Shogun: Volume 1
By, James Clavell
“It’s a saying they have, that a man has a false heart in his mouth for the world to see, another in his breast to show to his special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, the secret one, which is never known to anyone except to himself alone, hidden only God knows where.” (185)
The first volume of James Clavell’s Shogun sat on my shelf for exactly 10 years. It made its way into my collection by chance when I usurped a bookshelf abandoned on a street corner that held a lonely but beautifully bound copy of Shogun Volume I. I brought the abandoned book into my home and nurtured it by placing it amongst my library. However, I had been hesitant to give it full attention and I regret having waited so long to read it because this novel was an enjoyable surprise.
The storytelling moves at a quick pace and is full of action such as piracy, shipwrecks, capture, torture, deception, espionage, assassination, and impending war all wrapped up in a tight plot that centers around an English ship pilot from the Dutch armada who shipwrecked on the coast of Feudal Japan in 1600. Clavell definitely has an aptitude for character development and the use of dialogue to move his story along as the novel is filled with social-historical commentary about Spanish/Portuguese global conquest, the rising British naval power and the distinct nobility of Japan’s society uniquely set apart from the rest of Asia of the period. Through the character dialogue there is also plenty of social criticism about Western dominance of the “new” world, Catholic/Protestant schism, proselytizing of native cultures, and the Japanese Samurai values of honor, death, and disregard for peasant life.
My criticism is that Clavell is obviously writing for an American audience not accustomed to Japanese culture and history, as displayed by his often tangential and long explanations of common items and concepts such as sake, tatami mats, and karma. Clavell’s style is also peppered with an inconsistent flow from third person narration to internal first person character monologue in order to fully explicate all actions and motivations of his characters. This style lends itself towards explaining everything and anything that the reader may be wondering and this is a fault because ultimately there are no surprises or unexpected twists. However, this style is forgivable because the novel is an enjoyable read with complex and likable characters. As expected from a novel titled Shogun, there is a lot of attribute toward the Samurai code of honor and the Japanese feudal system. Clavell does shine in this regard and he paints a compelling tale that immerses the reader in a code of living that is mostly extinct but has much influence on modern Japanese culture.