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Book; Shogun / James Clavell
In Osaka castle in the autumn of 1598, the great Japanese leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi lay on his deathbed.
With his final words he designated five lords as regents to rule in the stead of his sole heir, the five year
old Hideyori, a land that until his domination had been wracked by centuries of feudal war. However, as
rivalries grew and personal glories were sought, two factions arose: on one side, loyal to the young ruler
in waiting, was Ishida Mitsunari; on the other, the head of the regents and potential usurper, Tokugawa
Ieyasu. The animosity between this pair would lead to the greatest of all samurai battles, the battle of
Sekigahara, and would shape Japan into what it has become.
It is in this setting that James Clavell places Shogun, the first tale (in narrative order) of his Asian Saga.
Now, for many a writer, this scenario would be a sufficient background for a rip-roaring, swashbuckling
tale of violence and political machinations. But oh, no, not for Clavell. No, Clavell, for some reason, felt
the need to take this fascinating story, almost word for word, and fictionalise it, barely changing the
names to protect the intriguing.
And so, in Shogun, Tokugawa becomes Toranaga; Ishida becomes Ishido. The death of the pre-Toyotomi
leader Oda is retold as the death of Goroda, and the betrayal of Oda by Akechi Mitsuhide is instead at the
hands of Akechi Jinsai. In some places facts are twisted for narrative effect (at one point Toranaga escapes
Ishido’s clutches by hiding in a woman’s litter, when in reality it was Ishida who escaped in this fashion with Tokugawa’s assistance), but on the whole, anyone who has a basic knowledge of this famous period in
Japanese history is left scratching their head as to why Clavell didn’t simply recite the story as it stands.
That is, of course, until we consider Clavell’s character of John Blackthorne, the English pilot of a Dutch
trading ship that washes on the shore of Japan, first imprisoned, but soon to become the main protagonist,
the character the reader follows most closely and is to associate and empathise with.
Blackthorne is based on real life sailor William Adams who,
like Blackthorne, arrived in Japan as the country prepared
for war and was to become the first, perhaps only, Western
samurai. However, there is a vital difference between the
historical Englishman and the imagined. While in later years
Adams was to become an important advisor to the Shogun
and highly influential in affairs of Japanese state, the only
baring he had in the build up to the Sekigahara battle was
that the cannon from his ship were reportedly used by Tokugawa.
Yet in Blackthorne we have a character who has significant impact
on the build up to war. We follow his romance (with a woman whom
Adams would have been unlikely to have met), his heroic deeds and
his dramatic rise to hatamoto, a high-ranking samurai. And it is here
that we can realise the need for fictionalisation of this great tale.
It can be argued that Clavell used the eyes of an outsider as the best
way to reveal the subtleties, the oddities and the traditions of Japanese bushido culture.
Another explanation for Blackthorne’s invention (and thus the twisting of historical characters) is that
Clavell has cynically used Blackthorne as the pin on which to hang his audience’s experiences. He has
decided that a Western reader will not follow the story if not through the eyes of which they can relate
(a surmise which is has some validation when we consider the success of the novel and its subsequent
televisual and cinematic adaptations).
Whether for cynical purposes or otherwise, it shows a tragic distrust of his audience’s ability to have
understanding and empathy for a tale outside of their own personal experience, a distrust that taints
Which is why it is such a shame that, rather than using his undoubted knowledge and research into
the subject to reveal the truth, Clavell has decided to dramatise in sometimes bland, lumpen, lowest
common denominator prose a story of such undoubted potential for drama and elegance. It is a tale
that deserves significantly better than this increasingly fictionalised turn of events that unfortunately,
for its many readers, will be mistakenly believed to be a factual retelling of one of the most significant
of turning points in Japanese history.
（Japan World Writer / Mark Guthrie）
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