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Book review-Shogun by James Clavell

Updated on June 8, 2011

James Clavell is one of my favorite authors. His capacity to detect and expose the main characteristics as well as peculiarities of different cultures from different ages is astonishing. “Shogun” is one of the best book he ever wrote .

The action begun early 1600 when a Dutch ship called Erasmus shipwrecked on the coast of Japan. Although Japan was already visited by Portuguese and Spanish ships it was the first ship under the command of England who found the Japanese islands. At the time England was at war with Spain and Portugal.

After the shipwreck the pilot of the ship, John Blackthorne and a few survivors from the crew found themselves captured by a local samurai who place them in a pit until they behave properly. This is the first clash between the two civilizations and from now on the discrepancies between their life style will appear constantly in the book, creating around the action a beautiful description of Japanese way of life and culture enhanced by comparison with the European way of life.

Although the local warlord, Yabu, understand the military value of the ship and try to keep it to increase his local influence, he is betrayed by a samurai who spied for Toranaga, a more powerful warlord, and is forced to turn the pilot, ship and all the merchandise and weapons.

Toranaga, who was involved in a political battle with undeclared purpose to become Shogun, ruler of entire Japan, try to take advantage of this and interrogate the pilot with help from a Portuguese priest. He is surprised to find out that Europe is divided and there is a battle between the two empires, Spanish and English ones. Because Portuguese, Spanish ally, already had a great influence by imposing their religion amongst several warlords around the country, Toranaga understood the great value of the pilot and his ship as a tool for rally those warlords to his cause by threatening the Portuguese with the possibility to back up the pilot in his quest of gain naval supremacy in the Japanese seas.

As the action advance we make acquaintance with more and more beautifully designed characters like Mariko, official translator of Toranaga, a samurai woman converted to Christianity torn apart between her new faith and her duty to her lord, her husband Buntaro, one of the greatest samurai alive totally devoted to his lord Toranaga or Rodrigues, a Portuguese pilot who took only his job seriously and became friend with Blackthorne in spite of their allegiance to their countries.

After a time of crisis when Blackthorne, called by the Japanese Anjin(pilot) because they couldn’t pronounce his real name, save Toranaga by his enemy, he gain trust of the lord and begin his ascension in his service, being granted in the end with the rank of samurai. In the same time, Anjin, with help from Mariko begun to accumulate knowledge about Japanese language and tradition and became attracted by this way of life oppose with his own ways and culture. A symbolic moment is the description of his visit of his old crew where at the end finds him self disgusted by their behavior. As the time passes Anjin find himself more and more attracted by Mariko.

In the same time book present also the political schemes, the intense fight between Toranaga and his enemy Ishido, the plots and alliances that both make in order to achieve their goals. Ishido’s greatest tactical advantage is that he keeps, although not declared, many warlord’s family in Osaka castle as hostages. In order to overcome this, Toranaga send Mariko accompanied by Blackthorne to obtain the hostage release. On the road to Ishido’s castle Mariko and Blackthorne become lovers. In Osaka Mariko manage to accomplish her mission and force Ishido to release the hostage but die in the process. In the meantime Blackthorne finds that his ship burned, ruining his chances to sail away home. Having his tactical advantage denied, Ishido is forced to come out and fight. The final battle took place at Sekigahara and ended with total victory of Toranaga’s army.

The book is a documented treasure of Japanese habits, way of life, social behavior and the Bushido code. Some specific parts as the description of a tea ceremony or the scene where Blackthorne try to commit suicide are exquisite. All in all it is a great book that everyone should read .


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