, , ,

長州ファイブ (Choshu Five)

Year: 2006
Country: Japan
Languages: Japanese, English
Director: Igarashi Sho (五十嵐匠)
Screenplay: Igarashi Sho ((五十嵐匠)
Cinematography: Teranuma Norio (寺沼範雄)
Soundscore: Yasukawa Goro (安川午朗)
Cast: Matsuda Ryuhei (松田龍平), Yamashita Tetsuo, Kitamura Yukiya, Miura Akifumi, Maeda Michiyoshi, Michelle Duncan, Paul Riddley
Runtime: 119 min
Distribution: Libero
Film’s official website: http://www.chosyufive-movie.com (日本語)


Seen at the monthly Films at the Embassy of Japan event, at a special screening commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chosyu Five’s arrival in London. The film had an additional screening at University College London (UCL), the institution where the Chosyu Five became the first Japanese students in Great Britain.

Note: 長州 [ちょうしゅう] is romanised both as Chōshū as well as Chosyu.

Chōshū faibu is as much a film about the past as it is one about the present and even the future. It reminds us of a time that is so distant, so different from the now we live in that we can barely relate to it, but simultaneously reveals, if we look closely enough, that not only connections remain, but that some things have not changed at all.

The tale – history-based, but told with some poetic licence – commences in the feudal Japan of the 1860s, with a nation that, under Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府) rule, has fractured into feuding groups and has been closed off from the rest of the world for more than two centuries. In a violent opening scene, the members of the Chosyu clan are fighting against the ‘barbarian’ invaders from the West, slaying a group of white people, including a woman, who merely cross their paths. Later the men burn down the English legation still under construction in the stealth of night. Dark-skinned and wild-haired they look unruly and certainly act that way – at least as ‘barbarian’ as the foreigners. It’s the first of several illuminating contradictions highlighted in Chōshū faibu.

As the clan knows that it is fighting against enemies that are stronger and more powerful due to the technology they possess, it decides that five of their best men must journey to England to become ‘living machines’. The motto: it is best to know one’s opponents to be able to defeat them. It is a hazardous undertaking, not the least because all foreign travel carries a penalty of death.1 The selected clan members – Bunta (Kitamura Yukiya), Yozo (Matsuda Ryuhei), Yakichi (Yamashita Tetsuo), Kinsuke (Maeda Michiyoshi) and Shunsuke (Miura Akifumi) – have to stowaway for a voyage of many months2 to the other side of the world, much of it in a tiny, windowless room in the ship’s hull, with a crew of rowdy seamen whose language they do not yet speak.

What must have the Chosyu men, who ranged in ages from 21 to 29, felt when they embarked on this adventure? Did they sense the immensity of what lay ahead, first at sea and later on British land, for them personally but also for their clan and eventually the entire Japanese nation? Did they imagine at this point that their odyssey would have repercussions up to this very day, in 2013? We can only guess, although Igarashi offers a glimpse into the men’s inner turmoil in a nearly wordless scene of much gravitas that precedes the Chosyu Five’s departure. With the ever-solemn Yozo leading the way, the men cut off their top-knots as they realise that they must henceforth cease to be samurai:

More than a preparation to adapt to Western hairstyles and dress, it is a highly symbolic act that severs the men’s relation to their own nation, a selfless moment of personal sacrifice in which they renounce everything: they are separating not only geographically from their lovers and families for five years but are renouncing their entire identity without any guarantee that it will ever be restored.

Whatever they may have thought or felt about their journey before setting out, a reality much grander and more intimidating than they ever imagined dawns on them the moment they arrive in London. They see their first steam train and are aghast when told that this mode of transport has been around for three decades in the UK already. Their dream to defeat foreign powers through their own knowledge is as if instantly shattered – the British are, the Chosyu men realise, too far ahead. While they wander through the streets of London in a mixture of curiosity, awe and disbelief, the experience for the contemporary viewer is quite different. Yakichi’s words “We’ll never catch up” echo with the irony of the twenty-first century, when the British railway has not only long lost the pioneering glory of its past, but is equally impossibly far behind the Japanese train networks and technology, such as the shinkansen.

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's a steam train!

It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a steam train!

The Chosyu Five are taken in by Professor Alexander Williamson (Paul Ridley) and his wife Catherine. All prim and proper, the couple seems at first a little put off by the men’s wild appearances (after months at sea, they are unshaven and their clothes are in rags) and exotic customs (sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing fundoshi [褌]), but soon take to the group’s earnestness and intellectual zeal. As the Chosyu Five become the first Japanese students to enroll at University College London (at the time, the only institution to admit students based on merit and regardless of their religious background), the professor happily guides them in their studies while Catherine watches over them like a proud mother duck over her ducklings. It is a comfortable life they lead, a whole new world of knowledge and progress unfolding before them. Yozo is fascinated by engineering, Yakichi is deeply immersed in learning about the railway, Kinsuke becomes determined to acquire the knowledge needed for Japan to mint its own currency.

But the England of the 1860s is not all enlightenment and sophistication of course. One day Bunta, now impeccably dressed in the black suit and top hat of the educated and the rich, stumbles into a murky alley, where the fallout of the industrial revolution and the increasingly rigid class system is festering: the poverty and illness of the ordinary people. Always a bit of a womaniser, Bunta falls into the arms of a prostitute who derides his noble intentions to learn from this ‘more civil’ nation for the betterment of his own. The Chosyu Five also soon receive unsettling news from home, where the internal conflict is driving clans even further apart. If the men originally came to Britain for the people of Chosyu, they have realised that advancement can be achieved only as a nation. Bunta and Shunsuke thus decide to return to Japan to mediate between the fighting parties, while the others stay behind to complete their mission.

Yozo, in Glasgow.

Yozo (Matsuda Ryuhei), looking mightily fine in Glasgow.

At this point the story shifts entirely to the experiences of Yozo, who ventures north to Glasgow, the largest industrial city of the time, and becomes an apprentice in a shipyard. The focus remains on the quest for knowledge driven by the fascination with progress, but the film also weaves in a storyline – probably fictional for the most part – of a close friendship with a local woman by the name of Emily (Michelle Duncan). It is a turn that could have easily succumbed to cliché, but the film manages to strike a fairly good balance by making the character a deaf woman that comes across as very sincere and pure and, fortunately, never taking the relationship too far. Emily has a genuine love for life despite her plight – her handicap, but also poverty – and teaches Yozo more than just sign language. She offers a reminder, yet again, that “there are two kinds of people, those who own, and those who don’t”, with an insurmountable gap between them. While Yozo remains steadfast in his commitment to progress (he rambles on about ‘living machines’ even on New Year’s Eve while others are drunkenly belting out Auld Lang Syne), Emily’s interjections, communicated through hand gestures and touch that defy science and technology devoid of humanity, about people needing nature and freedom too, are enough to make him pause and realise that the British model is not one to be copied blindly.

Igarashi’s film is, not surprisingly, one that to a large degree celebrates the legacy of the Chosyu Five, who played a significant part in shaping the modern Japan. Shunsuke went on to become the country’s first prime minister, Bunta the first foreign minister. Kinsuke fulfilled his dream of minting Japanese money, while Yakichi was both minister for mining and the railways, building the first domestic railroad between Shinbashi and Yokohama in 1872.  Yozo remains known as the “Father of Japanese Industry”, having established not only the ministry of industry but petitioning what later became the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo.

Global isolation, internal segregation and conflict mark the beginning of the Chosyu Five’s times. Their journey from one side of the world to the other however gradually transforms them from men of a single clan to citizens of a much larger nation, highlighting that when knowledge is shared between people progress on all levels can be achieved for everyone. Indeed, it is a message not only to unite rivalling groups within a country, but one for humanity in general. Though nowadays we travel the world more easily, national closed-offness and monopoly over what we know as well as internal  social divisions persist, to the benefit of few. But when Japanese samurai and English professors excitedly pore over books or mix chemicals in the lab together, one cannot help but think that more must be lost than gained when we refuse to cooperate and share.

Rating: 8.5/10

Overall Verdict: Igarashi’s film on the legacy of the Chosyu Five for the most part celebrates their experience abroad, but is not entirely blind to the darker sides of the tale. It offers a glimpse into the effects of isolationist policies and class divisions, and highlights the contradictions of times, enough to leave us pondering not only about past but also present days.


1 During the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan operated a isolationist foreign policy called sakoku (鎖国, literally ‘chained country’) from the 1630s onward. No foreigners were allowed to enter the country, and no Japanese were allowed to leave. In 1853 the arrival of the Black Ships (黒船, Kurofune) of Commodore Matthew Perry finally reopened commercial trade with the West by force. The edict forbidding Japanese nationals to travel abroad remained in place until 1868.

2 The Chosyu Five left Yokohama in May 1863 and arrived in London in November of the same year.

Bonus Bits:

  • The Chosyu Five (pictured below) are: Shij Bunta, later known as Inoue Kaoru (played by Kitamura Yukiya); Yamao Yozo (Matsuda Ryuhei); Nomura Yakichi, later Inoue Masaru (Yamashita Tetsuo); Shunsuke, later Ito Hirobumi (Miura Akifumi) and Endo Kinsuke (Maeda Michiyoshi).

Choshu Five photo

  • You can read more about the Chosyu Five and their achievements in this pamphlet (.pdf file) from the Hagi City Tourism Section, which was also handed out at the film screening.
  • Chosyu Five anniversary events in the UK and Japan. Apparently there is a memorial stone at UCL somewhere, but I haven’t come across it. Shall try to find it, since this just so happens to be my university.
  • The character of Emily seems to be a fictional creation, however, she is not an arbitrary invention: part of Yamao’s legacy is the fact that he was the first man in Japan to found a school for the deaf and blind and introduced the idea of sign language. My guess is that he met some members of the deaf/blind community in Britain.
  • Random tidbit: Apparently Yamao is also credited for bringing Auld Lang Syne to Japan where it is known as “Hotaru no Hikari (“The Light of the Fireflies”) and is sung at high school graduation ceremonies” (source). See here (skip to 2:20 of the video). Anyone else find it totally intriguing that Japanese have a Scottish graduation song?
  • Although the film does give a glimpse into some of the more negative experiences of the Chosyu Five in London – the underbelly of progress –, it does not really deal with issues of culture shock or racial discrimination, which they surely must have encountered as well.
  • Alternative review: Meiji Era Technical Translation.
  • The film has not been released internationally. Only an unsubtitled DVD is available (yesasia, cdjapan, Amazon Japan). The OST is also sold via Amazon Japan.
  • The story of the Chosyu Five has also been mangafied as「長州ファイブ」from B’s LOG Comics (no translation).
  • The film won the Grand Prix at the 40th Houston International Film Festival.
  • The film’s entry at JFDB.
  • So I finally got round to watching my first Matsuda Ryuhei film, who is, of course, perfectly cast here (I never expected otherwise). And: has he got an impressive voice or what? I’m also wondering why no director thus far has stuck Ryuhei and Shota into one film together, you know, some sort of intense brother-rivalry psycho-drama that would burn holes into our screens for sure?

Image Gallery: Chosyu Five 1

Memorial sign at UCL for its first Japanese students: