James Clavell's Shōgun is reimagined for a brand new generation of television viewers

In 1980, when James Clavell's blockbuster historical novel was published Shogun was transformed a TV miniseriesAbout 33% of American households have a television tuned in. It quickly became some of the watched miniseries up to now, second only to root.

I’m a Japan historian who makes a speciality of the history of the Tokugawa, or early modern period – a period from 1603 to 1868 through which nearly all of the motion takes place in Shōgun. As a first-year student in September 1980, I sat transfixed in front of the tv for five nights in September 1980, thrilled that somebody had put a lot effort into making a series about Japan's past that had captured my imagination.

I wasn't alone. In 1982 Historian Henry D. Smith estimated that one-fifth to one-half of the scholars enrolled in university courses on Japan on the time had read the novel and turn into keen on Japan because of this.

“Shōgun,” he added, “probably gave more information about Japanese daily life to more people than all the writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists combined since the Pacific War.”

Some even credit the series for making sushi a trend within the USA.

This 1980 miniseries has now been remade as FX's Shōgun, a ten-episode production that’s receiving rave reviews including: Nearly 100% rating from review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

Both miniseries are closely based on Clavell's 1975 novel, which is a fictional retelling of the story of the primary Englishman. Will Adams – the character John Blackthorne within the novel – to set foot in Japan.

And yet, there are subtle differences in each series that reveal the zeitgeist of every era in addition to America's changing attitude toward Japan.

The “Japanese Miracle”

The original 1980 series reflects each the boldness of postwar America and its fascination with its resurgent former enemy.

The Second World War had devastated Japan economically and psychologically. But within the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties the country dominated the worldwide markets for consumer electronics, semiconductors and the automotive industry. Its gross national product per capita rose spectacularly: from lower than $200 in 1952 to $8,900 in 1980 – the yr Shōgun appeared on television – to almost $20,000 in 1988, surpassing the United States, West Germany and France.

Many Americans desired to know the key to Japan's breathtaking economic success – the so-called “Japanese miracle.” Could Japan’s history and culture provide clues?

In the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, scholars tried to grasp the miracle by analyzing not only the Japanese economy but additionally the country's various institutions: schools, social policies, corporate culture and policing.

In his 1979 book Japan as Number One: Lessons for AmericaSociologist Ezra Vogel argued that the United States had much to learn from Japan, whether through the country's long-term economic planning, government-industry cooperation, investment in education, and quality control of products and services.

A window to Japan

Clavell's massive, 1,100-page novel appeared within the midst of the Japanese Miracle. More than were sold 7 million copies in five years; then the series was broadcast, leading to the sale of a further 2.5 million copies.

In it, Clavell tells the story of Blackthorne, who’s shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1600 and finds the country in a peaceful respite after an era of civil war. However, this peace is threatened by competition between the five regents appointed to make sure the succession of a young heir to their former master's position as supreme military leader.

Black and white photo of a middle-aged man sitting at a typewriter by the sea.
“Shogun,” which James Clavell published in 1975, sold tens of millions of copies.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Meanwhile, local leaders don't know whether to treat Blackthorne and his crew as dangerous pirates or as harmless traders. His men find yourself in prison, but Blackthorne's knowledge of the world outside Japan – not to say his shipload of cannons, muskets and ammunition – saves him.

At the tip, he offers advice and ammunition to certainly one of the regents, Lord Yoshi Toranaga, the fictional version of the true Tokugawa Ieyasu. With this edge, Toranaga becomes Shogunthe country's top military leader.

Viewers of the 1980 television series witness Blackthorne slowly learning Japanese and appreciating the worth of Japanese culture. For example, he’s initially immune to bathing. Since Cleanliness is deeply rooted in Japanese cultureHis Japanese hosts find his refusal irrational.

Bearded man with shoulder length brown hair wearing a kimono and holding a samurai sword.
Actor Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne within the 1980 NBC miniseries Shogun.
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Blackthorne and the audience's gradual acclimation to Japanese culture is complete when he reunites with the crew of his Dutch ship, who’ve been held captive, at the tip of the series. Blackthorne is deeply repulsed by her filth and demands a shower to cleanse himself of her infection.

Blackthorne concludes that Japan is way more civilized than the West. Just like his real-life counterpart Will Adams, he decides to remain in Japan even after his freedom is granted. He marries a Japanese woman with whom he has two children and ends his days on foreign soil.

From fascination to fear

However, the positive views of Japan that its economic miracle created and strengthened the shogun faded over time The US trade deficit with Japan exploded from $10 billion in 1981 to $50 billion in 1985.

Japan bashing” spread across the United States and in that moment, deep anger exploded American autoworkers smashed Toyota cars in March 1983 And Congressmen smashed a Toshiba boombox with sledgehammers on the Capitol lawn in 1987. That same yr, Foreign Affairs magazine warned of “the coming crisis between the USA and Japan.”

Cover of Newsweek magazine with the words
The October 9, 1989 cover of Newsweek describes Sony's purchase of Columbia Pictures as an invasion.

This backlash against Japan within the United States was also fueled by nearly a decade-long takeovers of iconic American firms similar to Firestone, Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios, in addition to high-profile properties similar to the Cult Rockefeller Center.

But the perception of Japan as a threat reached a peak in 1989, after which the country's economy began to falter. The Nineties and early 2000s were known as “Japan.”lost decade“.

However, there stays a curiosity and love for Japanese culture, thanks partially to manga and anime. Other Japanese feature movies and tv series are also available on the strategy to popular streaming servicesincluding the series Tokyo girl, Midnight meal And refuge. In December 2023, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Japan “on the precipice of a content boom“.

Lens magnification

As the FX remake of “Shōgun” shows, American viewers lately apparently now not should be slowly introduced to Japanese culture by a European guide.

In the brand new series, Blackthorne isn't even the one protagonist. Instead, he shares the highlight with several Japanese characters, similar to Lord Yoshi Toranaga, who now not serves as Blackthorne's one-dimensional sidekick as he did in the unique miniseries.

This change is made easier by the proven fact that Japanese characters now communicate directly with the audience in Japanese with English subtitles. In the 1980 miniseries, the Japanese dialogue was left untranslated. The original featured English-speaking Japanese characters, similar to Blackthorne's translator Mariko. But they spoke in highly formalized, unrealistic English.

Japanese man with glasses and a suit.
Actor Hiroyuki Sanada plays Lord Yoshi Toranaga in FX's Shōgun. Although Sanada's character speaks Japanese, there are English subtitles for viewers.
AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

In addition to depicting authentic costumes, fights, and gestures, the series' Japanese characters also speak the native language of the early modern period, relatively than the contemporary Japanese that made the 1980 series so unpopular with Japanese viewers. (Imagine a movie in regards to the American Revolution with George Washington talking like Jimmy Kimmel.)

Of course, authenticity has its limits. The producers of each television series selected to stay closely to the unique novel. In doing so, they could inadvertently reproduce certain stereotypes about Japan.

Most striking is the fetishization of death, as some characters have a penchant for violence and sadism, while many others commit ritual suicide.

Part of this will likely simply be as a result of the proven fact that creator Clavell is a self-proclaimed “Storyteller, not a historian“. But this could also reflect his experiences in World War II, when he spent three years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Despite it, as Clavell notedhe deeply admired the Japanese.

His novel as a complete expresses this admiration beautifully. In my opinion, the 2 mini-series have successfully followed this instance and have delighted audiences in each of their times.

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