For those of you living under a rock, Shogun is an epic historical fiction novel about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in the year 1600 and goes on to become a samurai and adviser to one of the most powerful lords in feudal Japan. I first read Shogun about 5 years ago and loved it. I don’t re-read books very often, so it has to be a very special book for me to want to read something again. (Warning, this review is slightly spoilery. If you haven’t read Shogun, go do that. It’s awesome, and it has pirates fighting ninjas. But I repeat myself. If you like giant epics that you can fully immerse yourself in, with lots of political intrigue and a large cast of characters, then you will like Shogun.)
Last time, I read the book the way most people do: silently, to myself. But this time, I convinced my wife to come along for the ride. We read aloud before bed, and have tackled books of similar epic proportions (for example, the full Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire series), so we knew what we were getting into. Years ago after I read the book, we had watched the miniseries, but it did not do the source material justice, and I wanted to experience the book again.
I’m happy to say that Shogun remains one of my favorite books, and serves as the Platonic ideal in my mind of what historical fiction should be. It is so huge and intricate and detailed that it really sweeps you away to feudal Japan. The plot is a familiar one, shared by Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Avatar, Fern Gully, and many others. But for all of the problematic aspects to this plot template, I still love it because, when done well, it introduces the reader to a culture that they are not familiar with, and helps them to understand and sympathize with that culture.
Of the examples of this familiar plot, I think Shogun succeeds the best. The book is long enough and detailed enough that the reader comes to understand the Japanese culture along with Blackthorne. At the beginning of the book, the Japanese people that he encounters are strange and brutal and utterly different from what Blackthorne views as “normal”. But by the end, it is almost painful to ride along in Blackthorne’s point of view as he reunites with his former crew and realizes how rude, filthy, undisciplined, and pitiful they are compared to the Japanese characters we’ve just spent 1000 pages with.
What impresses me about Shogun is that the disturbing parts of the Japanese bushido culture are not swept under the rug. They are just put into context. So the first merciless killing of a peasant by a samurai early on is horrifying to both the reader and Blackthorne, but placed into context, with the strict codes of conduct that are a part of feudal Japanese culture, such killings begin to make a sort of sense, even as they remain disturbing to western readers. This cognitive dissonance is one of the more interesting parts about reading Shogun.
Of course, Shogun is fiction, and it would be foolish to think that it is a purely accurate depiction of feudal Japan. I, sadly, don’t know enough to say which parts of Shogun are accurate and which aren’t, but as I understand it, much of it actually holds up pretty well. In writing this post, I came across the interesting site Learning from Shogun, which has a nice (free) book in PDF form written by scholars in Asian studies and history as a companion to the novel, just before the 1980 miniseries came out. In the introduction to the book they write:
“In sheer quantity, Shogun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.”
In fact, it is sometimes odd while reading Shogun when the author takes time to define Japanese terms which are now so commonplace that the definition is superfluous. For example, he has to spell out what samurai, katanas, and ninja are. Shogun is not solely responsible for this increased knowledge about Japan, but there’s no denying it played a big role.
I think one aspect that saves Shogun from some of the pitfalls that plague other works of fiction that follow a similar plot is that the white, western main character is very much just a pawn in the great political game that is being played. Although he does gain in power and prestige over the course of the novel, Blackthorne is still at the mercy of the daimyos he is working for, particularly Toranaga. Even having read the book twice now, some of the political intrigue was still over my head. Let’s just say that if you want to be Shogun, you need to have a deep understanding of your rivals’ family trees and how to use them to your advantage. Winning battles is the easy part.
Re-reading the book, and particularly in reading it out loud, I was struck by one aspect of the writing that I did not even register the first time I read it. Clavell is constantly jumping around with the point of view. Not many books (at least not many that I read) do this successfully, but in Shogun it feels very natural. It’s a clever trick to allow to reader to get to know many of the dozens of characters much better than if the point of view had been stuck inside Blackthorne’s head.
My main complaint after re-reading it, is that the book is really extremely long and could probably lose 200 pages and still be great. The length was fine when reading it to myself, because when doing that I could go much faster and so I never felt like the book was slow. But reading out loud, and particularly because our out-loud reading was disrupted for a few weeks, it started to feel like a drag toward the end until we got to the final climax. I strongly recommend reading this book silently to yourself rather than listening to it as an audiobook or reading it out loud, just because that way you it won’t seem to drag as much.
Interesting side note: As we were nearing the end of the book, we decided to get a bottle of sake to sip as we read the final chapters. I had only had sake once years ago so I wanted to try it again. Turns out I really like it a lot! Erin doesn’t, but that just means more for me!
Bottom line: Shogun is awesome, if a bit long. The plot is a familiar one, but it tells a great story and you will learn a lot about Japan in the 1600s even if the book is not 100% factual. Also, there are scenes where pirates and ninjas fight. If you have not read this book, you should probably go do something about that.