Shogun: A Novel of Japan
The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make men better be…
But perhaps Ben Jonson’s judgment doesn’t apply to books. At all events, here are two that bear witness to their authors’ sheer pertinacity, dedication, and stamina—qualities which, the books themselves seem otherwise to imply, are not commonly to be found in Occidentals.
James Clavell’s barn-storming (or castle-storming) epic is set in the year 1600 and concerns an English seaman, John Blackthorne, cast up on an alien shore, who throws in his lot (and his technical know-how) with the Japanese warlord Toranaga—and also with the beautiful Mariko-san, in whose breast traditional native values co-exist with adopted Catholicism. The novel testifies to an immense amount of historical and cultural research, and in one aspect could be said to be a tourist guide to medieval Japan: plainly it is based on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory over his rivals and the inauguration of Tokugawa rule, which lasted for the next two and a half centuries—and more specifically on the true story of Will Adams, the tempest-tossed Elizabethan sailor who became Ieyasu’s tutor in mathematics and adviser on ship-building and foreign relations.
Mr. Clavell certainly makes the most (if not rather too much) of the exciting time he has chosen. In an interview printed in the Literary Guild magazine he is reported as having said that the period in question was one “that really worked. It was the King Arthur era of Japan—the big time.” An interesting statement. By Mr. Clavell’s own account it was a considerably bigger time than that of little King Arthur and his handful of worried knights, and in some ways closer to the big time of the czars of the Chicago underworld. We note, also, the curious echo of Lincoln Steffens: “I have seen the future, and it works,” though fortunately (or so in my cowardly way I feel) what Mr. Clavell has seen is the past.
Alongside this statement of the author’s we may place a reviewer’s accurate summary of Shogun. “The novel begins on a note of maelstrom-and-tempest…and teems for about 900 pages”—in which case I have been fobbed off with the abridged edition—“of relentless lopped heads, severed torsos, assassins, intrigue, war, tragic love, over-refined sex, excrement, torture, high honor, ritual suicide, hot baths and breathless haikus….” To this catalogue of attractions may be added earthquakes, grasping Jesuits, a touch of Zen mysticism (drinking tea from an empty cup), drunkenness, judo and karate and garotting, infanticide, eta (the outcasts who do the “unclean” jobs like curing leather), courtesans and scrubbers, and crucifixion (“one of the few imports from the West that the authorities accepted with undiluted enthusiasm,” remarks Ivan Morris in connection with the persecution of Japanese Christians in the early years of Tokugawa government)….
A crowded canvas, as they say. But does the book really have to be as crowded, as long, as it is? “You must remember our civilization, our culture, is thousands of years old,” the didactic Mariko-san…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.