Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Last Shogun by Ryotaro Shiba

(Book Review)

I know next to nothing about the Japanese historical Shogunate, but on my last trip to Fukuoka this book caught my eye. It was marketed as an historical novel, and I've long been a big proponent that historical novel's are the most pleasant way to learn history.

Although once I get the book home and begin reading the publisher's introduction, it turns out there's some question about whether this book should be classified as a historical novel, or simply as a straight forward history which makes use of literary devices (such as pretending to know the thoughts of historical figures at certain points).

Depending on how you look at it, this book ends up being either a really dry historical novel, or a really vibrant history book. I suppose it just depends on what you're looking for.

As the title implies, this book deals with the life of the Last Shogun in Japan, who gave up power at the time of the Meiji Restoration. Similar to "The Last Emperor" film about China (if you'll forgive me for comparing two different mediums) it is a story about a nation in transition viewed through the eyes of the outgoing monarch.

There the similarities end, however. Unlike the Chinese "Last Emperor", this Shogun was not born into power. In fact the first half of the book reminded me more of "I, Claudius" in that it is the story of all the back stage political maneuverings regarding succession to the throne, and how an unlikely outsider eventually makes his way to the top.

For someone unacquainted with Japanese history (as I am) there is a lot to keep track of in these books. Lots of different clans, different factions within the clans, backstage scheming, changing alliances, etc. I studied the "Meiji Restoration" in a couple of my history classes at Calvin, but the version I learned back then was apparently a lot simpler than what actually went on. I'm reminded of the old history teacher's saying: "You can either lie to your students, or confuse them." Any period of history, particularly revolutions and social upheavals, is a lot more complicated than we're usual taught in school, and once you get into the nuts and bolts of what's going on, it requires a lot of concentration to keep track of everything.

The author acknowledges this in his afterward: "[The last Shogun] is not a story that lends itself easily to retelling. He was a politician and ...few books with politicians as their subject have met with any success. Politicians can exist only in the midst of political events and can therefore be understood only amid the whirl of politics. Page after page of detailed political information must precede a few lines portraying the man at the center of events."

Of course for us history geeks, this is all part of the fun, but this is a book that requires a certain amount of engagement. It was not the kind of book I could pick up and put down easily. Every time I started reading again, I had to go back and re-read the last couple pages to remember who was on which side again.
If you're willing to devote a few brain cells to keeping track of the changing political alliances in 19th century Japan, it can be a lot of fun, but be forewarned ahead of time. (Actually people not historically minded will probably stay away from this book in the first place).

The good news is that you don't need to have any previous knowledge to jump into the story. I certainly didn't have any.
As with any history book, it can be a bit frustrating keeping track of the names. Especially since they're all Japanese names. (Even after 6 years in Japan, Japanese names are still a bit difficult for me to remember. My brain doesn't latch unto names like Iesada, Ieyasu, and Ieyoshi as easily as Tom, Dick, and Harry).
In a history book about Japan, Japanese names are of course an unavoidable evil, but in my opinion this could have been alleviated slightly if the translator had established a consistent way of referring to each character. As it is, we're likely to encounter a character referred to by his given name in one paragraph, and his family name in the next.
Also an index might have helped me to keep track of people. There is a list of characters in the front of the book, but it's incomplete and of course doesn't include page numbers.
None of this stopped me from getting through the book, but it did mean I was constantly flipping back pages to try and remember who was who.

Link of the Day
No Questions On Global Warming Asked At CNN's Coal Industry-Sponsored Presidential Debates

1 comment:

Dozer said...

I have to apologetically revert to the Lord of The Rings, because the use of multiple names reminded me of this book series which uses Elvish/Dwarvish/human/wizard names for the same city or person.