Book Review: James Clavell’s “Shogun”

by britishmisk

Shogun tells the story of Captain John Blackthorne, and Elizabethan English sailor who’s tasked with travelling the seas and plundering as much Portugese and Spanish goods as possible. The story starts with him and what’s left of his crew struggling in the Pacific ocean, and eventually reaching Japan. The story continues to chart the rise of Blackthorne through Japanese feudal society and finding favour with Toranaga, one of the main daimyos or liege lords of Japan at the time.

Reading the story at my age and in this era I found myself comparing it with Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, apprarently this novel and the subsequent tv show based on it were the stepping stones to introducing Japanese culture on a wider scale to the west. (Though I was always under the impression Akira Kurasawa did that back in the 60s). Therefore I think in this time and age, ‘the going native’ storyline has been done and dusted and now it takes quite something to make it feel original for us (Avatar anyone?). The story is also very political whereas I was expecting a more action based novel given its content. The writer knew Japanese culture and it comes through in the story, even with the little nuances you find with the character monologues it adds depth to your understanding of the classical Japanese mind.

At well over 1000 pages I felt quite underwhelmed by the time I reached the end. On the last today of reading someone on the tube recommended Tai-Pan, one of the other novels in Clavell’s ‘Asia Saga’, but to be honest I don’t think I could take much more. In its original time back in the 70s I can see how it would have appealed to readers back then, but I guess forty years later we’ve become more conditioned and accustomed to stories of blood thirsty samurais and their ways, and this story just didn’t cut it for me.