Shogun by James Clavell is open for nitpicking, but succeeds at being a great book

Joshua Waddles
Staff Writer

Novels and movies are sometimes a little lacking for those who have an interest in samurai stories. The latest was a white-washed remake of Seven Samurai which was a complete disgrace to the original film because of the over the top CGI and focus on visuals.

At first, reading the synopsis of Shogun by James Clavell, I thought that the book would end up being nothing more than some westerner’s daydream of washing up on Japan and immediately awing the populous with his magical foreign ways. The book could sort of be accused of that, at least in some areas, but it ended up being a very epic story with a great cast of characters that have very well thought out personalities, motivations and cultural influences. The personal conflicts (and there are a lot) manage to keep you so interested that you can actually keep track of all of them throughout the 1,152-page novel.

The inclusion of an English protagonist is actually justified. John Blackthorn is based on William Adams, the first western samurai. I had no idea that was a real thing.

There are a few scenes that made me chuckle. Here and there in the book, some of the villagers have ridiculous conversations about Blackthorn, but these scenes are very short and easily brushed off. In fact, now that I think about it, those scenes are probably comic relief and not meant to be taken seriously.

The story started with a 1600s ship-at-sail scene which hooked me in immediately because I love stories about voyages during this period. After they land in Japan, it’s an out of the frying pan and into the fire type situation with Blackthorn trying to adapt and survive in a multi-faceted conflict where most sides want to kill him.

The two early antagonists, Kasigi Omi and his uncle, Kasigi Yobu, will manage to earn most readers’ hate (as well as Blackthorn’s) very early because of their cruelty. This sort of character is a very effective tool for inciting an emotional response in the reader. In most other places where I’ve seen characters like that, I considered it sort of cheap. For most media, that sort of character is easy to write and has bland in motivations. Shogun takes these characters in a different direction, though, and manages to flesh out these characters. Clavell presents their motivations and helps readers understand what makes characters tick. By the end of the book, I even had mixed feelings about what I thought of them.

The stories and the conflicts do a good job of keeping the readers sucked in. I constantly asked, “What happens next?” The answer is usually satisfying, though I do have to mention one small complaint. There are two conflict setups, foreshadows of rebellion and an assassination attempt. The scenes end with a set up for something dramatic, and then the book never goes back to it again. With the rebellion, it’s probably because it was based on an actual historic event and the climax wouldn’t have fit within the time-span of the novel. That doesn’t explain to me why nothing came of the assassination attempt, or why the setup wasn’t taken out during editing. But I’m more than satisfied with resolutions to the arcs for Blackthorn, Yobu and the Lady Mariko.

If there is an issue with the book that will make the readers rage, it’s the ending. Throughout the entire book, the looming war between Yoshi Toranaga and Ishida Mitsunari sets the tone for every sub-conflict. The book promises a massive war that will completely reshape Japan and throw the characters into total chaos when the war breaks out.

This war is summarized on the last two pages like the cliff notes on a history book.

As I progressed through the book, I had a growing feeling that the resolution would be something like that. As the number of unread pages shrunk every day, it was pretty clear that the war wouldn’t end up having the same in depth feel, taking the time to capture the souls of the characters the way the rest of the book had.

But I’m ok with that ending for three reasons: the book isn’t Toranaga and Ishido. It’s about Blackthorne and all of the people trying to kill him. Two, it would have been impossible to convey that war in a satisfying way. That would have been another thousand page book. And three: because Toranaga and Ishido are based on Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Matsunari. Tokugawa (and his predecessor, Oda Nobunaga) are the two biggest names in samurai history and Clavell was probably betting that his target audience, samurai geeks, already know how the war ended.

Although there are some issues on the flow of the story, Shogun succeeds in presenting the most important things in a novel: an immersive world and compelling characters.