12:43 PM PDT, April 15, 2009
While in Kyoto last summer, I chanced, on a couple of rare occasions when I wasn’t embroiled in extreme sightseeing or sleeping the sleep of the exhausted, to watch a bit of television. One program in particular intrigued me: a historical drama featuring court ladies in splendid kimono, indulging in behavior dismally typical of people with too much time on their hands--gossiping, scheming, maligning, betraying. Among these craven weeds one woman stood out like a sweet, slender flower, taking no part in the pettiness, fulfilling a higher destiny.
There were, of course, no English subtitles. I knew the period was Tokugawa, but other than that I was lost. Once I returned home, I did some Internet sleuthing to find out just which program it was, and with only a little trouble learned I’d been watching Atsuhime (Princess Atsu), a multi-segment story set in the 1850s when Commodore Perry and his black ships were threatening a status quo unchanged for centuries. Just the other day, to my surprise and pleasure, I stumbled upon a site featuring English-subtitled videos of every episode. It’s heaven.
Atsuhime moves at a deliberate, almost dreamlike pace. So far I’m at Episode 11 and haven’t yet witnessed a single usually de rigeur multi-samurai katana battle, nor any overt exertion at all save for a great deal of carefully calibrated bowing. It’s wonderfully restful. The beauteous young princess is admirably wise and noble, and defies convention in various charming ways. Although she and her family exhibit no physical affection whatsoever, the bonds of the heart are clearly deep-rooted and unshakeable. This restraint is shown by everyone: deadly enemies never come to blows, and desperate lovers never touch. Honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are emphasized and exalted. The production values are quietly stunning, and the acting topnotch; the only off note, so to speak, is the Westernized musical score in a milieu demanding koto, shamisen, and hyoshigi.
Elegant, informative and pleasurable Atsuhime eminently is, in ways American television can never comprehend. Only when one stirs the inscrutable surface of the princess' world does one remember that this was a pivotal, terrible point in Japanese history, marking the end of the nation’s lofty seclusion and the wholesale influx of all that now makes the culture so uniquely strange—Shangri-La crossed with Bartertown.