Monday, February 12, 2024

James Clavell's Shōgun has been rebooted and it arrives on February 27th.

Happy after Super Bowl day. I hope your team won, and it left you fulfilled. In my town, a Komodo dragon at the Living Planet Aquarium picked San Francisco to be the winning team. My friend Jake responded to me (when I told him that): "I don't listen to what that lizard has to say." 

Over the past week, I've been reading the book Shōgun by James Clavell. This is because I'm excited to watch the ten episode mini-series that will be airing on FX and Hulu starting February 27th, 2024. On that date we get two episodes (I think), although it may be just one for me since I'll start watching it on the FX cable channel. New episodes will drop at the rate of once a week.

I'm only 300 pages into this 1300 page novel. However, I do have some insights. The first was that the book is really taking a deep dive into the characters and who they are as people. I really appreciate this. Even though I'm decades removed from a watch of the original six-episode miniseries that aired on broadcast television starring Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne, the English pilot of the ship named The Erasmus, there are certain things that were in that miniseries that burned into my memory. One of them was the first beheading. The scene takes place in the village of Anjiro, and Omi (a samurai) beheads one of the local peasants for not bowing/offering him the respect he deserves. That's a scene that doesn't get a lot of explanation in the show, and I don't think the show ever explains why that peasant would have done that knowing full well that it would cost him the life and possibly place hardship on his family.

The reason for the beheading is in the book. The samurai named Omi is very anti-Christian, and there's a Jesuit priest in the village that sometimes interprets (he's not very good) between those who speak Portuguese and those who speak Japanese. The samurai tolerates the Jesuit priest's presence but he insults him all of the time. The peasant was a Christian convert, and he was deeply troubled by Omi insulting a messenger of his god to the point that he couldn't tolerate it anymore. So, he decided that if Omi was going to be this way, then Omi deserved no respect either. And he knew what would likely happen to him (and it did). So yeah...he was willing to die for his faith.

Another thing that is explained in the book is why Japan (the tale of Shōgun takes place in 1600) allows Christians to convert people within its borders at all. This isn't connected well in that decades old miniseries. It turns out that Japan needs/desires Chinese silks a lot, but the country of China hates Japan for various reasons that go back thousands of years. Silk is so desired because of the hot oppressive summer heat, which makes wearing other kinds of fabrics basically intolerable. When the Portuguese showed up, they got permission from the Chinese to basically run their operations out of Macau. Well, the Portuguese showed up on Japan's shores loaded with these Chinese silks they greatly desired. Japan traded silver for them and a trade was established that could only exist through the Portuguese (again because the two nations hated each other). Japan even gave the port of Nagasaki to the Portuguese so that they would be able to import as much of the Chinese silks as they possibly could. The ship that brought these goods into Japan was known as "The Black Ship," and it was worth just an astronomical sum of money. Anyway, having this explained in the book (for me) was fantastic, because suddenly I had this framework for why Jesuits and Christians had wormed their way into the power structures of feudal Japan, and how they were basically given wide berths by the leadership of the country. It turns out, they needed them there.

I also got an explanation of why the "ronin" were such a problem in Japan. If you don't know, a ronin is essentially a "samurai" who no longer has a lord, usually because the lord was killed or died and had no heirs. The caste structure of medieval Japan was very strict. Samurai were not allowed to own any land. Instead, they received a fief that was a designated area over which they managed. They could live in a house on that land, and they were entitled to 100% of anything that was produced on that land. The peasants could own land in that fief, but all that they produced on it could be taken by the local samurai. A relationship often developed in which the samurai took a reasonable portion and left the peasant with the rest to feed his family and to continue to produce. It's kind of like how people shear sheep for their wool and then let the sheep go back to feeding in the pasture. So, when a samurai lost his lord and became ronin, they went from being able to live on the produce of this land they managed to absolutely nothing. They didn't even have a house, and because of their caste, they could not switch to something else like "become a peasant" or "become a fisherman." There also was no social safety net in Japan, so a ronin literally was a homeless bum overnight with nothing but his sword. Many of these people had no other choice to live but to become bandits and take what they needed from others by stealing. And this put them at odds with actual samurai who hunted them down to kill them like pests. For a peasant, it wasn't that bad. When the lord died, you still owned the land your house was on. Just who you paid taxes to and what samurai you gave produce to would at some point change. I found that to be a fascinating detail on why ronin were such a scourge in the countryside. Nothing I've ever read explained it quite like the book Shōgun does.

Lord Yabu is also explained in great detail in the book. In the old miniseries, he was a pretty bad guy who boiled one of Blackthorne's crew alive, treated them all pretty terribly, and eventually became a traitor to Lord Toranaga who is trying to become Shōgun of the entire country. But the book explains what he is: a sadist. It turns out that torturing people is how he essentially gets an erection (not kidding). Blackthorne and his crew have the misfortune of landing in this guy's village, and Lord Yabu is incredibly excited to get the opportunity to torture someone without consequences so that he can get the erection he's apparently been missing out on for quite some time. James Clavell uses some beautiful language to describe Lord Yabu when he eventually gets down to some business with a couple of whores from the village (one is a boy and another is a girl--the bisexuality also omitted form the miniseries). Clavell says that "Lord Yabu reached the clouds and the rain." I was like...oh...okay...that's good. I like that, and I'm stealing that. I wonder how much of this they are going to keep in this new miniseries, because I do think it is important to understand Yabu's motivations.

And then there's a moment in the book when Blackthorne reaches Osaka, because he's been summoned by Lord Toranaga, who is essentially one of five super daimyo's (lords) who wield true power in Japan. He has hundreds of thousands of soldiers at his disposal, and he's a political prisoner in Osaka castle which is controlled by Lord Ishido (his equal and opposite on the regent council). These five regents were appointed by a Taiko who died (Taiko being the title of a person of modest birth who rose to the power of a Shogun but could never hold the title of Shōgun because they were a peasant). Their sole responsibility is to safeguard the young boy who will grow up to be the new "Taiko." Until that day happens, they are "supposed" to confer among each other and make decisions regarding the rulership of Japan. But it's really a nest of vipers who all hate each other, and who plot to assassinate the young heir and then engage in a civil war until one of them comes out on top and can march on Kyoto (where the emperor lives) to demand the title of "Shōgun." It is unto this situation that Blackthorne arrives, and he describes Osaka as being a huge and beautiful city, twice the size of London at the time. I'm going to be looking forward to that (as it is completely missing from the old miniseries), but it is in the new one as it is clearly seen in one of the trailers for the new show. As soon as I watched the trailer I was like, "Oh, that's Osaka. It has to be."

Anyway, this post is getting a bit long, so I'll cut it off here. Below, I'm posting one of the trailers for the FX miniseries. I can't tell you how excited I am to begin watching this show. This Wednesday, I'm going to talk about Our Flag Means Death, season two, which I recently finished watching. And then on Friday, I'm going to talk about the miniseries All the Light We Cannot See, which is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, the book has a lot of information. I don't know if I want to see this, but you're making a good case for it. Sorry that Our Flag Means Death got cancelled, but at least it ended well for season 2.