There is something to be said for a classic fish-out-of-water story. It’s one of our oldest and most common literary tropes, and for good reason. Dropping a protagonist unceremoniously into an unfamiliar world neatly accomplishes several narrative functions, from establishing tension or conflict to granting the reader an in-fiction proxy who, like said reader, knows little to nothing about the setting and world in which they’ve found themselves, allowing both audience and character to learn and experience together. There is also something intrinsically, deeply human about such stories; they are universal in a way few things are. Going on a vacation to a place where you do not speak the language, moving to a new town, or starting kindergarten are all as much fish-out-of-water stories as Gulliver’s Travels or Alice in Wonderland or Wonder Woman (seriously, like a third of superhero movies are built on this format).
Add to this the story in question being true, or mostly true, or somewhat true, or, honestly, even loosely based on things that happened, and you’ve got me. One such fish-out-of-water true story is that of William Adams, an English navigator and ship captain who, in the year 1600, became the first Englishman to reach Japan. Upon his arrival in Nippon, Adams became embroiled in the political power struggle that had arisen following the death of the taiko, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified all daimyo (feudal warlords) under his control and ruled as effective regent of Japan until 1598. Adams found himself in service to the man who would eventually emerge from that power vacuum as shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and along the way became one of (if not the) first Western samurai.
This tale is immortalized in James Clavell’s 1975 masterpiece, Shogun. I say “masterpiece” purposefully, too, for with Shogun, Clavell accomplishes two truly impressive feats. The first is that Clavell shows in praxis how great writers can take a better-than-fiction, this really happened episode from history and actually improve upon it, injecting the right love interest here and sprinkling the right manufactured exposition there, without untethering the whole thing from its mooring. The second accomplishment, arguably more impressive, is selling 15 million copies of a 1,152-page book. And that figure, which is somehow the most recent one I could find, is only over the first 10 years since its release, which was 30 years ago!
Shogun is long, almost biblically so, but rarely is it unjustified. In this, Clavell again benefits from the story he gets to tell: According to Spanish sources, for instance, Ieyasu reportedly used the cannons and artillery taken from Adams’s ship, the Liefde, at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600, where Ieyasu defeated rival daimyo Ishida Mitsunari and the remaining Toyotomi loyalists effectively won the civil war. Adams’s immediacy to such major moments in history is worth the price of entry alone, yet it is what Clavell does in between these bolded-date signposts that makes his epic truly worth reading.
Almost immediately, Clavell is able to instill in the reader the sense of bewilderment and foreign otherness felt by his Adams, whom he fictionalizes as the gruff “John Blackthorne.” You need not know anything about Japan to appreciate the great depth of Clavell’s depiction; in fact, you’ll likely get more out of it knowing less. Using a vast host of characters, Clavell paints a brilliant picture of Japanese culture, customs, and perspective; you begin with Blackthorne as a stranger in a strange land but slowly begin to understand behaviors or motives that felt alien or cruel, some of which remain so. Clavell’s clever, multilayered use of the Japanese language as a storytelling device further heightens this journey.
Historical fiction has always been a love of mine, but I will return again to Shogun foremost for its wit and humor. Comedy and laughter pervade the entire tale, be it direct and raucous with Blackthorne or slyly winked at you under a controlled persona in a manner far more Eastern. I struggle to think of a work that uses the lost-in-translation situational comedy of such a story to greater effect. Of course, most of these bawdy examples are unfit to be printed in a family weekly such as this one, but I guess that’s just another reason to read the book.
J. Grant Addison is deputy editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.