Threepenny Thursday – “Shogun”

17 May

A book review! I haven’t done one of these since…well, probably since Of Mice And Men in ninth grade. Even then I probably could have told you that it was a better book than Shogun.

Look at it. So smug. You think you’re so cool, don’t you, Shogun.

Ahh, I’ve always had a soft spot for Steinbeck. I’m not badass enough to get a tattoo, but I did officially name my genitals “John Steinbeck and the Grapes of Wrath”. So there’s that.

I shouldn’t be so hard on Shogun, though. In fact, I’m really not qualified to speak about it at all, considering I’m only two hundred pages in. But I’m surrounded by other intensely attractive books – The Sisters Brothers, Half-Blood Blues, A Game of Thrones, and a tasty-looking bio of Grace Kelly, to name but a few – that have been just begging me to pick them up since my school workload has slowed. Shogun was at the top of the pile, and I opened it first, but I’m so excited to get to those other, sexier tomes, I’m having a really hard time staying focused.

That, and it’s doing a pretty poor job of keeping me interested.

That may or may not be Shogun‘s fault – like I said, I’m not really qualified to be sure – but my hope is that, through the introspection of this review, I’ll gain enough insight to understand what it is about it that I’m not really diggin’ on, and be able to decide whether or not it’s worth slugging through.


So Shogun is set in early 17th-century Japan, whose feudal structure promises the reader lots of juicy desolate poverty, fascinating indiscriminate murder, and hilarious ritual suicide. The story follows an English privateer named John Blackthorne, whose Dutch ship and Dutch crew are woefully sucky at navigating and end up shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. Blackthorne becomes the first English ship’s pilot to reach Japan, and the local samurai bring him and his survivors to safety, where they are promptly thrown into a cramped, lightless, disgusting mud pit, demonstrating what might be the poorest show of hospitality since the Nazis opened their “fun-for-all-ages” summer camps.

With an insult like “filthy userer”, you know whoever that Japanese dude is referring to must be lending money at an unreasonably high rate of interest. Damn, that’s cold.

I only got a bit further in the story, to a point at which Blackthorne was removed from the pit and elevated to the status of human being. His comrades, wallowing in rancid filth and fish offal, were left to cough out vomit, weep, and question God in their adorably archaic Dutch way. As for the Japanese, they’re depicted as rigidly bound to an unyielding code of society – even those who don’t practice bushido are strictly governed by a sense of honour and dignity. Oh, except when they’re torturing innocent sailors, beheading naughty peasants, or raping defenceless women.

The author, James Clavell, takes his sweet goddamn time arriving at any kind of point. I gather that, Tom Cruise style, Blackthorne is supposed to rise through the ranks of Japanese culture, overcoming their staggering xenophobia and disregard for human life to become a strange, but accepted, hero. Trouble is, I don’t really want to follow him on that journey. Yes, the violence is as satisfying as taking a chomp out of an unpeeled orange, and feeling its citrusy life-juice dribble down your chin as you roar your victory. And yes, the depiction of 16th-century feudal life in Japan is appropriately vivid. The problem, as far as I can suss, is the characters.

I don’t care about any of these people. The Japanese characters are so morally bankrupt that I hate them, and hate reading about them. I don’t care what they think or what they have to say because they are total psychopaths. As for the other characters – our protagonist, for example? The narrative style takes a backseat approach, viewing the action from a lofty, detached perch. This is useful in establishing an appropriate historical tone, but if you really want to craft an engaging fish-out-of-water type of story, you need me to care about the fish. You need to zoom in and show me what he’s thinking, what he’s worrying about, what kind of fish he is! As far as Shogun has made clear, Blackthorne is an Englishman with a sizeable member. That’s literally all I know about him. You want a good example of historical fiction? Check out the Sharpe series. That’s a chain of stories whose protagonist is a flawed, broken, implacable, unrelenting badass, and is established as such from the opening paragraphs. If Shogun can’t tell me anything in the first two hundred pages about Blackthorne – other than “his turgid cock makes the Japanese giggle in disbelief”- then why am I wasting my time? What am I getting out of this literary experience?

I guess the answer is, not much. If I want the same story I’ll watch The Last Samurai again. The characters are made of cardboard, Clavell’s voice isn’t unique or intriguing, and the narrative is far too slow for me to care anymore.

Welp! I guess that’s that. I’m done with Shogun. This might be the first time I’ve ever given up on a book before finishing it. It would appear my standards continue to skyrocket, and I’m not going to complain! After all, I get to read A Game of Thrones now…


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