At the moment, I'm enjoying two Asian historical dramas, the Japanese drama Tenchijin and the Korean drama The Iron Empress (these links have trailers). They're such interesting compare-and-contrasts. Both center on real historical figures, samurai Naoe Tenchijin of the Takagawa period and Empress Chun Chu of the Goryeo period. Both are so leaden with historical facts and personages that it's too hard to even remember the central characters names much less what's really going on (it doesn't help that the central characters' names keep changing). Both speed ahead pretty quickly, too, the characters going from youth to mature characters within a couple of episodes (presumably, we'll see them die [I'm still watching the early episodes]). But somehow, I think Tenchijin works better as a drama. Mostly because the story sticks pretty firmly with Tenchijin's development. The Iron Empress seems more lost, following a variety of historic people in an effort to be epic*. And it has that problem so many Korean historical dramas have, that persistent need to show endless discussions among competing factions, a clumsy way of explaining background plot which only drowns the story. If I had my way, I'd put Korean screenwriters in a room and make them watch endless hours of The Sopranos. ;)
I also wonder if Tenchijin doesn't work better because it's drawn from the novel by Masashi Hisaka. There was already a compelling construct for the scriptwriters to work with. Whereas The Iron Empress seems to have been the brain child of a director desperate for new subject matter to sacrifice at the temple of Light Entertainment. Thus a dubious attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Empress Chun Chu. Apparently (and this is from a preview show) Chosun scholars liked to portray Chun Chu as a greedy, lascivious bitch (she had one long-term lover, for god's sake [and only after her husband had died]). But that's Chosun men for you, with their silly Victorian penchant for liking their women mute and long-suffering (god forbid they should own anything, like a personality). It also didn't help that Chun Chu was pretty anti-Confucian, but what sane woman wouldn't be? In any case, there isn't a great deal of historical data on the poor woman, from what I understand, so the screenwriters were pretty free to create whatever they wanted. And what they came up with is a warrior empress with a heart of gold. Which is okay with me. Only did they have to insert all that ridiculous Hong Kong-inspired martial arts crap?
Tenchijin and The Iron Empress are blessed with some pretty outstanding actors. The child Tenchijin is played by the most adorable, beautiful child, Seishiro Kato. He breaks your heart with his pouts and tears. And Lord Kenshin Uesugi is played by the amazing, charismatic Hiroshi Abe, who really does seem like the living, walking embodiment of a war god (I am so in love with him, and I don't even like Alpha males!). Over at The Iron Empress, Ban Hyo Jung plays Chun Chu's regal and scary grandmother, the Queen Mother Shin Jung Hwang. Ban Hyo Jung was a fantastic choice. She can out regal even Hiroshi Abe. Was she born with all that gravitas? Just hearing her voice, you jump to attention. I imagine the devil must be just like her because no matter what she's plotting, she draws you in with magnetic warmth and you can't help loving her.
*I'd like to point out that Gone With the Wind only had a handful of characters.