Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learning from Shogun, edited by Henry Smith

(Book Review)

This book is a commentary on the novel “Shogun” (for which see previous post).

Since this book is long out of print, its editors have kindly made it available for free on-line. However, if you’re like me and you can’t stand the idea of reading anything off a computer screen for a long period of time (this blog being an exception of course :) ), then you can find used copies at a reasonable price easily enough through sites like Amazon.

“Learning from Shogun” was originally written in 1980, just before the “Shogun” TV miniseries was aired. Its various authors had not yet had an opportunity to preview the TV miniseries, and so the book addresses itself exclusively to the novel (although with the exception of a 3 page postscript at the very end).

1980 was slightly before my time (or, at the very least, before I was conscious enough to be aware of cultural trends), but one gets the impression from reading this book that 30 years ago “Shogun” was quite a cultural phenomenon, and the book to read at the time. Assuming the authors are not exaggerating the importance of their subject material, I got the impression that the buzz around “Shogun” must have been similar to the buzz surrounding “The DaVinci Code” a couple years ago.

Because this book contains a lot of spoilers about the plot, it is meant to be read after first completing “Shogun”. However, since I was more concerned about the history than the drama, I found it useful to read this book concurrently with “Shogun”. Shogun is a very long book (1152 pages) and it so full of historical Japanese politics and complex alliances that I was willing to sacrifice some of the suspense of the story in order to be able to sort out as I read how much of it was true and how much was fiction.

“Learning from Shogun” is not a complete history lesson in 16th Century Japanese politics, but it is at least a good general overview. And for anyone who wants to delve further, there is a very thorough section on “Further Reading”. (Although I suspect it’s a bit dated by now, but still…).

It was interesting reading this book to find out how many things I had assumed James Clavell must have made up (like some of the amazing battles, escapes, intrigues, and gruesome deaths) actually had a basis in history.
By the same token, it was also interesting to read about how much Clavell got wrong. The whole theme of “Shogun” is based off of the culture clash between 16th century Europe and 16th century Japan, but as the writers of this book show, there’s a lot Clavell got wrong or misrepresented. For example 15th century England wasn't quite as uptight about sex as Clavell makes out (that came later during the Victorian period) and neither was ancient Japan quite as free regarding the body and bodily functions.

This book admittedly has a very limited audience (probably one of the reasons it’s no longer in print). For one thing you have to have read “Shogun” first. Secondly you have to be enough of a historical geek to care about finding out which details are wrong and which are true. But if you fit that profile, like I did, then reading this book is worth the trouble it takes to track down a used copy.

Link of the Day
Ho-Hum, Just Another Day In The Craziest Country On Earth
So Seymour Hersh says that Vice President Cheney and his staff sat around back in January and discussed having Navy SEALS dress up as Iranian sailors and then attack American ships. This would fool Americans into supporting a war with Iran, you see.
In non-insane countries, this would merit screaming headlines and congressional investigations, all leading to mass resignations if it turned out to be true. In America, it merits a few blog posts. (Full article here)

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