Review: Ryoma! Volume I, Ryotaro Shiba

Rating: 5 out of 5

I have been a fan of the writings of Mr Shiba for nearly a decade now — and I was overjoyed when I saw that yet another of his books had been translated into English (or, well, the first volume of one of his books…). That was the beginning of my story of reading ‘Ryoma!’, the first volume of which details the early years of a figure who was to feature very strongly in the politics of 1860’s — the end of the first volume sees the reader through to that decade in a very colourful description of Sakamoto Ryoma’s formative years.

The first item to note is that Mr Shiba’s writings very clearly show his journalistic origins. The style is short and to the point; descriptions of past events detail everything one could hope to know. This story, however, is occasionally enlivened by a digression into the life or doings of a character we come across. No doubt the Japanese reader finds some of these more interesting, especially as many of the folks that walk past us in the story ended up serving as various cabinet ministers, but there is something for everyone in these little tidbits. One of my favourite tangents in this volume was the story of the founder of the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, Iwasaki Yataro and his inspiration for going into business.

The other part that is thrilling to note is the thorough background that we are provided for the whole of Japan in that time. No doubt even in the 1960’s when Mr Shiba was writing in his native land knowledge of a century ago was not sufficient to jump into that time and place without an introduction. For a reader even further apart in space and time, these descriptions of every aspect of life make this into a beautiful story that is yet self-contained.

The last part which I adore about the author’s style has to do with the first point I raised — the journalistic quality also forced Mr Shiba to devote some time to understanding the basic principles of life. Though in the words of Akiyama Saneyuki — another of the important 19th century people Mr Shiba brought to life in his works —  all principles need to be worked out by people on their own, the thrilling summations that Mr Shiba peppers the text with give the work a philosophical quality that should not be underestimated.

Go on and read this!

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