Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A Look Back At James Clavell's 'Shogun'

I recorded the first two episodes of FX’s Shogun last night, and I plan to watch them this week.

I was a huge fan of the original Shogun miniseries in 1980, which starred Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne, the English sailor and ship’s pilot who lands in feudal Japan in 1600 and becomes involved in Japanese internecine warfare.

Previous to watching the 1980 miniseries, I read and enjoyed James Clavell’s historical novel Shogun, which the miniseries was based on.

Clavell (seen in the above photo), was a British Army officer and prisoner of war in WWII and spent years in a Japanese prison. Despite his brutal treatment, he was fascinated by the Japanese. His first novel, King Rat (made into a film starring George Segal), was based on his experiences as a Japanese prisoner.

Clavell began to write Shogun after he read about an English sailor named William Adams who traveled to Japan in 1600 and became an advisor to a Japanese warlord. Shogun is based loosely on Adams and his Japanese adventures.

Clavell, who was a screenwriter and film director as well as an author, served as an executive producer of the miniseries. He wanted Sean Connery to portray Blackthorne. He said he wrote the novel with Sean Connery in mind.

Sean Connery would have been a powerful Blackthorne, and this would have been one of his finest roles, but sadly Sean Connery was making a forgettable film and was not available. So Richard Chamberlain was cast, and he was very good in the role.

I’ve never seen Cosmo Jarvis (seen in the above photo) in any films or on TV, so I'm curious to see how his portrayal of Blackthorne in the new FX miniseries stacks up against Richard Chamberlain.           

I enjoyed the Shogun novel and the 1980 miniseries as I was and am most interested in Japan. My early interest in Japan came from stories my late father told me about his time as a U.S. Navy UDT frogman in WWII when he fought the Japanese on Saipan and other Japanese-held islands.

My interest in Japan increased in the early 1960s when I read Ian Fleming’s James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice. The novel took place in Japan and Fleming offered fascinating background information about modern Japan and Japanese customs and history. (James Clavell also read and enjoyed Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, especially Fleming's introduction of Ninjas to Western readers. Clavell used Ninjas in Shogun).

And I was thrilled to visit Sasebo and Nagasaki in Japan in 1971 when I was a young sailor serving on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.

So based on my interest and experiences in Japan, I eagerly read Shogun in 1975 and watched the miniseries (before VHS recording tapes and DVR devices were invented) in 1980.

James Clavell came under criticism by several historians who pointed out minor historical errors in his novel Shogun when it was published, and today the late author is being accused of racism for his stereotypical depictions of the Japanese.

Nonsense. Shogun is a fine historical adventure novel. 

I look forward to watching the new miniseries, and I'll probably reread James Clavell's novel afterwards.

Note: You can visit James Clavell’s website via the below link:

About the author — JAMES CLAVELL 

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