September 14, 2017

"Shogun" revisited (1/4)

The Shogun miniseries debuted on NBC on September 15, 1980. It ran for five consecutive nights and a total of 12 hours, garnering the highest weekly Nielsen ratings in the history of the NBC network.

Two months later Ronald Reagan would be elected in a landslide. A year later, IBM launched the IBM PC. Japan had the second largest economy on the planet. Japanese automakers were leaving Detroit in the dust and Sony was the Apple of its day. Serious people were seriously predicting "Japan as #1."

(And I was studying Japanese at BYU.)

By the end of the decade, Sony Corporation owned Columbia Pictures and Mitsubishi bought Rockefeller Center. Only seven years after that, Mitsubishi lost a billion dollars on the deal and sold off its controlling interest. The real estate bubble burst and Japanese fell into a decade-long recession.

(And I was teaching English in Japan.)

But at the time, Japan was the China of today, with a critical difference being that Japan was and remains a stalwart ally of the United States.

So credit NBC with great timing. But also credit the network for broadcasting a pretty good product. Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell and starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune, Shogun gave its American audiences a westernized version of a classic NHK Taiga historical drama.

Meaning "big river," the Taiga is a big-budget (by Japanese standards) hour-long drama that runs from January to December. Each year it tackles the life of a notable historical figure. This year, the 16th century female clan leader Ii Naotora; next year, the 19th century general Saigo Takamori.

Unlike Shogun, the Taiga drama strives for sufficient accuracy to use everybody's real names, and does its best to faithfully recreate well-documented events. Though with forty or so hours to fill, a healthy amount of fiction will inevitably backfill the scarcer stuff that historians are confident happened.

Taking place after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598 and before the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Shogun is mostly fictional filler. But the miniseries does nail down the time frame and the principal characters, and does a reasonable amount of justice to the historical context.

Richard Chamberlain's John Blackthorne is based on a real person. Will Adams was the English captain of the Dutch-flagged expedition. Confined to a single year, at the end of which Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Ishida Mitsunari at Sekigahara, Shogun can't help but downplay what a fascinating figure he was.

It also downplays the cruelly ironic turn of history that would take place in his lifetime. Every indignity suffered by the Protestant sailors at the beginning of Shogun would be visited upon the Jesuits a hundred fold. One explanation for this reversal of fortunes is made clear in Shogun, and another is alluded to.

Made clear is the geopolitical insult of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which "divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Crown of Castile." The reason alluded to was Portuguese involvement in the mid-16th century trade of Chinese and Japanese slaves.

Restrictions on Catholicism in Japan began in earnest under Ieyasu's predecessor, Hideyoshi. Shogun mostly ignores this to keep the Jesuits around as the bad guys. It became a draconian ban under Ieyasu's son, culminating in the systematic annihilation of the Christian community after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638.

Martin Scorsese's Silence (based on the novel by Shusaku Endo) explores this at length (if you can stomach two hours of man's inhumanity to man vividly illustrated).

Along with the suppression of Christianity, the Edo period of Tokugawa rule was characterized by a strictly-enforced sakoku (isolationist) policy. But Ieyasu did employ Adams to negotiate limited trading rights with the East India Company and the Dutch, though they were confined to a small port off the coast of Nagasaki.

Until the mid-19th century, information about the outside world trickling in from Europe became known in Japan as rangaku (蘭学) or "Dutch learning." Though it was an Englishman that made it happen.

Shogun is hardly without its anachronisms, categorical stereotypes, and soapy subplots. But as a Hollywood version of Japanese history, it does an all-around better job than The Last Samurai or 47 Ronin. Not merely a noted moment in television time, almost forty years later, Shogun stands up well to a second viewing.

Related posts

Shogun revisited (2)
Dances with Samurai
Japan made in Hollywood

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