Review: Drunk as a Lord, Ryotaro Shiba

As is quite apparent from my previous writings, I am quite an avid reader of anything that Mr Shiba has had published in English (or rather, that other establishments have published since most of it has been posthumous). ‘Drunk as a Lord’ appeared as a book that was very difficult to obtain until I managed to obtain it, and that is the main reason why it has taken me so long to find and finish the book.

This here then is a collection of four short stories, all written in Mr Shiba’s amazing style that has been described by others as historic journalism. The stories here concern four different daimyos of the end of the Tokugawa period. We meet the lords of Tosa (Yamauchi Toyoshige), Satsuma (Shimazu Tadayoshi), Uwajima (Date Munenari), and Saga (Nabeshima Naomasa). The stories concerning these are all different in character: the Lord of Tosa is characterised through his actions leading up to the Restoration where he tried to play an active part; the domain of Satsuma is portrayed in contrast to Tadayoshi’s brother who was a most competent person; Uwajima’s dreams are written of through the point of view of a lowly craftsman who was assigned to build a steamship; and Saga is brought to live amidst the secrecy that the daimyo established there.

My favourite story might have been the one of Saga which though shortest had an element in it which made every moment interesting. Likewise, the lord there was a wise man who could see where the times would go, and it is interesting to see what he made of that. The tale of Yamauchi Toyoshige is compelling in its own right for we see a man who tries to be important and to make a name for himself. The building of a steam ship is rather interesting to read about for Japan had no industrial base of any sort nor did they have a knowledge of how to build one. And lastly, Satsuma’s story is a classic tale of how greed destroys realms — or, at least, that is how I see it.

We are also given an insight into the poetic qualities of any of these people, and I might just bring up two, firstly the Lord of Saga’s poem when he gave his work up and let the future be guided by other people:

When blossoms bloom over his head
It is fitting that an aged man
Should blush for shame.

And I will just finish by quoting Toyoshige:

Yesterday, drinking south of the bridge; today, drunk north of it.
While there is saké, let me drink it till I’m drunk.
The many-floored pavilions stand near the bridge.
I stain my inner eye; the broad sky overarches
Where my native home looks out on southern seas.
I see the billows pound the belly of the rocks.
The spectacle is grand but lacks the charms of the scene here.
I turn around to call for saké, but already it has come.
Is this not delight, drinking to one’s heart’s content?
It is said that the superior man takes virtue to extremes.
The common people cannot understand the drinking man’s true heart.
When I think of going home, the lights along the parapet glow bright still.
North of the bridge, south of the bridge, I hear the strains of the samisen.


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