Books: Shogun

As a boy, I remember this book sitting on the coffee table and end-tables around the house for something like a year.  Dad and Mom both took a turn.  I remember the ominous-looking katana on the battered cover and Clavell’s name in big bold font.  Later I remember the mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain – but only a little.  Since it came on at eight, I got to watch about an hour before bedtime.  It all seemed very dangerous and exotic and interesting.

So when I decided I wanted to read a book about pre-modern Japan – something with samurai, sacrifice, and yes, ninjas – it didn’t take long for Shogun to pop into my head.  A little google research will tell you this book sold tens of millions of copies, set the stage for a series of other Asia-themed novels, and made Clavell a truckload of money.  I was hoping it would stand to the decades and provide some well-researched historical action.  And that’s just what the book delivered.

Shogun recounts the fictional arrival of a Dutch trader in 17th Century Japan.  The Portuguese (and a few Spaniards) have been in the country for about 50 years, inserting themselves as the middlemen in the lucrative silk trade with China and converting hundreds of thousands to Catholicism.  Aboard the Dutch ship is John Blackthorne, an English pilot, leader of men, and our surrogate guide to Japan.  Blackthorne is a big, strong, handsome, smart, stubborn westerner – your classic leading man.  He soon becomes known as the Anjin-san, which means ‘pilot’.

No doubt Blackthorne is in some respects a metaphor for Clavell’s own attempts to learn about and function within Japanese and Asian culture.  And in the first few hundred pages, as Blackthorne becomes Anjin-san, he progresses from haughty, incredulous, and disgusted to curious, respectful and accepting.  This progression, both in terms of characterization and as a device for learning about pre-modern Japan, is one the more enjoyable aspects of the books.  It’s especially effective for someone who knows very little about Japanese history (like me).

The Japan of this book is at the height of bushido.  Samurai rule.  The feudal roles and customs are still firmly in place, despite the new challenge of Christianity.  The land is about twelve years removed from the rule of the Taiko, the overlord who defeated or united all the other great daimyos for the first time in centuries.  But the peace the Taiko won sits in precarious balance, awaiting his heir to come of age.The two principle daimyos are Toranaga and Ishido – both of whom claim to have the Taiko’s heir’s interests at heart, both of whom secretly seek the title of Shogun or supreme general.

Blackthorne and his crew land in Toranaga’s lands.  Soon Toranaga discovers how afraid the Portuguese are of the Dutch ship and Blackthorne, which makes the Englishman valuable in the complex political power struggle.  Lucky for him (and for us); otherwise this would have made for quick death and a short book.  Blackthorne also proves himself brave and clever, traits any samauri can appreciate.

Toranaga appoints Mariko, the wife of one of his generals, as Blackthorne’s translator and guide.  Mariko is a Christian and fluent in Portuguese and Latin.  She’s also beautiful, elegant, kind, and extremely smart.  You might guess what happens between them – despite the cultural gulf, Mariko’s deep sense of honor, Blackthorne’s barbaric manners and customs, and the whole Protestant versus Catholic problem.  Yes, it’s the ‘tragic romance’ angle of the book.  Yet Clavell does an admirable job avoiding the romance-novel clichés.  And after all, he has hundreds of pages to explore and develop the relationship.  The fact that their love story faces such long odds, of course, makes it dramatic.  What makes it compelling is how their relationship grows through acts of bravery and kindness, progressing from lust to honor and a sense of mutual respect.  It’s further complicated by the wide gulf in customs – gender roles, sex, and even the concept of love – not to mention the political reality of Toranaga’s machinations.

Mariko is certainly my favorite character in the book.  Not just because of her intellect and courage, but because of the manner in which she symbolizes the conflict between bushido and Catholicism (and all that will entail for Japan).  For her, questions of duty and passion bring provide the kind of realistic flaws anyone can relate to and appreciate.

Toranaga is another great character.  The author certainly has the most fun with him, anticipating his rivals’ tactics, moving and manipulating the other powerful daimyos into, and generally master-minding the plot of the entire story.  And because of a his sense of humor, a few small moments of vulnerability, and the surprisingly just way he treats others (despite manipulating them), it’s hard to not root for him in his power quest.

The most enjoyable facet of the book is how Clavell weaves in his depth of knowledge about this period in Japanese history.  Yes, it makes for some clunky passages, random descents into internal monologues, and a fair amount of explaining, but the writing is consistent and always interesting.  If you don’t know much about bushido (like Blackthorne) , if you don’t understand the importance of manners and etiquette and points of honor – Clavell shows you.  And yet he doesn’t bludgeon you to death with his research.  As the book progresses, Blackthorne becomes the Anjin-san, and the reader develops some familiarity, the author backs away and lets the narrative take over.  It rarely dips in and ebbs in form and always held my interest.  Considering this book is about 1200 pages, this is no mean feat.  Perhaps it wouldn’t have the same allure for someone well-versed in Japan’s culture and history.

For me, Shogun provided a great reading experience:  epic, historical Japan, with lots of and memorable characters enmeshed in intrigue and action.  And yes, even some ninjas.  Now, if time permits, maybe I’ll try watching the mini-series once again.


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