Shogun by James Clavell

Can’t decide whether you want sweeping adventures on the high seas, cultural clashes, social history, espionage, military theory, political intrigue, romance or something to keep you occupied on a transatlantic voyage? Try Clavell’s Shogun. At 1200 pages, Clavell had plenty of time for multiple protagonists and subplots.

In 1600, the Dutch ship Erasmus wrecks just off the Japanese coast, and crew and cargo are salvaged by the nearby villagers and their overlord. The Japanese, already familiar with the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits and secular traders, are mildly nonplussed by what remains of the largely Northern European crew of Erasmus…but the reverse is not the case; Erasmus’ crew members have never seen Asians. Spies in the village rat out Yabu, the local samurai in charge of the community to his feudal overlord, Toranaga, who promptly claims the ship and all its contents. Toranaga, being an astute judge of political expediency and gamesmanship, recognizes that in Blackthorne he has a treasure worth far more than the entire cargo of the Erasmus, for a number of reasons: his skills as a pilot are invaluable, he has knowledge of Europe’s history from a perspective different from the Europeans already in Japan, but largely/simply because his existence proves an irritant to the Spanish and Portuguese already present in Japan, and to the Japanese political factions which side with them. As Blackthorne integrates into Japanese society, and becomes a more visibly important part of it, he not only takes a more active role in local politics and society but becomes a greater threat to that society1.

Now for the romance aspects. Blackthorne, being a man of stereotypical heterosexual masculine appetites, quickly regains his interest in the feminine gender once his health returns after a regimen of nutritious food, fresh air and exercise. Fortunately, one of the Japanese ladies is equally interested in him; as the translator appointed by their overlord Toranaga, Mariko has the opportunity to spend a great deal of sanctioned time with Our Protagonist. Unfortunately, she’s already married to an emotionally neglectful, physically abusive husband; while it’s possible for samurai ladies to divorce their husbands, doing so for a barbarian is unthinkable, even if he is hatamoto2. Fortunately for readers of the male persuasion in reading tastes, Clavell includes a fair bit of testosterone-laden dick-thumping competition between Lawful Husband of Love Interest and Well-Endowed Protagonist, ranging from generic posturing to a truly impressive display of (literal) archery skills.

There are a few potential pitfalls, aside from the changes in literary conventions in the intervening decades since the book was written.

Neither the Japanese nor the Europeans come off too terribly well from the other culture’s perspective in the beginning–the Europeans see the Japanese as cruel and dictatorial with little regard for the sanctity of human life (and the food’s disgusting) while the Japanese see the Europeans as filthy, noisy, crass, uncultured barbarians (and the food’s disgusting). Bear with this; admittedly, Clavell takes the length of your average science fiction novel to get around to his real point, which is that both cultures have something to learn from one another…and they do, once they realize that there are good qualities amidst the alien and therefore offputting ones. By the end of the novel, Blackthorne has begun to see himself as part of the Japanese culture, acknowledging its strengths and advantages; although he still plans on going home to his wife in England, by the end of the book, the readers may realize that this would never work, even if he did free himself physically from Japan.

Clavell doesn’t provide closure for the novel in the sense of winding up all the web of subplots into one unified tied-off knotted thread, though it could be argued that he does continue to a certain degree in the rest of his Asian Saga series. Keep in mind that, while Clavell did research the period for Shogun, the novel isn’t historically or culturally accurate. As historical fiction goes, there are a number of errors which will bother historians who insist on accuracy, but for most readers (I think!) these errors won’t be jarring enough to interfere with the story. I’m not sure whether it was ever intended to be taken as more than a swashbuckling sweeping epic romance set in feudal Japan. I’m not knowledgeable enough to pick out all the discrepancies, and so can’t really evaluate the book on that basis. The book is loosely based on real events and people of the early seventeenth century in Japan, such as William Adams (equivalent to Blackthorne) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the original for “Toranaga”.

Clavell doesn’t integrate the political and sociological aspects into the narrative as well as he does his other books in his Asian Saga novels. There is a certain “as you know, Bob” note to this book–Clavell stops to explain backstory and political history to his readers on several occasions rather than attempting to weave it into the plot. Overall, though, this isn’t quite as bad as other historical novels I’ve read.

Thirty-five years after the novel’s publication, literary trends and perceptions of trans-Pacific cultures have changed a great deal. However, Clavell’s still as readable as Michener, and may appeal to a wider audience as he touches on a wide range of literary sub-genres. Read it as a rattling good example of fiction, and if one is in an analytical mood, pick out how Clavell combines the manlier aspects of dudelit with what is considered today to be chicklit: relationships centering on romance. On the whole, I’d recommend this to people who prefer plot and characterization to finicky historical accuracy; Shogun is still a rattling good story.

External Reviews:

1gotta love the ninja attacks; I think this rates in the top five coolest portrayals of ninjas
2trusted vassal; Toranaga has granted Blackthorne this status


2 thoughts on “Shogun by James Clavell

  1. I read it when I was (comparatively) young, and considerably more ignorant than I am now. It would be interesting to re-read it and see what I think of it some twenty years later. Ditto with some of the other Asian Saga novels.

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