As I’ve said before, it’s almost a shame that the death of Oda and the struggle that followed didn’t actually play out this way, because it’s an amazingly interesting take on Sengoku-era Japanese history. Dedicated to the downfall of the would-be rebel Akechi Mitsuhide, there was a harsh beauty to these episodes – fitting indeed that they should have ended with poetry cut short by the cruelty of war, because that subject – the “fork joining the warrior and the aesthete” – is very much the heart and soul of what this series is.
It’s ironic that Sosuke ended up pledging his forces to Hideyoshi’s cause, because Akechi was the closest thing to what Sosuke himself aspires to be – a warrior aesthete. I kept waiting for the series to put an ironic spin on Akechi, but it never really came – he (Hyouge Mono’s version anyway) was a transparent figure. Akechi was an honorable man who felt forced into rebelling by his distaste for what Oda was doing – and of course, he was goaded into it by Hideyoshi as well. That transparency was Akechi’s downfall, the reason Hideyoshi correctly saw him as a useful took to serve his ends, and the reason he was strategically outflanked at every turn.
It was Tokugawa Ieyasu – a supporting player here, but arguably the most important man in modern Japanese history – who summed it up best when he said that Akechi wanted to pacify Japan, while Hideyoshi wanted to subjugate it. It was the shared sense of moralism that caused Ieyasu to finally decide to fight for Akechi with his army of 15,000 men, despite the best advice of his generals that it was a losing cause. But his decision and his help came too late, as Hideyoshi – with the benefit of the fact that his preparations had been underway since long before he killed Milord – already had an army of 40,000 marching on Kyoto. His own force outnumbered by more than double, Akechi never really had a chance.
It was Akechi who realized first that he’d been duped, that there was no chance that Hideyoshi could have been so well-prepared for the struggle ahead unless he’d planned everything from the beginning. His mind flashed back to where mine did, the astonishing scene where Hideyoshi cut himself in order to shed tears of purity in inferring that he wanted nothing more than to serve an Akechi that ruled Japan in Oda’s place. Sosuke found out too, but only because Yasuke – Oda’s bodyguard who had saved him in the ruins of the burned Tenno-ji from Akechi’s men – stumbled across the wounded Sosuke on the battlefield and revealed the truth of it.
Sosuke’s reaction to this was fascinating. After an initial shock of betrayal and dismay once he realized that Yasuke was correct, what most bothered Sosuke was that he felt no outrage against Hideyoshi, no thirst to revenge himself for Oda’s death. Indeed, I suspect he admired the cunning and thoroughness that went into Hashiba’s plan, though he hated himself for it. He went on a battlefield rampage, then as an act of casting shame on himself, shaved his own head. Pressed into service by Hideyoshi to appraise the masterpieces he hoped to save from Akechi’s soon to be conquered Sakamoto Castle, Sosuke finds himself for the first time unmoved by the aesthetics of the pieces – all bar the one ancient and rough-hewn piece of stoneware that touches his aesthetic sensibility in his current state of mind (and reignites his greed). Alas, it’s broken in a final act of defiance by Akechi’s doomed brother in law.
The scenes chronicling Akechi’s final hours were some of the finest and most gut-wrenching you’ll see in any anime. I was especially moved by the depiction of Akechi, with his four most trusted men, dining on a meager meal of boiled hemp rope and miso – a meal Akechi gives a sort of beauty to with the addition of pond stones and flowers. Akechi’s smile at the sheer delight of his men at this simple pleasure, as their doom closed in on them, was sad and beautiful and I won’t soon forget it. A last desperate attempt to flee to Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei, engineered by the elder monk in a desire to have a seasoned warrior lead the monastery, is foiled when monks who disagreed with sheltering a former disciple of Oda (who had burned the temple) ambushed the fleeing party, and Akechi took a fatal spear blow in protecting the younger of the monks in his group. With a last thought of the troubles he’d subjected his wife to, the dying Akechi offered the first two lines of a haiku, then stated simply “My passing needs no final verse” and expired.
I would adjudge the death scenes of Akechi and Oda to be the finest of any anime I’ve seen in the last year, and perhaps a good deal longer than that – though for very different reasons. It’s a shame this series is so little-known, because every time I return to it I’m struck by just how astonishingly good the writing is. The subtlety here blows pretty much any other series out of the water, and Hyouge Mono is capable of absurd humor, grim cruelty, and in the case of these episodes true beauty and sadness. I’ll be very curious to see how Sosuke reconciles what he now knows with his service to Hideyoshi, who emerges more and more as a man as heartless as he is cunning. There seems to be a growing sense of morality in Sosuke the more of understands of the world he inhabits, and the true difficulty in trying to join the life of an aesthete with that of a warrior. I suspect his overarching desire to become a Lord at any cost will no longer serve to satisfy him, though he’ll try very hard to convince himself otherwise.