies tragically at Honnō-ji temple.
What keeps the suspense going in Nobunaga Concerto is Saburou’s incomplete knowledge of Nobunaga’s ill-fated end. As typical of many high school students who lack the passion to study history deeply, Saburou’s knowledge of Nobunaga is cursory at best. He knows Nobunaga’s destined to “conquer all of Japan” and does so through many successful conquests, but has no idea that Nobunaga’s work towards Japan’s unification is an unfinished project later picked up by Hideyoshi and Tokugawa.
In this way, Saburou’s presence doesn’t give him a terrible advantage either. For better or for worse, Saburou treats history the way it’s laid out in his textbook–as a linear progression. He consults his textbook to get a sense of what battles or political maneuvers he needs to make but never seeks the urge to see further. So we don’t know how things are going to end up the way we’ve been told that they are. Without the foreknowledge from the future, we’re just as in the dark about how the next battle or siege will go as Saburou and his frantic retainers are. It doesn’t occur to Saburou to skip ahead to the last chapters to see how Nobunaga’s story ends. Why? Because of the conceit that Oda Nobunaga is Saburou.
One burning question that we ask is why does Saburou ever not think or find a way of returning to his own time in the future? You’d think anyone, a high school student especially, would be a little concerned about returning back home. Hanging out and bossing a bunch of samurai and retainers might help pass the time, but you’d think of returning home eventually. Yet Saburou doesn’t even consider thinking of returning until he meets Oichi’s father, who turns out to be a policeman and fellow time-traveler. When he realizes that he’s not the only time-traveler, he consults with the policeman to finally ask the question he should have asked long ago.
Though we, along with Saburou, don’t know it at the time, the policeman’s fate foreshadows Saburou’s–that Saburou’s forever lost his original time and place–he’s to become the Oda Nobunaga that history remembers him as.
Along the same train of thought, the original Oda Nobunaga, the one who existed prior to Saburou’s arrival, loses his place as well when he assumes the persona of Akechi Mitsuhide, a loyal retainer and advisor to Nobunaga. Seeing how we know the infamous role Mitsuhide plays in Nobunaga’s life, this twist poses all kinds of delightful dramatic irony for us viewers. Will Nobunaga–as Akechi Mitsuhide–demand his place as the original Nobunaga–once Saburou’s done all the grunt work in building his empire?
There’s a wonderful scene where Saburou asks Mitsuhide to temporarily take his–“Nobunaga’s” place for a little while. Mitsuhide assumes his “true identity” once more, only to realize how ill-fitted he was to that identity. With melancholy, Mitsuhide realizes in his conversation with Kichou, Nobunaga’s wife, that Saburou’s become a better Nobunaga than Nobunaga himself!
“I do not know why–why he suddenly came raining on top of me. All I know is that his presence saved me and the Oda family. Saburo…I suspect I was, in some ways, afraid of knowing who you truly are. Japan a few hundred years from now…You come from quite a far-off place.” -Akechi Mitsuhide
While the inconclusive ending to Nobunaga Concerto was a disappointment, it was a thematically appropriate way to end. What makes Nobunaga Concerto stand out from other Nobunaga adaptations is its dedication to the making and living of history. As much as we see history as a definitive narrative, a tale of the past with clear beginnings and endings, the truth is that history is not something that can be recorded so easily.
History is something that is lived. Saburou’s loss of his handy history textbook is but another instance of this idea that history is not a checklist or an instruction book to be followed, but is dependent on the behavior of human beings, who are at once rational and eccentric, predictable and spontaneous.
Saburou’s presence offers a new and perhaps historically valid interpretation of Nobunaga’s documented eccentricities, from Nobunaga’s fascination with Western culture, his penchant for guns and modern weapons, his reputation as a “fool” in his youth. Nobunaga was by no means a nice man. Although he inspired the loyalty of many men, including Hideyoshi, Mori Yoshinari, and Mori Ranmaru, he also backstabbed and punished many others (and burned down Mt. Hiei, a holy site, much to the horror of many). Despite his ambitions, the visions he had of a unified Japan and his political and socioeconomic reforms and proposals, along with his keen interest in Western technology and the arts, Nobunaga was clearly a man before his time, a notion that Nobunaga Concerto takes quite literally.