Shogun

Looking back on it, 1980 was a very influential year for me. It was the year Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired, which helped me consider a career in astronomy. It was the year I started high school. It was the year my father passed away. While it seems something of a blip compared to those other things, it was also the year the mini-series Shōgun ran on television. The series was based on James Clavell’s novel of the same name. It told the story of a Dutch ship piloted by an Englishman, John Blackthorne, that lands on Japan’s shores circa 1600. Blackthorne soon gets swept up in a power struggle between a daimyo named Toranaga and other daimyos close to the Emperor regent. I recently had the chance to read the novel that inspired the series. The miniseries was my first introduction to Japanese history and the samurai. It also made me consider the difficulties of sailing off in a frail ship on a mission of discovery around the world.

As a kid who grew up watching Star Trek, I was captivated that on the sailing ship Erasmus, the crew deferred to the ship’s pilot as much or more than they did to the captain. My dad explained to me that it was because the pilot was the guy who was going to get these guys home safely. When I read the novel, I was reminded that Blackthorne was not only a pilot but a trained shipbuilder. I first conceived of my novel The Solar Sea just three years after I saw the miniseries. Even in its earliest days, I wanted a story that didn’t look like a Star Trek retread. One of the ways I did that was to introduce a character called Pilot, who designed the solar sail and then took it out into the solar system. He would essentially share authority with the ship’s captain. My Pilot ended up being a very different character from the virile Blackthorne in Shōgun and I used the power sharing idea to introduce some mystery and conflict into the story. You can learn more about The Solar Sea at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

The miniseries also left me with a fascination for Japanese history and culture, which I would come back and explore in my third Clockwork Legion novel The Brazen Shark.  Much of my Clockwork Legion series is set in the southwestern United States in the 1800s. Of course, here in the United States, we developed a whole mythology about that time and place. We have an image of the cowboy and the Wild West that’s more the product of authors like Louis L’Amour and directors like John Ford than from history. When researching The Brazen Shark, I learned that a similar situation developed in Japan. In the years from the Meiji Restoration through World War II, an almost mythic, idealized version of the samurai was created in the popular imagination. One of the interesting characteristics of the novel, is that I felt like I was reading that Japanese mythic, idealized vision of the samurai filtered through an American writer’s vision. Because of that, I wouldn’t use Shōgun as a historical reference, but more as a window into a cultural picture that grew up later. You can learn more about The Brazen Shark by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html

It was not only fascinating to read the novel as someone interested in history, but as a writer. Clavell does not stick with a limited point of view at all. Instead he hops from the head of one character to another at will, to the point that I almost had a hard time following when we’d left one character’s point of view and entered another’s. The novel was written in 1975 and it was a huge seller, which reminds me that things like “the correct way” to do point of view are sometimes a more a matter of fashion than anything else. It also reminds me that a book doesn’t have to be “perfect” by an arbitrary, contemporary standard to be good. It was different from what I’m used to and I’d argue not as good as the limited point of view books I see now, but it still works.

I’ve seen several reviews that take the novel Shōgun to task for its ending. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the ending actually worked for me. Throughout, Toranaga is essentially portrayed as a consummate chess player. To him, it’s all about getting all the pieces in the right place. If he succeeds, he will win the day. If he fails, or misread his opponent, he will fail. Karma, neh?

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7 comments on “Shogun

  1. utena42 says:

    Thanks for this post and your thoughts on Shogun. I was quite young when that show aired, amd I don’t think my Dad missed a single episode. In the 90s, I saw a copy of the book and bought it, though I never took the time to read it. I’m glad to know that it is interesting and to have your insights about it. It’s ironic to me that you “almost had a hard time following when we’d left one character’s point of view and entered another’s.” I had similar difficulty watching the show; it seemed like each episode skipped all over the place and I really couldn’t keep track of who was supposed to be in which scene. I imagine that’s to be expected from a four-year-old. 😉 I remember seeing an ad somewhere about a new series called Shogun and wondering whether it was based on the same book. Turns out it probably is. Awesome: I may be able to watch the old series online! Someday, my friend, I will have graduated from college & will have time to read for leisure again (another irony: I take time to watch TV shows & movies every day and that takes time, too). Your books are near the top of my “want to read this” list. Happy Weekend!

    • After reading the book, I want to go back and watch the miniseries again. I’ve read that they didn’t use subtitles for the Japanese and only used English when someone was actually speaking English. That would change the tone of the story quite a bit since the novel takes us inside the heads of many of the Japanese speakers. Glad to hear my books are near the top of your “to read” list. Thank you so much. That makes my day!

  2. sftrails says:

    I watched Shogun when it came out. It was a really big deal. It got me interested in ancient Japanese culture and I read more about it.

    • I watched it then as well, but don’t remember many details. I need to see it again. It would be interesting to take another look from the perspective of the research I’ve done as well as having read the novel.

  3. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    Good day, sir, and thanks for the look at Shogun. Wife and I watched the series first-run and enjoyed it tremendously. I liked the book even better. We rewatched it recently, and found that it suffers from the same thing all period pieces, past or future, do. One of the Star Trek people articulated it best, saying that for the characters, Kirk specifically, to be relatable to a mid-twentieth century audience, Kirk has to be a mid-twentieth century man. All that said, it was a helluva fine story. If you enjoyed that pieces-on-the-poitical-chessboard aspect, may I recommend the same author’s Tai Pan? Incredible convoluted work that asks a lot of its reader, but it is so worth it!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Jack, and thanks for recommending Tai-Pan. I’ve heard especially good things about that novel. I’ll definitely have to take a look. As I said in the comments above, I definitely need to rewatch the mini-series. I think it would be fun to see it after all this time. However, even looking at the photos, I see Richard Chamberlain looks very much like a man out of the late 70s/early 80s. It stands out even more so because I’ve recently watched some of his scenes from Centennial that stand the test of time much better.

  4. […] and sci-fi author David Lee Summers takes to his web journal to look at Shogun and its influence on television and his writing.  […]

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