It was one of the earliest anime ever made, a ten-minute short from 1939 in which a handsome young boy faced a giant robber with a pole-axe on Kyoto’s Gojo bridge. Much to the giant’s surprise, the boy defeats him, snatching his naginata from him and threatening him with it himself. The giant pleads for his life, and swears to serve the boy until his dying day.
Kenzo Masaoka’s early anime talkie, featuring Masaoka himself as the oppressive giant Benkei, was based on the legend of Yoshitsune (1159-1189), a figure fated to come back into fashion in 2005. Already, there is a Story of Hero Yoshitsune game on the PS2, and the fateful fight scene was recently re-animated by Tezuka Productions for screening at Kyoto’s ultra-modern train station, a few minutes’ walk where it is supposed to have really taken place.
Yoshitsune is the subject of this year’s taiga, the year-long Sunday night historical blockbuster on national Japanese network NHK, designed in equal parts for all the family, so that Dad can watch some swashbuckling samurai action, Mom can see some courtly romance and the kids can learn a little Japanese history. But Yoshitsune stands a good chance with the younger audience who normally regard taiga-watching as a chore rather than a treat. The hero was still a baby when his father was executed for opposing the ruling faction at court. His youth is shrouded in mystery, but he is believed to have been raised by fighting monks in a temple north of Kyoto. As a child (played in the NHK series by Ryunosuke Kamiki), he took the name Ushiwaka, and supposedly sneaked out of the temple grounds to learn martial arts from tengu crow demons in the forests.
NHK’s greatest coup comes in the man they have cast to play the adult Yoshitsune, heart-throb actor Hideaki Takizawa. A former pop idol with the boy-band Johnny’s Juniors, Takizawa graduated to TV stardom with a series of high profile appearances in primetime drama serials. Takizawa is a bishonen made flesh. His androgynous good looks gained him an enthusiastic female following in Strawberry on the Shortcake, in which he played a withdrawn schoolboy who falls for his stepsister, and the manga adaptation Antique, as a retired boxer who goes to work in a cake shop. He played a put-upon student in the Maison Ikkoku-inspired And I Love Her, and managed to tick almost everyone’s wish fulfilment boxes when he got to play a schoolboy who has an affair with his teacher (the gorgeous Nanako Matsushima) in Forbidden Love.
Over the next year, Takizawa will have to prove himself as a serious actor, alongside Yoshitsune’s giant bodyguard Benkei (Ken Matsudaira) and the first genuine samurai warrior-woman, Tomoe Gozen (Eiko Koike). He has the required pretty-boy looks to play Yoshitsune (who died in his thirties and remains an eternally youthful icon to the Japanese), but his role will also demand extensive battle scenes, and the charisma of a natural leader. Can Takizawa (Takky, to his fans) lead cavalry charges down perilous hillsides, and act his way out of the intrigue, as Yoshitsune’s brother becomes Shogun and orders the capture and execution of his popular sibling? The Yoshitsune legend is one of the best to grace taiga drama, but it will be a test of fire for its leading man.
(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, January 2005)