Made by History

Why a Historian Is Looking Forward to the New Shōgun Series

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The original Shōgun was a rare phenomenon. More than 1,200 pages and 400,000 words in length, it proved stunningly successful, staying on the best-seller list for more than 30 weeks and selling millions of copies. The 1975 novel presented a fictionalized account of a real event: the arrival of an English pilot, William Adams, to Japan in 1600. Clavell reimagined the story, giving his hero (whom he renamed John Blackthorne), a starring role in the archipelago’s turbulent domestic politics in the months leading up to the climactic battle of Sekigahara, which brought more than a century of constant warfare to a final end.

Some historians criticized Shōgun as a text rife with errors and national stereotypes. But others like Henry Smith championed the book, arguing that it conveyed “more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.”

Five years after its publication and millions of dollars later, Shōgun made its way to television screens in the form of a five-episode miniseries. It, too, was a huge hit, captivating a massive audience estimated at more than 120 million people. Even so, many fans of the novel grumbled about how it flipped the story by rendering Japan an alien, unintelligible place where Japanese dialogue was left untranslated and unsubtitled. For those historians who had defended the book, the miniseries left a bitter taste in their mouths. 

The imminent premiere of FX’s adaptation raises a key question. What kind of Shōgun will we see? All the clues suggest a break from the 1980 miniseries and a return to what made the book so special. 

Read More: FX’s Shōgun Isn’t a Remake—It’s a Revelation

The backstory to Shōgun is as compelling as the book itself. It starts in 1942 when Japanese forces captured Clavell, a young officer in the Royal Artillery. He ended up in Changi, the infamous Japanese prisoner of war camp in Singapore. Changi became the formative experience of Clavell’s life. It was, he explained, “my university instead of my prison.” 

It left a deep imprint. For years, Clavell carried a can of sardines with him while fighting an impulse to rummage through trash for food. And it provided the subject material for his first novel, King Rat, which presented a semi-fictionalized account of his experience as a prisoner of war. 

Strikingly, years of captivity left Clavell with no hatred. To the contrary, it instilled a deep and sustained admiration for Japan and its people. When it came to Shōgun, Clavell wrote what he described as a “passionately pro-Japanese” book. 

This perspective wasn’t evident to readers early in the book. In fact, the novel started with a highly negative depiction that showed the samurai whom Blackthorne initially encountered as brutal and unfeeling warriors who relished torture and delighted in suffering. But as the story unfolded, Clavell gradually steered his readers in a different direction as Blackthorne came first to respect and then to admire Japan as in many ways superior to Europe and the home he had left behind.

What made Clavell’s novel so compelling was the fact that it was really two intertwined stories. One, which might be called The Pilot, told the story of the “white samurai,” in this case a European man, Blackthorne, who became a true warrior while falling in love with a Japanese woman (Mariko Toda) and transforming Japan in the process. The Pilot presented a straightforward account that placed Blackthorne at the heroic center of the action (decades later The Last Samurai did something similar with Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren).

But there was a second, arguably more interesting narrative in Clavell’s novel, which we might call The Shōgun. This focused on Yoshii Toranaga, the key Japanese leader in this period. It explored how Toranaga — whom Clavell modeled on the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa — outwitted and outmaneuvered bitter rivals and reluctant allies to seize power. This story addressed one of the great questions of Japanese history: how the first Tokugawa shogun was able to seize control of a famously turbulent political landscape and turn Japan from the most warlike place in the world into one of the most peaceful.

Clavell didn’t present a dry history lesson — he collapsed multiple events into dramatic moments, invented conversations, and added characters — but he succeeded brilliantly in evoking the treacherous, violent, and chaotic atmosphere of this period and gave readers a sense of the remarkable figure that was Ieyasu. 

Read More: Five Things to Know About the Modern Japanese Monarchy

These twin stories accounted for the novel’s remarkable success in luring readers into a complex political world. In 1981, The New York Times Magazine captured the addictive nature of Clavell’s novel: “‘Shogun’ readers have commonly reported becoming so engrossed in the novel that their jobs and marriages pale by comparison. At work, they hide it in desks and sneak peeks when no one is looking.”

The novel’s vast popularity prompted Clavell to shop the TV rights to ABC, CBS, and finally to NBC, which signed onto the project. In 1978, he selected producer and screenwriter Eric Bercovici to transform his epic into a TV miniseries. Both men believed the visual medium required a different type of storytelling and Bercovici thought the book was too complex for a primarily American television audience. So he decided to cut the second plot line about Toranaga, opting — with Clavell’s blessing — to focus on the love story between Blackthorne and Mariko. The starting point for Bercovici’s screenplay was, quite literally, ripping out hundreds of pages from the book where Blackthorne was not present.

Instead, he decided to tell the story exclusively “through Blackthorne’s eyes.” Since the main character couldn’t speak Japanese, that meant that any dialogue in Japanese would not be translated or subtitled. Bercovici feared that doing so, “would have killed the show.” In this way, the producer was insistent that what Blackthorne “did not understand, we did not understand.”

The decision to cut large parts of the novel rendered a complex story much simpler. It also turned Japan into an alien landscape and transformed Toranaga into a secondary character whose most consequential role was helping Blackthorne transition to become a true samurai. The result was, in Smith’s words, “a far less subtle, less integrated, and in the end less satisfying work than the novel on which it was based.”

The two very different stories bound together in Shōgun create uncertainty about what to expect as the FX series debuts. But already trailers have given clues that the series will more closely resemble the book. Whereas previews of the 1980 miniseries focused on Blackthorne as the hero who would drive the story — “the one man with the power to change Japan’s destiny for all time” — the 2024 trailers pivot to Toranaga played by the magisterial Hiroyuki Sanada. The clips show Toranaga seated in a grand audience chamber with his retainers gathered around him. He exudes power, tapping his fingers lightly as events unfold. And crucially the Japanese dialogue is subtitled, opening up the world of Japanese politics in a way that the 1980 version so decisively shut down.  

We’ll know more on Feb. 27, but the early indications are that the series may return to Clavell’s original vision and put The Shōgun back into Shōgun.

Adam Clulow is a historian whose work examines the 17th century encounter between Europe and Japan. He is the author of The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan and Amboina, 1623: Conspiracy and Fear on the Edge of Empire.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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