I can see it now. At the next cocktail party someone will inevitably approach me and ask if I am Japanese, if I have seen "Shogun" and if all those horrible things that the Japanese did were true. Then I'll reply yes to the first two and scream "No!" to the third. No, we do not go around lopping people's heads off, committing hara-kiri on the slightest pretext, boiling people to death, nor urinating on them.
But I should be understanding: Most Americans have never seen a drama about 16th-century Japan. We Japanese grow up with that stuff -- samurai games, tons of comic books and novels, movies, and countless samurai series on the tube. Some of us continue the traditions of 16th-century Japan in the form of tea ceremonies, the martial arts, Zen Buddhism. And even a Tokyoite in the middle of the concrete jungle does not have to travel far to be reminded of the ancient past. The emperor's palace was formerly the castle of the Tokugawas; there is a temple here, a scene of an ancient battle there, a tomb of a famous warrior around the corner. Most Japanese can recognize a lot of familiar history in James Clavell's story.
For example, a few months ago I visited the grave of John Blackthorne -- his real name is William Adams, known as Miura Anjin in Japan -- at Anjin-zuka in Hemi near the Yokosuka U.S. naval base, not far from where I used to live. He is buried next to his Japanese wife, Lady Bikuni. High up on a hill surrounded by hundreds of cherry trees, these two timeworn tombstones face out to sea towards the England Adams left so long ago. Before the steps leading up to the grave is this inscription:
"Miura Anjin's real name is William Adams. An Englishman. He was a navigator for the Dutch East India Company, sailed via the Straits of Magellan, crossed the Pacific, and on his way to the Moluccas, came upon a typhoon and was blown ashore [at Bungo] in Kyushu. Later he won the confidence of Tokugawa leyasu and became his advisor on foreign affairs. He was knowledgeable in naval affairs, astronomy, ship-building. At Izu in Ito, he built two ships [one weighing 80 tons, the other 120, which later made a round-trip voyage across the Pacific]. He was awarded 250 koku [wealth measured in yields of rice] at Hemi village in the province of Miura. Anjin died at Hirado in Nagasaki in the year 1620 and, his will fulfilled, is here interred with his wife." Every year on April 14, when the cherry blossoms cover the hills, a memorial service is held before the grave.
The character of Toranaga in "Shogun" -- played by Toshiro Mifune -- is none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu who became shogun, or supreme military leader, in 1603. After defeating Ishida Mitsunari [Ishido in the movie] at the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600, he established a dynasty which lasted until 1868. This glorious shogun is the stuff of legend: Hundreds of books in Japanese, both historical and fictionalized, have been written about him. Unfortunately, none of them has been translated into English.
But he appears in Kurosawa's marvelous forthcoming film, "Kagemusha" ["Shadow Warrior"], which depicts the young Tokugawa at the Battle of Nagashino, and in some history books [volume two of George Sansom's "A History of Japan," for example].
What about Mariko? Is she for real? A gorgeous wife of a proud samurai in 16th-century Japan, who goes around shamelessly having an affair with a barbarian? Even today, Japanese wives are supposed to stay home and take care of the kids, wait patiently for honorable husband to come home -- usually very late after a few drinks with his pals -- greet him with warm loving smile, hot bath, hot sake and dinner ready, no? You bet. There were no Marikos in 16th-century Japan and very few exist today. A married woman who travels around the country as interpreter for the shogun or other, leaving husband behind? Unthinkable.
However, there was somebody who vaguely fits the image of Mariko. Her name is Hosokawa Gracia (1562-1600). She was converted to Catholicism by one of those Portuguese or Spanish missionaries who were all over the country pouring holy water over thousands of godless souls. Gracia was the daughter of Akechi Mitsuhide, murderer of the magnificent Nobunaga who began and probably would have fulfilled his quest to unify Japan under one rule. But Nobunaga's goal literally perished in flames with the temple of Honno-ji in Kyoto, a fire he set to avoid capture, realizing that he had been betrayed and the situation hopeless. And so he killed himself. In the latter part of the "Shogun" series, there is a scene where Mariko confesses to Blackthorne about the Akechi family's ignoble past which pretty much resembles the facts in the history books.
But what about the torture scenes, the boiling of people -- is it true? Well I do remember the case of Ishikawa Goemon, the famous thief and murderer who was captured by Hideyoshi's soldiers and thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. We named a type of bathtub after him -- the Goemon Buro. Now, that's one real hot tub. The amazing thing is that before he was dunked, this uncommon criminal composed a poem which is still celebrated today.
I did enjoy the show, warts and all. But it should have been edited much more tightly. The 2 1/2-hour version which will be shown at movie theaters in Japan in November should be much more digestible. The audience there will probably find the sword fights not up to the standards they're used to and may find the portrayal of the Japanese samurai a bit too stereotyped. But I shouldn't protest too much. After all, it's not every day that I see Japanese superstars like Mifune and hear so much Japanese on American television. And real dialogue, too, not all that nonsense of the old Hollywood films on Japan (remember Marlon Brando as the Japanese gardener in "The Teahouse of the August Moon"?) Clavell obviousy hired a native scriptwriter, thereby eliminating most of the awkward Japanese of his novel (except for some clunkers like thekarma and the mama-san bit later on in the show). But I was surprised to find so much dialogue untranslated. I can see it does present a problem to the millions of American viewers who do not understand the language. Honto, Wakarimasuka ?