October 05, 2017

"Shogun" revisited (4)


What struck me the most forcefully when I started rewatching Shogun for the first time in almost 40 years is how politically incorrect it is starting out. And I don't mean the silly Orientalism that You Only Live Twice revels in (though there is plenty of that).


No sooner has Chamberlain's Blackthorne run his ship aground in the "Japans" but his ego collides with every human obstacle in literal spitting (and pissing) distance. In the process, determined to repay every slight and assert his authority, he makes life much worse for himself and his men.

However he may realize that he is a stranger in a strange land, it takes him too long to grasp how the balance of power has shifted, that he has no power and no authority except that which is granted to him.

In any early scene, the hugely enjoyable John Rhys-Davies (his part isn't nearly big enough) commiserates with him in a hilariously vulgar rant. I doubt that any network would broadcast such a soliloquy of racial slurs over the air today.

This is not vulgarity for its own sake. In Blackthorne, Clavell creates a character arc comparable to Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino and even Andrew Garfield's Rodrigues in Silence (though at opposite ends of the civility and introspection spectrums).

All three men find themselves at war with an image of themselves that cannot survive a changing environment, with the moral stakes raised all the higher when the fate of third parties become dependent on their actions.

In both Silence and Shogun, the well-being of their colleagues, and then the lives of villagers unknown to them, are used to extort from them external changes in behavior (in Japanese, tatemae) that eventually become incorporated into their characters (honne).

The English translation of Shusaku Endo's novel was published in 1969, which leads me to believe Clavell was familiar with it when writing Shogun.

There was literally no going back for Blackthorne. He had to adapt or be crushed underfoot, because the new world was not going to adapt to suit his whims. By the end of the story, his sense of who he is as an Englishman will have been taken apart and remade in Japanese terms.

The striking nature of his transformation is illustrated when he is briefly reunited with his old crew. They haven't changed. They can't even imaging changing. The differences are stark. They have literally grown worlds apart. He can't leave their presence and get back to "Japan" fast enough.

Like Rodrigues in Silence, this is a transformation resisted, negotiated, and then embraced. In Blackthorne's case, however, he does so largely on his own terms and not at the point of a sword.

A big disappointment of Shogun is that so much happened after the miniseries ends. As a retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Adams fought at Sekigahara, he negotiated trading rights with the Dutch and the East India Company, and captained several voyages to the Phillipines.

As the fictional Father Alvito predicts, Will Adams never returned to England. He died in 1620, leaving behind families in both countries. Adams is buried outside Nagasaki, where his grave marker still exists. Richard Cocks of the East India Company recorded in his diary,

I cannot but be sorrowfull for the loss of such a man as Capt William Adams, he having been in such favour with two [shoguns] of Japan as never any Christian in these part of the world.

Two and a half centuries later, another man from the British Isles, the Scotsman Thomas Glover, moved to Japan. In 1859, he established himself in Nagasaki and became a key arms dealer supplying guns and warships to the Satsuma and Choshu domains in their successful revolt against the shogunate.

Glover went on to contribute significantly to the industrialization of Japan during the Meiji period. Unlike Adams, he couldn't be made the hatamoto of a shogun who no longer existed. He was instead awarded the Order of the Rising Sun. Like Adams, he was also buried in Nagasaki.

And thus did two subjects of the Queen of England help shape the future of Japan.

Related posts

Shogun revisited
Techno-orientalism
Dances with Samurai
Japan made in Hollywood
Dogs, demons, and construction companies

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