History is like the weather, with epic storms occurring only once in a hundred years. For Japan, the storm of the nineteenth century came in 1853, when a fleet of American ships, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, arrived in Edo Bay, demanding that the country open its ports after two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation. For the next fifteen years, Japan was beset by panic, oppression, rebellion, and, finally, civil war. The short stories presented here depict four feudal lords--or, in some cases, their retainers--who lived through that storm, and about their very different approaches to the tumultuous period when Japan was on the brink of modernization.
"Drunk as a Lord" is the exhilarating life story of a poet-turned-daimyo, who, although he is a man of culture, is also a brazen alcoholic with a vicious bite when it comes to debate. Outwardly a "loyalist" of the emperor, his undying debt of gratitude to the Tokugawa--the third and final military house to rule Japan--puts him in a compromising position: move with the trend of the times, or go against it.
The second story, "The Fox-Horse," tells of the brilliant lord of Satsuma, his tragic death, and the envious younger brother who seeks to take his place. In a show of "carrying on" his elder brother's legacy, the younger one marches to Kyoto--and later to Edo--at the head of a great army to push for reform. Without his brother's intellect, foresight, or understanding of national affairs, however, he ends up making an ass of himself.
"Date's Black Ship" is the captivating account of a lantern repairman from the dregs of castle-town society who is hired by the daimyo--a man obsessed with Western novelties--to construct a full-scale replica of one of Perry's black ships, and the extraordinary ordeals he faces in doing so.
"The Ghost of Saga," the fourth and final story, focuses on a bizarre old lord who is so gung ho about arming his domain in the Western style that he sidesteps the law and becomes involved in smuggling. Taking advantage of Nagasaki, the only port in Japan where such activities would have been possible in those days, he stockpiles an unimaginable array of weapons, all under a shroud of complete secrecy.
Author Ryotaro Shiba enters history through its main characters, and thereby makes it come alive on the page. His works are historical to the extent that they are based on actual people and events, but fictional in that the personalities of his cast and the scenes he portrays are largely the work of his vivid imagination.