James Clavell’s ‘Shogun’ and What Your Time Is Worth

James Clavell’s Shogun is a book that gives me a perfect chance to joke about weeaboos for about a thousand words. It’s also a reminder to consider what your time is worth.

Of course it’s a little more complex than that. Shogun is a work of historical fiction which chronicles the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the position of Shogun, and the subsequent beginning of the Sokaku (the period of social isolation that lasted until the Meiji era).

For some reason I cannot fathom, Tokugawa’s name has been changed to ‘Toranaga’ and the name of every other character is also modified. William Adams, the first English navigator to reach Japan, is now ‘John Blackthorne’, a name which surpasses all my expectations in its annoying, snowflake-ish, and yet simultaneously painfully generic quality.

I mention the name changes only because they serve as a prelude to a minor concern I had with the work, this being the issue of historical accuracy. When issues of complete accuracy arise, I am not the most demanding of complete truth, especially in the Eastern historical equivalent of a Frederick Forsyth novel. Rather, it’s a problem with myself – having done only minor study into the period, I couldn’t tell how much of the specific information was fiction or fact. Nor could I match all of the character to their respective counterparts in history without researching it. I was aware of the enormous impact of the Jesuits, and all that implied, but I am still not clear on the status of bath-taking among the English middle class (which was still technically being formed at the time, and was not officially recognised anyway). The point is, the specifics don’t really matter here.

This is a minor quibble, but ties into my own experience with the novel well. It was not the explicit historicity of the book I had trouble with; rather, the largest issue I had with Shogun was that as I read further, I found I understood and cared less and less about what was happening from scene to scene. Usually, when reading similar works, readers tend to place the plot together themselves to some extent, and understand the identities of the various characters, their motivations, movements, and origins. Many people, according to the veritable Harvard University that is Goodreads.com, had some issues with remembering character’s names; but being a purveyor of Eastern media for several years now has made me immune to the differences between, say, Haruhi and Haruki. No, the problem I had with the characters was that I didn’t care about any of them except for Adams and Tokugawa.

Dialogue discussing strategy and discussing various aspects of Japanese culture (mostly as it is explained to the filthy gaijin Adams) take up most of the book. If I had to guess, I’d say it contains about 70% dialogue to 30% descriptive language. And what description there is is frankly lackluster; perhaps I’m simply spoiled by Peake and Moore, but it seems lacking and boring, and doesn’t achieve the purpose of allowing me to understand the scene.

The book appears to lack a climax, choosing to end on a contemplative note as Tokugawa Ieyasu considers the future of Japan, and gives the reader a short outline of his plot to become the Shogun. Since Tokugawa denies his desire to ascend to the position three or four times scattered throughout the book, I’m given the impression that this was supposed to be a minor revelation; but it’s ruined by two things. One, the book is named Shogun. Two, it’s based on Tokugawa Ieyasu, who as any history student worth his salt knows, was the Shogun responsible for cutting Japan off from the rest of the planet for about two hundred years.

Thematically, we’re dealing with cultural clashing – western and eastern attitudes to life and death, sex and war, trade, pride, loyalty, gender, and even hygiene. Clavell fills the book with detail, which explains why my edition is over 1200 pages long. I’ve read complaints that he didn’t represent the collectivist nature of the culture well enough, and portrays the samurais in a ridiculous manner; while I am unable to assess that personally, it does seem bizarre that every samurai on the block is willing to throw his life away for accidentally tripping over a stone on the road. Everything in the book eventually began to fly through my comprehension, like some kind of showground, where pastiches of medieval Japan were whisked from scene to scene, from patterned wooden screen to patterned wooden screen until I was unsure of what was happening and didn’t care.

As I read further and further, I became increasingly tired of the book; this process began at around the 900 page mark. It became a matter of skimming paragraphs to come to minor plot points, read a line of dialogue by one character that essentially explained the three pages surrounding it, and moving on. I rarely tend to remember the specifics in books. Major scenes stick with me. I remember, for example, the artist showing Anna Karenina and Vronsky around his studio. I remember the bit in Stainless Steel Rat where Jim DiGriz tries to escape the police and Inskipp is waiting in the empty office for him to arrive. For Shogun, I will probably retain some recollection of the ninja scene, where an ambush by a squad of stereotypically clothed assassins is thwarted by an impatient ninja and Adam’s use of a flintlock pistol.  It served as a somewhat early ‘climax’ to the book, after which the action aspect disappeared entirely.

I considered dropping the book multiple times. Tokugawa’s plotline became increasingly complex and boring as leagues of nothing laid itself out in the hundreds of pages that lay ahead; Adams’ story consisted of him having an affair with a married Japanese woman. This started out interesting, but gradually started to bore me also as it became clear that no one was willing to expose their affair for political reasons.

It’s important to remember, in times like this, what your time is worth; the action scenes are mostly boring, and annoyingly sparse, and the romantic ones are chuckle-worthy at best and completely unmoving at worst. The political intrigue gradually lost my interest, because it wasn’t supported by events.  Subtle moments, like when Tokugawa’s receiving visitors and one of them insults him, and Adams tightens his grip on the hidden knife in his wrist, are all well and good, but not enough on their own to sustain interest. We need contrast to show interest; humans are like that. The Haruhi Suzumiya episode Someday in the Rain, an episode in which little, if anything, happens, is just a pastiche made to sow character development; and it isn’t interesting unless it’s supported by the more action-heavy episodes like Day of Sagittarius or Remote Island Sydrome. I’ve noted this all too often for it to be unimportant; contrast is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, Adams’ and Tokugawa’s plotlines don’t provide enough contrast, and so Shogun becomes a slog in every sense of the word.

Shogun is not exploiting the written format to communicate its themes, and so there is really little to set this book apart. Exactly as I said last week, the best works of art are the ones that only work within their respective formats, because they use their format to communicate important aspects like tone, characterisation, themes, or plot. Shogun didn’t need to be a book, and in fact its being a book makes it worse, because it takes more time to read the book than it does to see the film, which communicates everything better. Remember what your time is worth.

Shogun is one of those rare books where I will advocate for watching the film over reading it.

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