I mentioned in the Japan Times Sake Dinner entry that one of the items given to us as thank you gifts at the end of the evening was a pair of volumes of a book on Ryoma Sakamoto. Since I had it, I figured that I may as well read it and find out what it was like. Following that, I may as well give my opinion here.
Ryoma was one of the primary leaders of the rebellion against the Tokugawa shoganate that led to the Meiji Restoration, the fall of the samurai classes and ultimately to anime and manga as we know it today. The latter because it was Ryoma's push to trade with the west in order to get weapons and ships for forcing outsiders back out of Japan that indirectly resulted in an influx of western printing methods and materials that then turned into the Japanese magazine industry that I've written about before.
Essentially, Ryoma was a lower class samurai who hated the way the upper classes would bully him as a kid (according to the book). When Admiral Perry arrived with his black ships, Ryoma and the other rebels saw this as a chance to side with the Emperor and bring down the shoganate, which they saw as corrupt and weak. While he did succeed in leading the way to reform, as well as authoring the document that would allow the shogun to step down without a civil war erupting that could have given western countries a chance to step in and take over, he was killed in an attack by supporters of the shogunate and the fighting continued a while later in spite of his efforts. Born on Jan. 3, 1836, he died at age 31 on Dec. 10, 1867 from multiple sword wounds.
The Japan Times bookclub offers a shorter version of Romulus Hillsborough's fictionalized biography of Ryoma as a tool for Japanese speakers wanting to learn English. The English text has been simplified and the sentences mostly kept short. Footnotes accompany each page giving Japanese translations of key words and phrases, and the full Japanese text appears at the end of each chapter. The two accompanying CDs are audio book versions of the text. They're not bad, but the narrator really sounds like he's speaking down to 5-year-olds, and there was only so much of that I could take before killing the media player.
The author, Romulus, has a reputation as a historian, having spent 16 years in Japan studying his subjects. So, I can't fault his factual knowledge. And I haven't seen the full book that these two are based on, so I can't comment on the readability of that one. What I can say is that with these two books, Romulus is not going to be winning the Pulitzer in this lifetime. The problem is that the narrative and dialog read like a bad soap opera. Early on in the first book, Ryoma's older sister tries to teach the boy how to fight with a sword and he gets banged up pretty good. ""Oh, Ryoma, this will never do," Otome said." Ugh. Phrases like this appear all over the place.
The illustrations by Emi Masaki primarily consist of the black and white cover drawing of Ryoma himself, a couple supporting drawings of Otome and Oryo (Ryoma's wife) as part of the cast list, and two men used as "guy A" and "guy B". "B" supposedly lived during Ryoma's time, and answers "A"'s questions about Ryoma and the shoganate, having been born later on. It's a weak narrative device used to fill in gaps in the reader's knowledge of the period.
Japan is in the middle of a Ryoma craze right now, and these books play into that. Plus, they're intended for a Japanese audience as English teaching tools. As such, these books are fine. If you're looking for something to read as part of your English studies, and you want to learn a little more about the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration, I can recommend these books (1400 yen each). But, if you're already a native speaker, I suggest that you keep looking for something less melodramatic.