**spoiler alert** This was a decidedly weird history book, mostly because Shiba made the decision to treat history more as a narrative complete with c**spoiler alert** This was a decidedly weird history book, mostly because Shiba made the decision to treat history more as a narrative complete with character povs. So when a major decision was being reached, you were treated to the pov of that person plus whatever Shiba thought their thought processes were. In some ways this worked since I'm certain that in some cases he was taking directly from those person(s) personal writings... in others it was a much more doubtful form of guesswork. And since there was no annotation you pretty much had to assume it was all made up which negates much of the impact of the work.
All in all, it was a very romanticized story in which Shiba's love for Yoshinobu really shines through. It's all the more touching when you realize that Yoshinobu was a bit of a bastard. There is one point in the book where Shiba explains that Yoshinobu never made the connection between his political actions having consequences for his retainers (ie, whenever he did an about face, and he did many of them, his loyal men wouldn't blame him but his retainers for their influence and then one of them would be assassinated or would name another man to be assassinated etc.). And while this may be true (though it seems doubtful of a man who we're supposed to think was intelligent and logical), it's not a very nice portrayal of a man who is so oblivious that his men are being murdered left and right for his policy changes.
Shiba makes a serious effort to explain coherently the events of Yoshinobu's life and why he and the people around him made the decisions they did. I think he might have succeeded if he'd been willing to criticize a little. The fact that Yoshinobu had a reputation for being a liar and wasn't trusted by many others because he'd change sides at an apparent whim is rather telling in a society like Japan's (where an outright statement of intent is usually considered crude). He may have had some great plan behind all his actions and read the changes in the wind better than everyone else, but to be honest, it seemed like he was smart, and lucky but not as good at what he was doing as he could have been. In fact, I think the best decision Yoshinobu ever made in his life was refusing the post of Shogun. (I do believe Shiba was right in saying that Yoshinobu's driving motive in life was not to be labelled a traitor, and hence why he was torn in so many directions at once.) He was also a great orator, though personal charisma only carried him so far.
There are moments in the book that are utterly astonishing. The account of the scene at Osaka castle during the last days of the bakufu in which Yoshinobu's men were committing suicide because they weren't allowed to go fight had an air of melancholy, crazy pathos. While much of it read like any other political drama, you then had scenes you just don't get outside of Japan. The one that really stuck in my mind was when Yoshinobu needed the cooperation of the imperial court nobles about something, and so he went to meet with them. When they weren't convinced, he threatened to commit suicide!, telling the nobles his retainers would blame them for his suicide and kill them all. (How messed up is that?)
There's very little sense of the character of anyone else in the book besides Yoshinobu (his father was a right bastard) and the Choshu come out smelling like roses while Satsuma get the long end of the stick. Be that as it may, it's a pretty decent account of the events of that time period and definitely not the usual dry narrative you'll encounter. I read a book once about the consequences of foreign contacts with Japan in this time period, but it never went into detail about why the Japanese were acting as they did, so it was fascinating to finally understand why some of the policy decisions that so confused the foreign ambassadors when handed down....more