Asian History

Oda Nobunaga – Three representations


Oda Nobunaga was a legendary samurai warrior in the history of Japan. He lived during late 16th century and is considered as the initiator of Japan’s unification process. Shogunate ruled Japan until it was restored by Meiji in 1868 and it was during the period of Shogunate that Oda Nobunaga lived. He was born to Oda Nobuhide who was a deputy military governor (Shugo) and Tsuchinds Gozen on June 23rd of 1534 and died on June 21st 1582. During his life of 48 years Oda Nobugana fought several battles and played a crucial role in unification of Japan. Oda Nobunaga is considered as a major daimyo during Sengoku period in the history of Japan. Though Oda Nobunaga is recognized as the initiator of Japanese unification, he is also considered as a man of brutality. This is because of his life as a conqueror, who was able to conquer one third of Japan. His life was of continuous military conquest and it was his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi who unified all Japan, though after Oda Nobunaga’s death. Toyotomi Hideyoshi is a loyal supporter of Oda Nobunaga and became the first ruler of united Japan after Ōnin War. Due to a life of continuous warfare Oda Nobunaga is represented mostly as a cruel person in writings and other media. This paper tries to analyze the thesis that “Oda Nobunga was a charismatic and benevolent leader who is largely misinterpreted as cruel and merciless”.

For achieving these purpose three representations of Oda Nobunaga in three different media Novel, anecdote and film is analyzed in this paper.

Novel – Taiko Ki

First source selected is representation of Oda Nobunaga by Eiji Yoshikawa in his book Taiko Ki. Taiko Ki is a novel about feudal Japan’s war and glory. In the film Oda Nobunaga is portrayed as a benevolent lord who is firm also. It majorly speaks about raise of Japan as a union under three men, Oda Nobunaga, who is firm, brutal and generous at the same time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi who is very adamant and Tokugawa Ieyasu who is very humble and saintly. Thus Oda Nobunaga is portrayed as a person of both good and bad character at the same time. This story is mainly of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who was a follower of Oda Nobunaga. He later became the first ruler of united Japan.

Novel describes that during the end of sixteenth century Japan was written in chaos and the issues were mostly caused by shogunate crumbles. There was a battle for supremacy and thus Oda Nobunaga is described as a person who was trying to achieve supremacy of Japan. According to novelist chaos was a result of both these; battles of supremacy and shogunate crumbles. Armed warrior monks were causing destruction in large amount. Even under such a situation three men are dreaming the union of Japan. One among them is Oda Nobunaga. Thus the novelist portrays Oda Nobunaga as a person with dream, who is aiming united Japan. Even under such chaos he is positive in his thought and is striving to achieve it. Oda Nobunaga is described as a man of dream, who is determined to achieve it without considering the issues that are going on. He is pictured as a person who is not concerned about his surrounding situations, but trying to achieve his aim at any cost. It is this character of Oda Nobunaga that has often made him cruel. Though he is fighting for his own people his determination at times forces him to forget them (Bary, Gluck and Tiedeman).

Novel describes Oda Nobunaga as an extremely skillful samurai warrior who fights in every way possible to achieve his dream. Though Oda is adamant to achieve his dream he is also very benevolent to his followers. It is this character of Oda Nobunaga that attracts Toyotomi Hideyoshi to him. Further Oda Nobunaga is also portrayed as a man of charisma. It is with his charisma that he was able to keep men necessary enough to win battles with him. Oda Nobunaga is also portrayed as a man of power. He was powerful and determined to conquer one third of Japan, but at the same time his main aim was to unite Japan and not to conquer it and rule it. He found battle as a means to achieve this and his acts were often merciless for he only tried to achieve his aim. This also shows his leadership qualities. He is also portrayed as a charismatic leader who was able to unite people under his leadership even when there was difference of opinion between them about his actions. He is the inspiration for Toyotomi Hideyoshi who considers Oda Nobunaga as his idol.

Though leading character of this novel is Toyotomi Hideyoshi who was a humble follower of Oda Nobunaga, it portrays the conflict of ideas between Oda and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After the death of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi is in constant conflict with his ideals of leadership and that of Oda Nobunaga whom he is following. Thus the novel also becomes a good interpretation of Oda’s ideas of leadership. Thus in a way novel is portraying the characteristic of Oda Nobunaga as that of a firm and benevolent lord. Thus the novel portrays Oda Nobunaga as a person with good intentions but who considers war and brutality as the means to achieve it. He is not at all merciful to anything that comes in his way of achieving aim. He is at the same time very positive thinking and is very kind to those who remain close to him or help him in achieving his aim. Goodness of his character can be inferred from his wish for a united Japan but it is for the benefit of people and he is not aiming to become emperor of the union (Yoshikawa).

Anecdote – Haiku anecdote

There is a famous haiku anecdote that every children of Japan is taught describing the characters of three leaders of 16th century who tried to unite Japan. According to this anecdote all three leaders were gathered in a garden and then a bird came there and landed on a branch. A Zen master who was present at the occasion asked the leaders what they will do if the bird did not sing. Answers of three show their character; Oda Nobunaga answered “kill it” Tyotomi Hideyoshi who was a follower of Oda Nobunaga said “make the bird want to sing” while Tokugawa said “wait”. A translation of the anecdote goes like this

“If the birds won’t sing, I’ll try to make them sing.

If the birds won’t sing, I’ll wait for them to sing.

If the birds won’t sing, I’ll kill them”.

In this Anecdote Oda Nobunaga is described as a cruel person without patience. But at the same time it also depicts his character as brave. Oda Nobunaga considered war as the only method through which he can unite whole Japan. He was brave enough to overcome any thing that comes in his way. He was really the fiercest daimyo during 16th century. It was his braveness and determination that made Japan a single unit though this happened only after his death. He was born to a lord and started his empire with Owari province which was weak and very small. Though his charismatic character and personality Oda Nobunaga slowly gained small portions in the place and was able to gain one third of whole Japan by the time of his death. He was almost about to unify Japan but was forced to commit suicide and this was by his own generals. He believed in killing rivals as the only method to unite rest of the people (Bary, Gluck and Tiedeman).

In this Anecdote he is described as a demonic figure who has no mercy. He is also featured as a very distressed character. He was not ready to accept surrender. An incident that is depicted as an act of his cruelty is destroying of Enryakuji temple in Mt. Hiei which was a religious center of Buddhists of Japan. He killed each and every person who was present at that place including women and children. He forcefully suppressed Jodo-shin-shu Buddhism.

At the same time he is also considered as a progressive leader with charismatic abilities. This is because when rifles came to Japan he was able to recognize its potential and bought it in large amounts. He was a good war planner and consequently equipped his army to occupy new areas. He provided his army with technological advancements, battle techniques, logistics and instrumental techniques to overcome his enemy. One of the strategies he adopted was to come in contact with enemies of rivals so that his support and strength to fight against rivals will increase. It was this attitude that made him form an ally with Christians especially Kyushu so that he can control hi far away enemies and it is also difficult to control enemies of such region. It was this knowledge and capability of Oda Nobunga that helped him to achieve success in almost all battles performed and unite one third of Japan.

He was also a great warrior, but he was never selfish. He never wished to conquer Japan, instead he was interested in uniting it. For that he believed war as the best means. He was not at all merciful to enemies and mercilessly destroyed everything that came his way. He believed if he can eliminate rivals he will be able to unite rest of the people.

He also had great foresight. It was his foresight that prompted Oda Nobunaga to encourage trade with Europe. Oda Nobunaga was also adaptive changes and this is why he is wearing plate armor in battles which is European style. Usually Japanese warriors wear yoroi armor. Thus he is a mix of characters. But above all he is a great leader with charismatic powers but very cruel and determined to unite Japan. For that he is ready to do anything and is not showing mercy. Haiku Anecdote shows this character of Oda Nobunaga.

Film – Kagemusha (The shadow warrior) by Akira Kurosawa

Oda Nobunaga is one of the most important characters of this movie and Akira Kurosawa has portrayed his early life period as a warrior in this movie. Kagemusha portrays Oda Nobunaga as an ambitious warrior who has started to conquer various small states in his attempt to unite Japan. But he finds it difficult to defeat the ruler Shingen Takeda. Oda Nobunaga is pictured as a smart lord who is trying to conquer all parts of Japan and there by wishing to unite it. In the film it is shown that he is using allies with the enemies of his own enemy and tries to capture land. He is even using spy to know about his enemies. In this movie of Akira Kurosawa, Oda Nobunaga is also initiating war against his enemies together with other enemies of that state. Oda Nobunaga is also shown to have using riffles and the director thus makes the statement that he was forming allies with Europeans to buy weapons from them. Oda is portrayed as a very ambitious leader who is not afraid of destroying anything that comes on his way. But his ultimate aim is to unite Japan, but the means he uses for this is of cruelty and war (Hutchinson).

Oda Nobunaga is pictured as a modern man who has mastered the art of leadership. He is able to draw tactics against enemies and equip his force with guns and other modern equipment. Oda Nobunaga is having an army that is fully equipped and is confident to defeat an army containing 25,000 members. This is achieved by a combination of new weapons and tactics that Oda derive for battle. Thus he is pictured as a very efficient leader who can draw successful strategies under pressure.  It is his strategic approach with updating of technology and equipment is the factor that makes him successful in every war he fight. At one point it can be seen that Oda Nobunaga is giving instruction to his force. He is ordering them to shoot the horses of Takeda for Takeda will not be able to fight without horses. It is this cunningness and ability to derive strategies on spot that Kurosava is portraying of Oda Nobunaga in this film. Kurosava tries to give importance to the tactics adopted by Oda Nobunaga. His war tactics as depicted in the film includes misdirection, daring, surprise attack that is brilliant and some luck. He is pictured as a brutal and ruthless person. It is these characters of Oda Nobunaga that is getting importance. Kurosawa’s Oda Nobunaga is a man of ambition and greed with clear foresight and aim. He is also very powerful (Turnbull). Thus Oda Nobunaga is portrayed as a historical villain who is completely merciless when it comes to achieving his aims. Oda Nobunaga is singing and dancing to hymn in the movie on the announcement of Shingen, his enemy. This is used as a portrayal of his cruelty and thus movie shows Odo Nobunaga as a cruel war leader who is ready to do anything for winning his war.


Oda Nobunaga lived during 16th century and is one among the three leaders who led to unification of Japan. He is considered as a man of cruelty and ruthlessness. But at the same time he is also pictured as an efficient leader who was able to capture one third of Japan in its process of unification. He made use of strategies and was ready to adapt to new technologies for achieving his aim. Thus Odo Nobunaga is to be considered more as a leader than as an evil daimyo who won’t stop till he achieves his goal.

There is difference in portrayal of Oda Nobunaga in the film Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa, novel Taiko Ki and haiku anecdote. Haiku anecdote tries to establish that Oda Nobunaga was a merciless man. At the same time it also shows that he is not at all patient and is not interested in anything that is of no use to him. Thus the anecdote is merely showing his negative characters. It also compared Oda Nobunaga to other two leaders one of whom is ready to wait till the bird sings while other is searching for methods to make it sing. But Odo on the other side is asking to kill it. Thus he is the only person who is not at all ready to wait or try for any other option to achieve his aim. He is only thinking of his aim and his way is also single. There is no way for him to consider options.

In the novel Taiko Ki Odo is portrayed as a man of good intentions. It is his intentions that the novel gives importance to. Odo is characterized as a charismatic leader who is benevolent to his followers. At the same time he is so determined to achieve his aim that he at times forget his own people. He is doing everything for them only. He is a man of positive thought and has great leadership ideas. Odo Nobunaga always has good intentions but the way he adopts to achieve it is of war. He is also destroying anything that comes in his way to achieve his aim. At that point he is not concerned about the pain of others and it is this character that lead to his portrayal as a cruel person.

In the film by Kurosawa Odo’s early life is posturized. He is depicted as a man on ambition and determination. Film also portrays his leadership skills of capability to form new strategies according to situation, adaptability to new technologies, vision, positive spirit, bravery, capability to take decisions etc. He is illustrated as a charismatic leader. At the same time film has pictured him as a ruthless and brutal person who is concerned only about his victory and means to achieve it.

Odo Nobunaga was a person who justified any means to achieve ends. It was this attitude of Oda Nobunaga that made him ruthless and cruel. But it is to be noted that the period in which he was living was of chaos and it was not possible to unify Japan if he was not ready to fight war. It was his aim and situation that forced him to behave cruel. He is also characterized as a charismatic leader who is benevolent to his followers. Only method to reach top position during Sengoku Period was to remain most brutal. That is why Oda Nobunaga was able to gain one third of Japan at the age of 48 when he died. It is Oda who has contributed most to the unification of Japan.


Bary, William Theodore De, Carol Gluck and Arthur E Tiedeman. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From earliest times to 1600. Volume 1, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Hutchinson, Rachel. Orientalism or Occidentalism? Dynamics of Appropriation in Kurosawa. In Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture, and Politics in Film. London: Wallflower, 2006.

Turnbull, Stephen. Battles of the Samurai. London: Arms & Armour, 1987.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: an epic novel of war and glory in feudal Japan. Japan: Kodansha International, 2000.