James Clavell’s Shogunby Kenneth G. Yu, H3A
A gruff westerner is forced into Japan in a time of political turmoil, and soon finds himself stranded in a community of Samurai, slowly learning their ways and becoming one of them. Sounds familiar?
It’s true, the initial concept of this book sounds a lot like the story of the movie The Last Samurai , and it’s possible that this novel might have inspired the film. The novel, though, was written many years before the release of ‘The Last Samurai,” and actually has a far deeper storyline. Instead of a simple “Rogue Samurai vs. Corrupt Government” deal, you get a background of intricate political tension and military maneuvering, all for the control of Japan and the right to become its supreme ruler. The gruff Westerner here is John Blackthorne, the pilot of an English ship, forced to land in Japan when he loses his way at sea. However, Blackthorne’s bravery and cunning soon elevate him beyond the status of a stranded captive. He soon becomes something between a friend and a pawn of Toranaga, a Samurai warlord fighting a many-fronted battle for his own fate and that of Japan ’s.
This concept for the book allows for a lot of grand scenes, from sweeping battles to elaborate political plots, and even Ninja attacks. This all combines to form one undoubtedly thrilling and distinctly Japanese ride.
Plot and Characters
The plot is very long and complex, with a large number of story threads and characters that weave in and out of each other. Interestingly, these threads flow together quite seamlessly, and it isn’t very difficult to keep up with the story, as long as one is paying attention. The characters are also extremely well-crafted, each with a concrete history and personality. It could be said that one of James Clavell’s strongest points lies in his creation and portrayal of various characters and their thoughts and actions throughout the story. All characters have their own personal nuances, subtle weaknesses and strengths that serve to make them very believable in the eyes of the reader. This is important because Shogun is a very character-driven novel, with most of the major events in the story occurring because of decisions made by characters and not just because of good or bad fortune.
James Clavell’s style is an unusual mix of clarity and confusion that can prove challenging for his readers at times. He uses modern English along with Japanese terms to add a sense of realism to his narrative, especially when simple English words just won’t do. Though most of these terms are explained in English when they are first used in the novel, such explanations do not reappear. This may cause some confusion, as Clavell uses Japanese in abundance, and often in complete, untranslated sentences. For one whose memory doesn’t serve enough to learn or memorize these Japanese terms when they are first seen, this style may sometimes lead to being lost in all the Japanese words, or being compelled to check earlier parts of the book for translation hints.
As a Whole
Shogun is, in general, one exciting monster of a book. Sure, it’s long and dragging at spots, and it has its share of difficulties with the writer’s technique, but beyond these issues is an engrossing, grand read, and a must for any fan of Japan or the Samurai culture.
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