“Only by living at the edge of death can you understand the indescribable joy of life.”
― James Clavell, Shōgun
This last Thursday would’ve been James Clavell’s ninety-eighth birthday. I knew that anniversary was on the horizon, but Real Life got right in my face and delayed this post. Clavell, like Alex Raymond, deserves a DMR post. Read this blog entry to its finale to see exactly why.
I first became aware of Clavell as a child. Shōgun was a publishing phenomenon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The 1980 miniseries adaptation from NBC put the story in the living rooms of millions. My living room was one of them.
However, before we examine Shōgun in depth, perhaps we should look at Clavell and what he was doing before he wrote his blockbuster novel.
James Clavell was born in Australia. His father was an officer in the British Royal Navy. Apparently, the Clavells had a long tradition of serving, to one degree or another, the British Empire. Tradition or not, Clavell didn’t have to join the Royal Artillery and, thereby, be sent to Malaya to be captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1940. All by the age of ninenteen.
Clavell spent most of the war in Changi Prison. He fictionalized those experiences in his first novel, King Rat. Clavell survived a Japanese military prison in which over twenty percent percent of POWs never made it out alive. Keep that in mind as you read further.
After the war, James married an Australian actress and the couple soon emigrated to Hollywood. In 1958. Clavell wrote his screenplay for the scifi classic, The Fly. In 1963, he co-wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape. A former British POW writing about an epic esape from a POW camp. Clavell was a master of “keepin’ it real”—whether in screenplays or novels—by relating the plots back to his own experiences.
However, there was another film from that period for which Clavell wrote a screenplay that deserves a mention. I’m referring to 1959’s Watusi. As has been noted many times, Watusi was a remake of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. As it turns out, Clavell was a lifelong HRH fan. His father had regaled him “with the stories of H. Rider Haggard: She, The Return of She, Allan Quartermain and all the rest.”
Clavell wrote Tai-Pan in 1966 while also doing screenplays and directing films. Then, in 1975, Shōgun was published. Let’s get the basic facts out of the way. In the USA, Shōgun has sold over seven million copies. Worldwide, it’s sold over fifteen million copies. As Clavell said in the ‘80s:
"[Shōgun] 'is B.C. and A.D. It made me. I became a brand name, like Heinz Baked Beans'."
Clavell had struck when the katana was white-hot in the forge. The West was intensely curious about Japan. On the surface, at least, it appeared that the nation which—a few decades before—had been atomic-bombed into submission was rising to prominence—if not outright dominance.
Japanophilia was no new phenomenon. That was a century old in the West by the time Shōgun was published. What made the mid-’70s era special was that the average Westerner was suddenly curious about Japan—and that the zeitgeist favored questioning the past actions of the West. Clavell, who had stared Japanese prison guards and executioners in the face for over four years, was just the man to provide them a view into the earliest days of interaction betwixt Japan and the West.
Regarding my young self at the time, I knew Japan had harbored an active sword-culture far longer than the West. Concrete evidence of that was an officer’s World War Two katana that my grandfather’s cousin had brought back from the Pacific theater.* It was the only authentic sword I had ever seen and handled personally up to that time.**
I knew this Clavell anniversary was coming up a few weeks ago. Honestly, over the last thirty-plus years, I had only seen the Shōgun miniseries and the movie adaptation of Tai-Pan. I’d liked what I’d seen, however. When I asked my old buddy from The Cimmerian blog, Jim Cornelius, regarding his favorite Clavell novel, he had this to say, “Shōgun blew my mind [as a teenager].” Jim is a man I trust and he is not given to hyperbole. So, I checked out Shōgun for myself.
As has been noted countless times before, Clavell is a natural storyteller, even if the story/incident he’s writing of isn’t totally worth reading about. In Shōgun, Clavell keeps you turning pages even though the main incident in question is a Japanese tea ceremony. For those who are not history/culture nerds such as myself, the mileage may vary.
The same cautions apply to those who hate “doorstopper” books. Shōgun is big. Over a thousand pages. That brings us—in this rambling essay—to the topic of such huge books. I’m fine with lengthy tomes when it’s justified. Robbing the temple of some obscure dark god should take less than one hundred pages. Describing the violent transition of Japan from one government to another justifies a much bigger canvas.
So, what’s my verdict? Clavell knew the Japanese. Maybe at their worst, but it can’t be argued that there was any “filter” between him and the guards at Changi. There are numerous beheadings and boilings-alive in this novel. And ninjas! That said, Clavell was surprisingly complimentary about various aspects of Japanese culture in Shōgun. John Blackthorne, the Englishman captured by the Japanese, eventually comes to prefer Japanese culture to his own. Any Westerner wanting a crash course in Japanese culture should read Shōgun, just as any Westerner wanting to know about Elizabethan culture should read Shakespeare.
The bottom line is that history nerds like myself—and Jim Cornelius—find this type of thing inherently readable when told in the right way. Clavell knew how to tell a story, but not everyone is a history nerd. Shōgun sold millions of copies long after the miniseries and initial hype were one with the dust of forgotten ages. The reason for that is because Clavell knew how to tell a tale of passion and exoticism, blood and adventure.
It is undeniable that Shōgun was a major factor in the rise of various Japanophilic subcultures and pop culture themes in the US, starting the ‘80s and continuing on to this day. Chris Claremont didn’t come up with Wolverine’s Japanese girlfriend and backstory out of nowhere. The same goes for Frank Miller’s Ronin. The effects of Shōgun have been long-lasting and, seemingly, permanent.
However, there was another takeaway I got from Shōgun. I think it can best be summed up in this somewhat tailored and cherry-picked synopsis:
A tall, dark-haired swordsman of English descent finds himself in a totally alien world, captured and enslaved by a cruel political leader. He falls in love with a noblewoman from this alien world, but his alien origin presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. His unique abilities—a legacy of his alien origin—help him to become a confidant and advisor to the most powerful political leader in his new-found alien environment. The protagonist goes on to help him achieve victory over their mutual foes. The protagonist then decides to stay in his adopted world and forsake his homeland because the new culture suits him better.
My question: Does that synopsis describe A Princess of Mars (1912) or Shōgun (1975)? Or both?
That is the topic of another post.
*That katana was stolen during my freshman year of college. Thanks, thieving scum!
** My own family has a tradition of a Civil War saber—swung in anger at Wilson’s Creek—being passed down. Unfortunately, the last known location was on the West Coast in the early 1900s.