The Manga features one of the revolution's main characters, without whom the revolution could not have taken place: Sakamoto Ryouma 坂本龍馬.
(I quoted the following text from my 長崎 Nagasaki post)
Sakamoto Ryouma was born 1835 in 土佐藩 Tosa Province (now 高知県 Kouchi Prefecture) on the island of 四国 Shikoku. In Tosa Province a couple of 上司 Joushi (upper class samurai) ruled with iron hand and Ryouma had to experience many cruelties during his youth. He was the son of a family of 郷士 Goushi (lower class samurai), which became wealthy in the Sake business. He was known around town for bed wetting until his adolescence, his bad writing and slow learning and was generally considered an idiot.
When he witnessed how the 大名 Daimyou (feudal lord) or Tosa killed friends of him, because of showing improper politeness when he was crossing a bridge, his life changed. He sought for a way to have an influence in the world and change it and what he found was swordsmanship. His simple childish plan was to become the best swordsman of Japan and by that gain influence. And so he did, with the burning passion and motivation of dreams behind him. Also 乙女 Otome his bigger sister played an important role, always seeing a great man in him and personally teaching him sword fighting lessons.
When his skill reached a high level he joined tournaments in Edo (now Tokyo), which he was able to win. By that he made important contacts and friends in Edo. When he returned to Tosa, childhood friends of him created a local branch of the 尊皇攘夷 Sonnoujoui (a league to expel foreign dominance and influence on Japan and restore the power to the Tenno). At this time he met 吉田松陰 Yoshida Shouin and his students and was inspired by his teachings.
He initially joined for a certain time until they started to kill important leading figures of the feudal political structure of Tosa and Japan using the slogan 天誅 Tenchuu (heavenly punishment). At some point he got himself into an assassination mission of an important navy instructor in Edo called 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishuu. When he was about to kill him, he asked him to listen to him first and then decide whether to kill him or not.
Katsu Kaishuu was on of the visionaries of the time and foresaw that a nation wide Civil War would weaken Japan to such a high extent that foreign powers could easily turn it into a colony of slaved. He saw the only way out in learning western science and building war ships like they do, building relations and find a peaceful way to change Japan into a strong modern country. Ryouma was immediately able to see the wisdom in his words and shared the passion of his dreams and thus in spite of killing his target, he became his 弟子 Deshi (disciple).
Together they worked on improving Japan's navy and acquired skills in how to operate steam powered war ships. They built a navy academy in Kobe, which became a place for free thinking, philosophy and dreams. The same as around Yoshida Shouin, the Kobe Naval Instruction Facility became a magnet for 志士 (shishi free thinkers and revolutionaries) from all over the country. At this time Ryouma was a 脱藩者 Dappansha (a person leaving a province without allowance by the feudal lord, a crime punished by 切腹 seppuku). Along with him many other people commit ed 脱藩 Dappan and joined Ryouma at the Naval Academy.
Although Ryouma was nor formally working for the Shogun he was still in good terms with the 尊皇攘夷 Sonnoujoui and other 志士 Shishi. When he met 吉田松陰 Yoshida Shouin, he also formed strong bonds of friendship with 高杉晋作 Takasugi Shinsaku, and 木戸孝允 Kido Takayoshi, which would influence the outcome of the revolution. When he was visiting 京都 Kyoto together with his 先生 Sensei, he also eye witnessed the 御門事変 Gomon Incident and at this time also made friends with 西郷隆盛 Saigo Takamori. Because of these connections he was later able to convince the two hostile provinces of 長州 Choshu and 薩摩 Satsuma to form an alliance the famous 薩長同盟 Sacchou Alliance to revolutionize the country.
西郷隆盛 Saigo Takamori from 薩摩藩 Satsuma Province
and 高杉晋作 Takasugi Shinsaku
and 木戸孝允 Kido Takayoshi from 長州藩 Choshu Province
After his protegee Katsu Kaishuu had to return to Edo and abandon the Naval Training Center in Kobe, Ryouma was on its own again. However by that he and most of the 志士 Shishi became targets of feudal lords again and had to flee. The found refugee in the 薩摩藩邸 Satsuma province feudal lord villa (like an embassy) where Saigo Takamori was residing. Having time to think about the future he decided to follow the ideals of his Sensei and form a company, Japan's first company, independent of political power. For that he had to move to 長崎 Nagasaki, the only city with an open port.
In 長崎 Nagasaki he formed the company and named it 亀山社中 Kameyama Company. With some initial support from Satsuma the trading company prospered and brought Japanese goods as silk, green tea, spices and pottery to the western world in return for weapons and later war ships. Later he realized the significance of his position, and part of his success in forming the 薩長同盟 Sacchou Alliance was to promise to supply the Choshuu army with fire arms, while Satsuma would get rice from Choshuu to supply their troops after a bad harvest. After that he continued supporting the revolution by making his company buy war ships for the revolutionaries. Therefore at this point he decided that his organizations needed a new name and he renamed it to 海援隊 Kaientai (sea support troop)...
So far the quote from Nagasaki, but of course Ryouma's story didn't end in Nagasaki, directly after he founded it, he gave the Kameyama comapany into the custody of his fellow Shishi and returned to the political tables of the period. Although the Sacchou Alliance was agreed upon, the revolution was only at its beginning. Throughout the political games, his foremost goal was always to avoid a civil war and any bloodshed at all. As long as he lived he successfully found means and convinced parties to unbloody compromises.
On a boat trip, all by himself he wrote down 8 paragraphs that would secure Japan's future as an independent country and a fair democracy. He presented the plan to the Tenno, who accepted it.
二策 上下議政局を設け議員を置きて万機を参替せしめ 万機よろしく公議に決すべき事
1. Political power should be restored to the Imperial Court and all decrees should be issued by the Court.
2. Both upper and lower legislative houses should be created and government policies should be decided by this legislative body.
3. "Men of ability" from the former daimyo, nobles and general population should be appointed councilors. Traditional posts of power that existed under the Shogunate system should be abolished.
4. Foreign affairs should be conducted in accordance with regulations agreed upon on the basis of general consensus.
5. Rules and regulations created during Japan’s feudal days should be abolished and a new, modern legal code should be created.
6. Naval forces should be enlarged.
7. An Imperial Guard should be established for the purpose of defending the capital.
8. The value of goods and silver should be aligned with the going rates in foreign countries.
He also proved very wise and clever. His goal was to establish a democracy with equal rights for all humans, and a equal distribution of power. However if the two alliance leaders Satsuma and Choushuu would fight and win the revolution, they would take the greatest share of the power and thus prevent a real democracy from happening. Thus Ryouma cleverly introduced his home province Tosa as a third party to the alliance. The alliance gladly welcomed them, but they did not know about the good relations to the Shogun. Ryouma and Tosa's representative used these relations to convince the Shogun to return the political power to the Tenno (as it was goal of the revolutionaries). With this move a civil war was avoided, but the Shogun remained as a fourth political power in the game and the Tenno entered as a fifth. Thus Ryouma always tried hard to keep a power equilibrium, while fostering the revolution.
Eventually he moved from one political leader to the next and presented a sketch for a first democratic government to all of them. All five parties: Tenno, Shogun, Satsuma, Choushuu and Tosa would send representatives and build a common government. Although it was hard to convince Satsuma, Choushuu and the Tenno to give a big part of the power to the Shogun, they eventually accepted his scheme.
Alas Ryouma was assassinated under unclear circumstances at last, when the revolution already seemed as good as done and the cities were safe again. After his death, probably due to his missing guidance, a small war broke out despite all his efforts. Shogun Yoshinobu decided to challenge the alliance, and fought with what was left of his forces. However with the political power having been given to the alliance the new formed national army, equipped with the newest weapons and versed in the newest battle tactics quickly won over the Shogun's forces. When Sakamoto's sensei Katsu Kaishu over that surrendered Edo to the alliance, the Shogun retreated with some remainder of his force and some unhappy Samurai to Hakodate in Hokkaido forming a counter nation called the "Republic of Ezo". However even this resistance was broken by the fast moving national army in the 戊辰戦争 Boushin War.
He truly has become my hero and inspiration.
As an independent person, never belonging to any of the five forces, he always managed to negotiate between all of them and thus find peacful solutions to what looked like certain war. Also despite the objections of his fellow Shishi he never recommened himself as carrier of any political office in the new government, although nobody would have earned this honor more than him. Also the other forces, when he was representing the scheme, asked him to also take some office for his hard work, but he answered "All I wish is to sail across the oceans and visit far away lands, knowing that my home is safe".
More than that he took more sacrifices than anyone at his time could imagine. His two best childhood friends Izo and Takeshi were captured and tortured for weeks in Tosa, until finally being executed or forced to Seppuku. Along with them all of the first Shishi of the 尊王攘夷 Sonnou Joui league, which came from Tosa, were also tortured and killed. All of this for the maintaining of an unfair social class system of 上司 Joushi (high samurai) and 郷士 Goushi (low samurai). The Shishi staying with him and running the Kameyama Shachu, his big sister, Takeshi's wife, and many more friends always grieved after their friends and longed for revenge and justice/satisfaction/revenge. Sakamoto deeply shared their grief and anguish and tried to support them as best as he could. However in the end, he saw taking exactly the Tosa leaders who were responsible for all the cruelty, injustice and bloodshed into the alliance and the new government, because it was the only way to secure a balance of power and secure a safe development for the future after revolutionary Japan. With this decision, which hurt himself more than anything else, he also procured the hatred of all his friends left on this world. To be capable of taking such a road, you need to be a hero.
I myself am also thinking about how to bring the world closer to peace of more far away from war, how to distribute the world's wealth more equally among the people and abolish racism, class systems and discrimination. So goals very similar to those of Ryouma and he has become my inspiration and hope for taking the right paths at crossroads. To always take a path that does not lead to war and bloodshed and seek a path that does not give advantage to someone. But also to keep yourself humble and away from power, always smiling and happy and a good friend everybody can trust on. Thus is my road the same as his, let's see where it leads, and hope he will be a guiding star...
The Manga covers Ryouma really well and tells his entire life, starting from his childhood, where he was known to have been a coward, a cry baby and bedwetter unable to do anything properly, to his final days where his independent position enabled him to forge alliances and compromised between Japan's greatest leaders allowing his country to a bright future.
The drawing style is simple, as is common for Manga, but shows a good variety of emotions in the characters faces. The characters are well worked out and quickly come to live in the readers mind. But they are also not ficitional and so close to the real persons, that you will notice them immediately when you see their real photographs. The Manga has a very good humor, that it probably shared with the historic Ryouma, and often made me laugh heartily. But it also did not fail to show the dramatic events that lead to Ryouma seeking a new world and a revolution strong enough to make me cry and grief myself.
Finally the biggest merit to the author is the amazing research he has done on Sakamoto Ryouma. The Manga can as well be called an excellent biography, as well as an excellent history book on the Bakumatsu Period. But in contrast to history books and biographies, it can do one more thing, it can bring Sakamoto Ryouma and his dreams, as well as the time he lived in back to life, which is so much more important that knowing some facts about history...
You don't learn from history by knowing times and events, you learn from history by living through it.