Classic Books You Should Read: James Clavell’s “Shōgun”

I cannot say that I had high expectations when I purchased James Clavell’s historical fiction novel “Shōgun” (1975). I had heard family members talk over and over again about how “Shōgun” captured the minds of people in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s with its book and miniseries. From there, I assumed it would be dull in today’s context, but it wasn’t. When I started “Shōgun” it immediately fired my imagination, grabbed my heart, and put my life on autopilot for the next two weeks as I raced to the finish.

The novel took me back to the year 1600 with the story of the English pilot John Blackthorne, whose ship and crew were stranded in Japan after being caught in a severe storm. From there, he picked me up and pulled me into Blackthrone’s heart-wrenching story of love, loss, and the struggle to survive in a foreign land where there are adversaries at every turn. He is confronted with a culture he does not understand, a country he does not know and a series of events beyond his control. Ultimately, he always gets back up to persevere and survive.

I was persuaded to read “Shōgun” because I had heard it was like “Game of Thrones”, but instead of Westeros it is set in feudal Japan and sadly without dragons. Instead of wallowing in disappointment at the lack of dragons, I ended up finding a wonderful piece of literature dealing with the issues we still struggle with today. “Shōgun” tackles a variety of social issues such as xenophobia, prejudices and conceptions of racial superiority, while discussing important political topics such as the pitfalls of colonialism, the cloak-and-stabbing nature of political maneuvering and the dangers of isolationism.

The cover of the first edition of “Shōgun”. / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the novel, these issues are either addressed subtly or forced upon the reader, designed to make you think about the topics, make you disgust that these things are happening, and ask you if we’ve really changed as a society. Many of the issues encountered in “Shōgun,” such as the dangers of colonialism and rampant xenophobia, are still issues we grapple with today – the United States has an increasingly toxic attitude towards the United States. nations of Global South which are marked by the actions of the colonizers. “Shōgun” forces you to bring up these issues and encourages you to listen to his lessons to become more aware of the world – even if it makes you uncomfortable.

There are a myriad of other issues addressed in “Shōgun,” such as the subjugation of women, marital abuse, and infidelity issues which are presented thoughtfully. Nevertheless, the novel teaches us to try to build bridges with others, to find commonalities, to appreciate our differences and to love our shared humanity.

Blackthorne’s character is most convincing for his persistence, bravery, and sense of morality; yet I found myself in conflict trying to reconcile my admiration for his character with his backward logic about what he saw as a “barbaric” culture. At the beginning of the novel, Blackthorne is often dismayed at some aspect of unknown Japanese culture, which he believes is simply inferior to European culture. However, Blackthorne’s character arc is a treat to experience. His English identity undergoes profound changes adopting aspects of Japanese culture not only to survive, but also to thrive in his life.

However, there are plenty of other character perspectives out there with a depth equal to that of Blackthorne. Clavell’s story includes missionaries on a “just” mission to spread Christianity as well as noisy Portuguese traders in search of gold and fame, whose whimsical nature inspires a sense of adventure. There are also Japanese lords eager to use the “European barbarians” to achieve their goals of conquest. While Blackthorne’s perspective was my favorite, these other perspectives are exciting extensions to flesh out the world and events of the novel.

Plus, their perspectives and ideas left me stunned by the profession of unpretentious characters and the eerie motivations of powerful characters. These characterizations convinced me to love these characters – some of whom I hated at the start of the novel. Overall, this cast of characters is as close to your heart as Blackthorne, and the sense of loss is visceral when you realize that anyone can be killed at any time (like in the best seasons of “Game of Thrones”). ).

Aside from the gripping characters and the gripping story, one of my favorite parts of “Shōgun” is the length it took to demonstrate the perspectives of Japanese and European nations. I was concerned that there was an overt bias in favor of European colonial powers, which would make it a journey of “just” conquest and cultural superiority. Instead, Clavell brilliantly demonstrates the moral, cultural, and political conditions of Europeans and Japanese, taking as much a look at each other’s complex lifestyles as it is a jaw-dropping political thriller. In doing so, Clavell proves the timelessness of “Shōgun,” which comes from its message designed to make you think, feel, and communicate with those who are different from us – something today’s society often lacks.

James Clavell’s “Shōgun” is a masterpiece that takes an intimate look at Japanese culture, in what can only be described as a love letter to the nation. Clavell brilliantly brings the worlds of the East and West on a collision course that plunges us into a vibrant world filled with intricate characters, intricate storytelling, and a beautiful, awe-inspiring attention to setting. It’s a story that forces you to stay on your toes, appreciate the characters that stick to you, and question the way we approach life. “Shōgun” is a wonderful epic set in feudal Japan and it will erase all concerns from your life until you end it.

Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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