Clouds on the Hill

Ryotaro Shiba, a prominent writer of historical fiction, serialised the novel Clouds on the Hill (Saka no Ue no Kumo) from 1968 to 1972. He was a master at hunting down those people in Japanese history whose lives spanned crucial events and critical issues. In the case of Clouds on the Hill, he focussed on the Akiyama brothers, two boys from Matsuyama (see last blog entry) who witnessed the rapid modernisation of Japan, joined the new-look military, attained high military rank, one in the army and the other in the navy.

This is particularly useful if telling the history of the Russo-Japanese War, which involved the Japanese army and navy in equal parts. Sometimes called World War Zero, it was the first conflict to truly test the kind of machineries of death that we would later see in 1914. It was the ultimate shakedown test for the new developments in steam-powered warships, and was watched intently by Italian, French, German and British shipbuilders who wanted to see which of their designs would sink or swim. It also saw trench warfare, machine-guns, barbed wire and wireless telegraphy, all of which showed that the nature of warfare was changing forever. Its most famous hero is Admiral Togo, the Japanese leader who trounced the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.

A big-budget TV series based on the book has been years in the making, and finally starts this November. My book of collected articles, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, contains a mention of it I wrote several years ago, on the occasion of the suicide of the man who had originally been commissioned to write the script. Whispers in the TV business then and now are that Clouds on the Hill is intended as Japanese television’s answer to Band of Brothers – 13 movie-length episodes broadcast over three years; the material carefully selected to allow the Japanese to celebrate their martial successes instead of ruing them. That was certainly how Japanese reps for NHK were pitching the series a couple of years ago when they did the rounds of special effects companies in the West in the search for someone to add in all the ships, guns and explosions.

The cast list is suitably stellar. The rakish Takeshi Abe is the Akiyama brother who joins the army; Masahiro Motoki is the one who joins the navy. Tetsuya Watari turns up as the laconic, plodding Admiral Togo, and Toshiyuki Nishida (Pigsy from Monkey!) is Prime Minister Korkiyo Takahashi. Takako Matsu and Miho Kanno are the love interests, and somewhere the Japanese have dug up a gaijin actor who is the spitting image of Tsar Nicholas II. And blimey, it’s even got Julian Glover in it in the role of Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of The Influence of Seapower on History. I fear that no matter how well written or high-budgeted, Clouds on the Hill may still fall prey to that perennial difficulty in Japanese television – actors made to behave as if talking to either children or half-wits – but even so I am much looking forward to the chance to see the Russo-Japanese War come alive.

So, too, are the people of Matsuyama, who have erected a massive three-floor museum in the book’s honour. In fact, they have plastered the entire book, newspaper-page by newspaper page, all along one of the musuem’s walls. They also have some of the Akiyama brothers’ personal effects, their uniforms, maps and artefacts from the campaigns of the Russo-Japanese War, and a recreation, complete with plastic models of food, of a victory banquet held by the bigwigs of the day. The museum goes on to tell the brothers’ stories through the rest of the 20th century, through their post military careers and retirement.

The Museum seems rather deserted when I am there. It is a vast building, and some of the exhibits rather seem to rattle around in it. A man in the local shopping street, selling me some yukata, asks me what I am doing in town, and when I tell him, he sheepishly admits that he hasn’t been bothered to go and see the new Museum yet.

“I’ll do it when the TV series comes out,” he muses.

I think it might be a bit more crowded then.

For the Matsuyama museum:

For my own book on a famous participant in the Russo-Japanese War:

1 thought on “Clouds on the Hill

  1. Time Travel Footnote: I have just discovered that Juliet Winters Carpenter, my former Literature teacher at my college in Japan, is currently translating the Clouds on the Hill novel into English.

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