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‘Shogun’ has a lot to teach the West

Gearoid Reidy – Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

One of the most famous tales ever set in Japan is back. Walt Disney Co. is spending millions on a glossy new adaptation of the James Clavell saga “Shogun,” the story of the Englishman who arrives in 1600s Japan and goes on to become a samurai. 

First appearing as a beloved novel in 1975, then in a revolutionary 1980 small-screen adaptation that helped it reach a much wider audience, “Shogun” was the “Game of Thrones” of its time. The comparison is fair in more ways than one: In the book’s over-the-top depiction, medieval Japan can come across like the Westeros of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic — a confusing land whose brutal customs and palace intrigue are juxtaposed with heroism and codes of honor. 

And just as “Game of Thrones” was inspired by real-life events such as the War of the Roses, so too was “Shogun” based on the historical figure of William Adams, a Westerner who arrived in Japan during the Warring States period. Believed to be the first Englishman to reach the country, he happened to land just months before one of the most significant events of Japanese history: the Battle of Sekigahara that ultimately resulted in the victorious Tokugawa Ieyasu being named shogun and led to the foundation of modern Japan. Adams became an adviser to Tokugawa and was later awarded an honorary status as a samurai. 

Adams was also known as Anjin, meaning “pilot,” a nickname Clavell bestows on the character of navigator John Blackthorne, Shogun’s protagonist. In the new series, which airs on FX and Hulu in the U.S., and Disney+ in other locales including Japan and the U.K., he’s played by Cosmo Jarvis, who turns in an endearing performance reminiscent of a young Tom Hardy. But Blackthorne takes a back seat in this adaptation to the standout Japanese cast, led with aplomb by Hiroyuki Sanada. 

In the role of Lord Toranaga — largely based on Tokugawa Ieyasu and played by Toshiro Mifune in the 1980 version — Sanada anchors the miniseries. The show’s willingness to make English-speaking audiences sit through long scenes of subtitled Japanese is one of the bravest moves for a big-budget show. But Sanada will be captivating even for non-Japanese speakers with a well-earned leading role after years of supporting parts in the likes of “Bullet Train,” “John Wick: Chapter 4” and “Westworld.” He also serves as a producer and helped supervise the script.

Blackthorne’s reduced presence in this adaptation is no doubt a response to the criticism in some quarters that “Shogun” is another “white savior” narrative that brings a gaijin or foreign gaze on the nation. Hollywood takes on Japan in particular are rife with these depictions, in which slick Westerners arrive and instantly show backward natives how to wage war or conduct journalism, stereotypically making local damsels weak at the knees. 

We can do without those depictions these days; Japan is no longer a Lilliputian land we can’t describe without an English native to decipher it for us. But it’s hard to be too harsh here on “Shogun.” Just as we have “The Last Samurai” to thank for introducing Western audiences to actors Sanada and Oscar-nominated Ken Watanabe in the first place, so too was the influence of Clavell’s novel on a generation profound. 

“’Shogun’ has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists and novelists since the Pacific War,” wrote University of California professor Henry Smith in 1980 in “Learning From Shogun.” It acquainted many with the concepts of bushido and samurai, and though its interpretations may not be historically accurate, it nonetheless helped sow the seeds for a love of Japanese culture that continues to bloom today (though I must confess I only started reading it in preparation for this column). 

In that sense, one of its biggest misses is that Clavell changed the names of the historical figures the story is centered around — Toranaga instead of Tokugawa, Ishido Kazunari instead of Ishida Mitsunari. Clavell, Smith says, argued most Western readers wouldn’t be familiar with the real figures, so he gave them names that were easier for audiences to remember (and to grant himself license to invent a few spicier relationships). Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine a show centered in England or France of 1600 that replaces King Charles or Louis XIII with King Christopher or Laurence XIII. 

It’s also hard not to feel that while “Shogun” is iconic, an actual big-budget adaptation of the closing years of the Warring States period might in fact be far more interesting. In the novel at least, the Battle of Sekigahara, the most important in Japanese history, is an afterthought, and we don’t even get close to the Siege of Osaka some 15 years later, which definitively ends the Toyotomi dynasty. 

If there’s one thing the latest dramatic adaptation reminds me of, it’s “Ghost of Tsushima” — a 2020 video game released on Sony Group Corp.’s PlayStation set in a fictionalized 13th-century Japan but developed by a U.S.-based studio. Although it’s (rather intentionally) not historically accurate, it earned high praise from Japanese developers, some of whom grumbled that domestic creators should have made this game.

In that sense, it would be nice to see Japanese artists create experiences like “Shogun” itself. The recent success of the film “Godzilla Minus One,” which broke a Japanese record $100 million at the global box office, shows increasing demand for content; the Netflix show “Alice in Borderland” demonstrated that a Japanese show can have international impact, though the U.K.-Japan co-production “Giri/Haji” was canceled. With its soft power growing ever more popular in other realms, it’s time for the television industry to be more ambitious, too.

But while many learned about the country from “Shogun,” eventually Blackthorne also comes to realize that Japan, far from a land of barbarians, has lessons for the West. As I’ve argued before, that’s an attitude that should still resonate today for a nation that’s misunderstood but has much to teach — so if the show can help spark a new wave of interest, it’s a welcome thing to have.


(Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.)


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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