Back From My Journey to Japan: A Review of Shogun

Shogun was not at all what I expected and in this case it was a pleasant surprise.  I went into it expecting a swashbuckling adventure full of western attempts to colonize the East, lots of sword and gun fighting as the conquering westerners came to civilize and bring order to a heathen and pagan land.  The book turned out to be nothing of the sort. 

What I found was a more sensitive and introspective exploration of cultural values, differing priorities, mutual bigotry, and changes in personal paradigms.  The story has its share of sword fights and gunplay as the themes play out against a background of civil unrest slowly building to an inevitable war but those scenes are not the driving force of the story.

When English ship’s pilot, Blackthorn, crashes ashore on the coast of Japan during a storm with what is left of the ship’s crew the expectations from both sides of the cultural fence set up an instant tension that springboards the story.  The Japanese, already infiltrated by the Jesuits and Western silk traders, neither of which show much respect for the ancient culture of The Land of the Gods, are suspicious of these new arrivals, expecting they have come to cause more unrest than has already taken place at the hands of their predecessors.    Blackthorn and his crew, having never seen anything remotely like the Japanese, assume they have landed in the realm of a most dangerous enemy.  They are fearful, untrusting and ready to fight their way out of every situation.

Blackthorn, eventually called Anjin-san by the natives, is slowly seduced by the culture in which he finds himself captive.  He is a long way from understanding their views on honor and duty, life and death, and love but there is an underlying order to the Japanese way of life that begins to break down his defenses.  Eventually, he is made Samurai and Hatamoto at the hands of Toranaga, a powerful regional leader whose life he has saved.  He is tutored by the wife of a Japanese general in the Japanese way of life.  A very poignant moment comes about halfway through the book when Blackthorn/Anjin-san reflects on his life in England compared to his current condition in Japan.  He compares his home there (a dirt floored and littered hovel) to his home here (an exquisitely clean and orderly cottage).  He compares his wife in England whom he still loves, with the women he is now surrounded by.  He compares the debris and disorder of life in London compared to the clean and orderly life in Osaka and other Japanese cities.  He begins to wonder how he can ever go back to living in hovel, bathing once a year, and living in a way of life that dictates that hardship is merely penance for sinful existence.  As this transformation takes place in him he has a chance to reunite with his shipmates.  A year has gone by.  The shipmates see him cleaned, dressed in a kimono, bearing the swords of a Samurai, and he sees his shipmates, drunken, dirty, unruly and savagely bigoted.  Neither knows what to make of the other.  Anjin-san is glad to leave their presence and they are relieved to see him go.

This theme of personal change, a theme that is also carried out to a lesser degree in such characters as Lady Mariko (his tutor and eventual friend and lover), Toranaga (jingoistic regional leader), Yabu (a general who starts out as Blackthorn’s enemy and slowy, reluctantly becomes Anjin-san’s friend and ally) is the theme that carried me forward through the story.  Clavell deftly tracks the changes in paradigms and the growth that takes place as a result.  The theme is expertly contrasted by those characters who resist change, who cling to their prejudices, whose pride overrides their ability to accept new ideas and ideals.

Despite the seemingly infinite cast of characters Clavell never allows the reader to lose track of anyone, always dropping in a careful reminder if you haven’t seen a particular person for several hundred pages.  The pace of the plot rarely flags and when it does it picks up again like the brief ebb of the ocean before the next wave carries you further along.

This was definitely time well spent and Shogun is a book that will have an honored place on my shelf.  It is this type of epic journey that enriches the experience of a pleasure reader.

© 2014 M. Romeo LaFlamme

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