by James Clavell

Cover image

Publisher: Dell
Copyright: 1975
Printing: August 1980
ISBN: 0-440-17800-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 1211

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Shōgun is famous enough that you've probably heard of it. It's a huge historical drama set in Japan around 1600, mixing the adventures of an English pilot shipwrecked in a Japan whose trade is dominated by Portugal with Japanese politics around the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It's been adopted for television as a nine-hour miniseries and has been reprinted repeatedly.

The story is based on an English pilot named William Adams, believed to be the first Briton in Japan when he wrecked there in 1600. Renamed John Blackthorne for the novel, his original impression of Japan is overwhelmingly negative and strange. He and his men are taken captive and held in a pit, treated badly by the Japanese (who consider them filthy barbarians) and shocked by the apparent cruelty and disregard for life in the Japanese culture. The first hundred pages is difficult and not particularly entertaining reading, showing the Japanese as vicious torturers and featuring vivid accounts of filth, disease, scurvy, and violent clashes between the shipwrecked crew and the Japanese. The Portuguese and Spanish control the Asian sea trade at the time and their influence in Japan is dominated by Jesuit Portuguese priests, which adds Catholic vs. Protestant conflict and some tedious yelling about who is damned.

Clavell is setting up a contrast of cultures and a starting point from which Blackthorne's understanding will evolve, but that isn't obvious at first and the start seems quite racist and requires some patience. While he moves frequently between characters and viewpoints, the moral arc of the book and the portrayal to the reader follows Blackthorne's understanding; at the start, the Japanese look unbelievably violent and uncivilized because that's how Blackthorne sees them. By the end of the book, the portrayal at the start will be cast in an entirely new light. But one does have to endure an opening the length of many books that I, at least, found unappealing before the true meat of the story begins.

Once Blackthorne is finally in a more stable position among Toranaga's allies, the story starts to build its main plots: the twisty and complex struggle for political control of Japan among many internal factions (manipulated at times by the Portuguese Jesuits), and a strong romantic sub-plot between Blackthorne and a native Japanese woman. Japanese politics are the plot driver for the book, causing most of the conflict and pushing the characters through the story, but the emotional center of the novel is Blackthorne's slow understanding of Japanese culture, growing appreciation for their world view, and attempt to hold to his core beliefs while adapting and fitting in. Although melodramatic in places, it's an excellent portrayal of a culture clash and slow growth of understanding. Clavell effectively uses points of agreement between Japanese culture and modern culture to tie the reader's experience to Blackthorne's, de-emphasizing those agreements initially when Blackthorne is repulsed and slowly bringing them to center stage as he acclimates. (The handling of personal cleanliness is an excellent example.) Clavell does an excellent job of leading the reader towards seeing the Japanese way as better than the European way at the same rate that Blackthorne does.

In other areas, Clavell is not as skilled. Some of the length of Shōgun comes from the complexity of the plot, but some of it feels like bloat. Clavell has a good enough grasp of pacing that the novel is always moving, but particularly in the early going I occasionally wished he'd move faster. Much of the length is detailed analyses of the emotions of each character, often the same emotions restated in slightly different terms at multiple points in the book. This makes for easy reading, as the reader is never required to figure out character motivations for themselves, but it adds to the melodrama and can feel overwrought. It's hard to write a novel of over 1,200 pages that warrants every page, and Shōgun doesn't, quite.

Clavell also uses (and abuses) the wandering omniscient narrator. I used to not notice this, but after having spent the past few years reading authors with a far tighter grasp of narrative focus and viewpoint, Clavell's lack of discipline bugged me throughout Shōgun. The reader gets into the head of just about everyone and the viewpoint character shifts frequently enough to be confusing. The story will be deep in the head of one character, hearing their emotions, dreams, and perceptions, and then it will be just as deply focused on another character a few paragraphs later without transition or scene break. I occasionally had to re-read paragraphs to find the transition point between one viewpoint and another.

But, writing problems aside, this is an enjoyable epic. Clavell isn't the best stylist or most disciplined writer, but I think he succeeds at his effort to portray Japanese culture through the lens of a Western explorer and to show how completely one's opinion of a culture can change after exposure and thought. The historical basis of the plot is apparently reasonably accurate and dramatic enough to hold one's attention. Despite the long-winded writing, the last five hundred pages flew by for me and I found myself returning to just read a little more.

Save this one for when you have the patience for a long book and tolerance for dramatic love affairs and larger-than-life characters, but it's worth reading, more accurate than you might think, and surprisingly compelling. Just expect to hold your nose through the first few hundred pages until the story really starts.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-07-14

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