I first read this book several years ago, on vacation, but was interrupted by a pretty severe case of food poisoning and didn’t really pay that much attention to the last third or so. So I recently decided to give it another shot without the horrible disease, and also in the interim having learned more about the time period and the writing itself. You know what? It’s pretty good for a forty-year-old doorstopper.
That said, it’s also slightly strange if you know anything about the context. It’s sort of like if a Chinese author wanted to write about the American Revolution, but didn’t want to necessarily commit himself to 100% complete historical accuracy if it got in the way of telling an entertaining story as he saw fit. So you end up with the totally fictional character of “Joe Rashington” who is a Virginia planter leading the Continental Army while his associates “Jake Addams” and “Hamilton Frankleen” are over in Europe trying to get allies. And they do pretty much all the same stuff as Washington, Adams and Franklin did at the same time period, but stopping to have long conversations with a Chinese man who happens to be in America at the time and who turns out to be critical to the Revolution, and who also has an affair with someone who is clearly, I don’t know, Betsy Ross. You can see how American audiences might be a little annoyed by it, and it explains why Toshiro Mifune caught flak in his homeland for agreeing to be in the television miniseries.
Anyway, this novel deals with the late Sengoku period, which in real life was concluded by the famous Tokugawa Ieyasu starting a dynasty that would last over 250 years. In this novel there’s some guy named Yoshi Toranaga who accomplishes the same feat. (It’s said that he’s the head of the Yoshi clan, which would imply that Yoshi is his last name, but everyone calls him Lord Toranaga, also implying that Toranaga is his last name, and is just one example of Clavell probably knowing better but just throwing it in there anyway. There are a lot of these issues with Clavell’s handling of the language, but I just have to take that on other people’s word since I don’t really know enough to have my own opinion on it.)
But maybe even that is getting ahead of things a little bit, since the book really focuses on one John Blackthorne, who is the pilot of a Dutch flagged ship that runs aground in Japan. The ship is the remnant of a small fleet that was looking to circumnavigate the globe and harass the Spanish while they were at it. As it turns out there was an actual sailor by the name of William Adams who actually did many of the things that Blackthorne does in this novel, including becoming a samurai, although I doubt he was quite as much of an arrogant hothead as Blackthorne is, and hearing about him was actually what inspired Clavell to write this novel in the first place.
From a storytelling hook angle, the shipwrecked sailor thing is golden. Since the audience for the book is primarily English-speakers, here’s a British guy who has something of a backstory we can appreciate without having to go into too much detail about it. There aren’t any fellow English speakers in thousands of miles, of course, but Blackthorne is a polyglot – most of the conversations that he has in this book are probably in Portuguese with a couple of forays into Latin, but he’s reasonably capable of speaking Japanese himself by the end. And he doesn’t know anything whatsoever about the customs, the language, or the political mess he finds himself in, which means that other characters spend inordinate amounts of time explaining this stuff to him, and by extension, us.
Blackthorne only landed in Japan because he didn’t have any other options, and as it turns out the inhabitants aren’t exactly friendly. He finds, to his surprise, that Catholic missionaries are already there. This is bad, since he’s a Protestant and this is after all during a time of religious strife; however, it’s also perversely good in some ways since this means there are other Europeans that he can talk to, and they’ve also taught some of the locals to speak Portuguese. He also finds that the local samurai are used to being obeyed quickly and without question; one of his crew members gets boiled alive at the whim of a particularly unpleasant local nobleman. Then he quickly ends up in prison under suspended sentence of death as a captive of Toranaga, who’s having some personal difficulties of his own at the moment.
Toranaga’s difficulties stem from the fact that the land is suffering something of a cold war succession crisis. A man by the name of Nakamura (a pastiche of the real-life Toyotomi Hideyoshi) had managed to unite all of Japan under his personal rule, but he’d had a son late in life and died not too long afterwards, leaving the country under a council of five regents until such time as his son could inherit. The regents, including Toranaga, were all powerful and ambitious men, and it was Nakamura’s hope that their mutual dislike would keep them balanced. Nonetheless, just as Blackthorne arrives, the other four regents have joined forces against Toranaga and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to keep his position or, for that matter, his life. This, too, is more or less the situation as it occurred in real life.
In many ways, Toranaga is portrayed as a total dick (one of the first things he does is order the death of a man along with his infant son for a relatively minor infraction). But as the book progresses it focuses less on Blackthorne and more on Toranaga. And while he really doesn’t think that much about breaking his word and doesn’t really regard people as having too much value apart from how they can help him achieve his goals, he also does show genuine affection for some people and does at least enjoy life. His duplicitous nature and harshness are actually pretty typical of the regents and the other major lords, so at least he has style going for him.
There is really quite a lot of the white-guy-culture-shock, as you might expect, some of which is handled well and some of which is a little “meh”. Clavell does occasionally veer a little bit too far into the whole “mysterious and inscrutable Orient” thing, but at the same time it’s pretty clear that a lot of the cultural differences are just different expectations around the same fundamental experiences. Blackthorne is stunned by how composed some guys are on his ship in the middle of a storm, and most of the Europeans discuss how the Japanese don’t seem capable of fear. But we find out that these characters are secretly terrified, and hoping that they don’t shame themselves by revealing it. So there’s a sense of shared humanity there, which is nice. It’s also pretty clear that the best aspects of Japanese culture as Blackthorne experiences it are limited to the aristocracy and the samurai class, and that he’s basically enjoying himself on the lifeblood of peasants. His increasing embrace of the culture is not portrayed as entirely a good thing, although his flexibility to be able to is (unlike his surviving Dutch crew, who are a bunch of superstitious ghastly wretches that could be extras in a Monty Python short).
There are a fair number of action scenes in this book (one of which, a boat chase, is just perfect, and another, a ninja attack, which goes on way too long) but in many respects this is a non-action work. Since there’s technically no state of war, the major parties can’t officially attack each other. They do anyway, of course, but through proxies, via technicalities, by holding hostages, etc. There’s a surprising amount of time discussing safe conduct passages and who can leave where when. A bunch of Toranaga’s allies’ relatives are held hostage in an unassailable castle by one of the regents, but since hostage taking is forbidden they aren’t technically hostages. At the same time, if they ask to leave, the regent will think of a reason why it’s probably not in their best interests to do so, and if they try anyway there may be an unfortunate accident. You might think that one of them would just flat-out demand to go, but it turns out to be more complicated than that. In addition there’s a lot of written threats, and questions about who is under whose orders, and whether they’ve adequately completed the orders, and a lot of minutiae.
Anyway, I liked it. Although parts of it are kinda overwritten and repetitive, the actual cloak-and-dagger intrigue stuff is worthwhile. I can see how it was a phenomenon, for a while, especially at a time when less was known about the time period. It’s definitely not the sort of thing you’d see written today, for good or for ill. The seventies were weird like that.