Shogun and Looking Back


Looking Back

Whenever a feature movie or television series is released that deals with Japanese history and particularly the samurai, I get very excited. Sometimes my expectations are aimed too high, as in the case of The Last Samurai movie, and sometimes it is utter disappointment as in the 47 Ronin movie.  After watching the first two episodes, Shogun has more than surpassed my lofty expectations and left me very nostalgic. However, with the Shogun and looking back at my history with James Clavell’s books, it not surprising I am feeling this way.


My First James Clavell Book

My interest in Japanese history and the samurai began well before I gained my first black belt in Shotokan karate, especially after watching Seven Samurai by director Akira Kurosawa. Toward the end of the seventies video rental stores were popping up in my home town, and I watched the rest of Kurosawa’s movies usually alone giving them my full attention, as no friends or even my girlfriend at the time shared this interest (or obesession as she would call it). I remember receiving James Clavell’s book, Shogun as a Christmas gift around this time and this sweeping saga took me on an emotional rollercoaster of intrigue, betrayal and loyalty that was feudal Japan in the time of the samurai. Below is the Shogun book and the sequel Gai-Jin, that I read just after being published in 1994..


Coincidentally, around 1994 I watched a re-run on American television of the first adaptation of Shogun and a few days later, my girlfriend bought me the newly published sequel to Shogun called Gai-Jin. Sadly the writer Clavell died shortly after I read Gai-Jin. I ended up reading all of James Clavells novels back to front from this last one, to his first book, King Rat, based on his time as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore.

Today I carry all of James Clavell’s books around with me on my iPhone, courtesy of Audiobooks. Friends like to remind me that print is a much better experience, but after traveling across Japan, China and South-East Asia for twenty five years with heavy bags of filming equipment, I’ll choose to listen to an audiobook every time.


John Blackthorne and Lady Mariko from the 1980 Miniseries

The 1980 Miniseries

This brings me back to the first miniseries of Shogun, which I first saw in the UK in the early eighties. I was pleased to see my favorite samurai actor from Kurosawa films, Toshiro Mifune play Lord Toranaga. I was not too upset to see the american actor Richard Chamberlain, who I thought did a reasonable job of playing the English sea captain John Blackthorne. I compensated myself that at least this miniseries stuck fairly close to Clavell’s book.


John Blackthorne and Lady Mariko from the 2024 Series

Shogun 2024

So now here we are, in 2024 with a brand new adaptation of Shogun that has promised so much through YouTube trailers and social media buzz. It has not disappointed. First, the cast is terrific and like the casting of Toshiro Mifune in the 1980 miniseries, this new version has cast the great Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada for the role of Lord Toranaga. Lady Mariko is played by Japanese actress Anna Sawai, who I recently saw in Apple TV series, The Monarch. Captain Blackthorne is played by English actor Cosmo Jarvis and he’s getting better after each episode.

There are some critics who maintain that Clavell’s book strays away from actual events, considering that it is based on the true story of William Adams, the first English sailor to arrive in Japan in 1600. But Shogun is not meant to be factual, but a novel that accurately depicts those times – in short, a fictionalized version of real events. Our movies, The History of Budo Parts One and Two give an excellent idea of the last four centuries of martial arts (Budo) in Japan.

The show’s creators have spared no expense in recreating the sights and sounds of Feudal Japan with bustling markets, serene gardens and majestic temples. But beneath the picturesque surface lies a world of political intrigue as the ruling daimyo (feudal lords) plot to install a new Shogun after they have eliminated Lord Toranaga. Meanwhile John Blackthorne, known as Anjin (pilot) must navigate the treacherous waters of imperial intrigue and sudden death at the hands of the samurai. He must also contend with cunning Portuguese priests, his sworn enemy, who secretly help to run the Black Ships from China to Japan for huge profits.

I have just watched episode three (no real spoiler is coming) and one highlight was watching Lady Mariko pick up a naginata and help repel an attack from Lord Ishido’s samurai, as she and Blackthorne escaped from Osaka with Lord Taranaga. What I admire is the attention to detail they have shown in portraying the Shogun era, from the class distinctions of the daimyo or regents, samurai, traders, farmers and peasants, which show a deep respect for Japanese history and culture.  The fight scenes and samurai culture are very close to historical fact – mirroring my interviews with Professor Uozumi, Japan’s leading historian of Budo history so please read our previous posts on these interviews.

I hope you are enjoying Shogun as much as we are and I will post again after watching more thrilling episodes of this great James Clavell book.