I had the pleasure of watching a fantastic Japanese film, The Magnificent Nine (殿、利息でござる！ (Tono, Risoku de Gozaru!). The trailer can be viewed here.
The Seven Samurais have always captured the imagination of people with their valour and bravery. However, this riveting film based on a true story of the magnificent nine heroes – and theirs is a story that must be told and spread widely – is an important one.
This is a movie about sacrifice, about going beyond one’s own sense of privilege and thinking of the wider community and striving to support one’s people and community regardless of the hardships this may bring about. This remarkable tale was recorded by the priest Zuishi Eishu in his book, “Koko-on-ki.”
The story is set in the middle of the 18th century (1766 to be precise) during the Samurai era. The place is Yoshioka, a poor town, within the Kurokawa district in northern Japan. The people of Yoshioka were ruled at the time by a young feudal lord by the name of Shigemura Date.
When I first started watching the film, I’d assumed that it was a comedy; and whilst there were some laughs and warm-hearted moments, it could not make the deeply philosophical messages about the themes of sacrifice and noblesse oblige.
Yoshioka was a small ‘post town’ – so called because it was under the obligations of an old tradition (established 150 years earlier) called the “post horse duty” – where it was the duty of the folk of the ‘post town’ to transport all of their feudal lord’s goods at their own cost (including that of horses and labour) to the next unfortunate ‘post town’ which had to do the same until it got to its desired destination.
Due to the severe burden placed upon it, the little town of Yoshioka faced a growing exodus. The people of the town, already in dire straits, went bankrupt and fled. The remaining town folk faced an increasingly greater burden as more people left and had to deal with growing costs of the post-horse duties.
It was at this point, one of the remaining residents, a tea grower by the name of Sugawaraya, hit upon an idea of a collective solution that will reduce the burdens of the townsfolk.
The idea rested on a simple premise. A select group of investors will band together and raise 1000 ryos (an old Japanese denomination) or US$3 million in current day terms and loan that full amount to Lord Shigemura Date, who was in straightened financial circumstances.
Subsequently when their Lord pays the interest on the loan, the yearly interest income will cover the full costs of their ‘post town’ duties for each and every person in the town. This meant that all of the people of Yoshioka will be able to escape the debilitating effects of the post-down duties and be able to build better live for themselves.
These few men had a belief that since they have the means, the can band together and create a solution for all of the people in their society. This small group of men will receive no returns nor profit as a result of doing this and their only benefit is the collective well-being of their town.
The efforts of this small band of heroes meant that the town of Yoshioka flourished and grew for a hundred years as they were paid an interest by the Lord and his successors till the end of the Edo era. Yoshioka entered the Meiji era as a vibrant town with a healthy and prosperous community.
It was profoundly moving to watch the story of the sacrifices of these unassuming few. One of them, Kokudaya, stated in his will simply, “Do not tell others what I have done.”
However the legacy of these men has somehow endured the test of time due to the efforts of the aforementioned priest, Zuishi Eishu.
Kokuday (who came from the Asanoya clan who were famous for their sake brewery) has his name living on as a beer and sake brewery in Yoshioka to this day. Please see photo below.
The thoughts and words of Kokudaya’s brother, Jinnai Asanoya, also were very profound. When they were in the presence of a very powerful official of Lord Shigemura Date’s court and enquired why Jinnai had not used the horses or palanquin sent to fetch him, Jinnai demonstrated his Confucian belief system which guided him and formed the cornerstone of his values and attitudes towards life.
Jinnai explained to the powerful court official that he was taught that as Man is the lord of all creation, it was not right for one to ride on the back of an ox or a horse and cause it grief. He further explained that riding a palanquin was even worse as one man being carried by another man showed nothing but contempt. He also felt that one should not make use of men or cause suffering.
Jinnai spoke the truth, risking potential death, knowing fully well that Lord Shigemura Date himself often used the palanquin and horses! This virtuous quality of speaking the truth, even in the most dangerous of circumstances is one that one should seek to emulate.
Jinnai, who lost his sight from his middle age, also spent the rest of his life spending the profits of his business in building and repairing the roads and bridges of Yoshioka. His sake business grew from strength to strength despite at one point being almost bankrupt because he contributed the most money to fund the loan at the expense of his business.
However Lord Date, who heard of the selfless sacrifice made by these men, ensured that Jinnai remained in business and ensured that Jinnai followed his commandment that: “Your business must not be ruined. If you fail because of your lord, then my honour will be stained.”
Kokudaya, his brother Jinnai Asanoya, Kokudaya’s son Oteomon also embody the values of filial piety and honouring of parents. Kokudaya and Jinnai’s father, unknown to them, had previously already started collecting money to do precisely what they did – to loan money to their feudal lord and use the interest collected to offset the post-town burden. His sons, when they found out, were determined to complete the task their father started, to the point where Jinnai sacrificed his entire business to fulfil his father’s dreams and desires.
This fascinating tale (and beautifully captured movie) encapsulates the ingenuity of men in times of need. It also extols the timeless values of service, duty and sacrifice above one’s own needs. Values which transcend culture, language and faith.
The notion that ordinary men can indeed make a profound difference if they had the right set of values and the company of like-minded men is one that is made powerfully through this movie and story. Get the DVD!!
If you are keen to read a more detailed plot and summary of the film, the links below will be a good place to start:
For those with Japanese proficiency:
For anyone keen on visiting Yoshioka today and learning more, please visit: