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Shogun
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In 1975, Clavell published Shogun, his magnum opus that took the literary critics by storm. New York Times book reviewer Webster Schott wrote, “Clavell has a gift, he breathes narrative; his hero is not a person but a place and a time, medieval Japan on the threshold of becoming a sea power” (Schott 1975). The novel seized the popular imagination, and Blackthorne, Toranaga, Lady Mariko, arigato, and konnichi-wa soon became household words among his readers. Book sales exceeded seven million copies. Eric Majors, a personal friend of Clavell’s associated with Hodder and Stoughton publishers, explained the huge popularity of the book by saying: “It took the Western mind into a completely different world. It was the first time that one began to understand the Japanese.” Indeed, Shogun is considered to be one of the most effective depictions of cross-cultural encounters ever written. t8x22xd
Shogun came to life on televison in 1980 in the form of a five part, 12 hour miniseries shot on location in Japan. It was viewed by an estimated audience of 130 million viewers. Clavell acted as executive producer for a one million dollar fee; he also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Bercovice. In 1981, a highly compressed version of Shogun was released as a two and one half hour movie. Of note is the fact that Clavell insisted that, for the sake of authenticity, the Japanese speak their own language with no subtitles provided. Thus, the viewers, as Blackthorn did in real life, had to deduce the meaning of verbal exchanges from the context of individuals reactions and facial expressions, or from re-phrasing by one of the English speaking characters. Also in 1981, Clavell wrote an introduction for The Making of James Clavell's Shogun. An illustrated, large format book that relates the trials and tribulations involved Shogun, based in part upon a true story, is a detailed portrait of feudal Japan in the process of becoming a nation-state dominated by one ruler. It depicts the very different attitudes of seventeenth-century Japanese and Europeans toward sex, food, drink, and bathing, and the very different perspectives that allow each to learn from the other.





The novel is Clavell’s finest effort, a forceful, gripping portrait of gradual acculturation; we see the European sea captain Blackthorne (based upon the real-life William Adams) slowly coming to see the Japanese first as humans, then as equals to Europeans, and finally as superiors. The psychological precision of Blackthorne’s education and gradual acculturation is one of Clavell’s most praiseworthy literary achievements, especially since at the end of the novel we come to see Blackthorne, “our” European “stand-in” throughout, for what he really is: a pawn of a clever warlord, an Englishman limited and bound by fading memories of his former culture in making the miniseries a success. .
Shogun’s sophistication about the clash of cultures has much to teach modern readers and would make Clavell an important writer quite apart from his other efforts. However, his striking image patterns, the tensions between his personal history as a war-time prisoner of the Japanese and his urge for fairness, the detailed descriptions that vividly bring to life an historical moment and yet make a modern statement, his masterful control of perception, and, most of all, his in-depth psycho-analytical study of characters distanced by both time and culture yet endowed with life and spirit make this his finest work—one that deserves closer critical attention than it has received.






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