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'Shogun' -- an Oriental 'Gone With the Wind'?

Will America's television viewers sit still for 12 hours of a slightly incomprehensible 17th-century Japanese history-cum-melodrama? "Shogun" (NBC, Monday 8-11 p.m., Tuesday 8-10, Wednesday 9-11, Thursday 8-10, Friday 8-11 p.m., check local listings) is TV's boldest gamble with American taste in electronic information-entertainment since "Roots" and "Holocaust" several seasons back.

Although sometimes identified as an Oriental "Gone With The Wind," I feel "Shogun" is more like "Captain Blood." Substituting samurai swordplay for pistol duels, "Shogun" is an "eastern" in the same sense that "Bad Day at Black Rock" was a "western."

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However, some wags feel that after the Nielsen ratings come in it might be more valid to call it "Bad Week at 30 Rock" (NBC's offices and studios are located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.).

Based upon the James Clavell best-selling hard-cover book and paperback of the same title, "Shogun" is as monumental a work as the enormous sculptures on Mt. Rushmore -- and as in the case of Rushmore, the many flaws and defects in the individual sections are almost completely overpowered by the mere scope and daring of its concept.

NBC's "Shogun," however, cannot stand comparison with the exquisite delicacy of, say, Mt. Fuji. In fact, it cannot even survive comparison with Clavell's book version, which (say what you will about its literary qualities and even its chronological authenticity) was at least excitingly comprehensible from beginning to end.

In this TV version, there are long scenes in which the Japanese actors speak Japanese, with no attempt on the part of producer-writer Eric Bercovici to clarify for American audiences what the Japanese are saying and where the complicated story line is going. The viewer is left on his own.

I suggest, for full appreciation of the series, you have a copy of the Dell paperback by your side or, better yet, call your local NBC affiliated station and ask if any of its school-oriented study guides are available. I assure you that you will need some help with a sypnosis and this excellent study guide is also an aid in acquiring a better understanding of the 17th-century samurai life being re-enacted.

At the end of a screening of the whole mini-maxi series, I felt as if I had been sitting behind Too-Tall Jones at a Japanese double-feature movie house. However, cinematographer Andrew Lazlo's perpetual panoply of magnificent processions, the fascination of period customs and costumes, the gorgeous scenery, and the colorfully exotic ceremonies are enough to keep me, and perhaps most audiences, engrossed for hours on end.

For twelvem hours, though?

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That is, perhaps, NBC President Fred Silverman's greatest gamble -- greater, even, than the gamble he took with "Roots" at ABC.

Just in case you haven't heard (and it is very unlikelym that the enormous sums of money spent to promote this $22 million production and 6-million-selling blockbuster novel haven't reached you with the message), "Shogun" is the tale of a shipwrecked English pilot-captain-navigator who becomes an honorary knight (samurai) in isolated 17th-century Japan. Western civilization had barely touched Nippon in that period, and the clash between European and Japanese sensibilities and customs creates the tensions and swahbuckling action of this overlong tale of adventure.

Author Clavell constructed his story as if it were a Famous Amos Toll-House cooky, dotting it with little nuggets of culture, history, local customs, and even sex and violence -- his way of keeping audience with him all the way.But unlike the novel and more like the cooky, the TV series crumbles when it is no longer fresh. Directed by Jerry London from Bercovici's script, "Shogun" stars a batch of fine English actors, some forced to talk pidgin in English (supposedly Portuguese style), and TV's own ex-Dr. Kildare, Richard Chamberlain, who has managed to completely break the mold of his series image and has become a solid actor for all seasons and locations.

Fine Japanese actors and actresses like Toshiro Mifune and Yoko Shimada add an even greater flavor of authenticity to authentic Japanese locations. In fact , a late tuner-in may believe he is seeing a subtitleless revival of that Japanese classic "Roshomon," so convincingly Orntal is the staging.

Viewers will find much to absorb in "Shogun," even if the plot sometimes escapes them. (I suggest, when this happens, that you simply sit back, relax and let the flow of sensual images envelope you.) However, I must also warn you that there is much violence (decapitation seems to have been an integral part of daily life), although there seems to be some attempt by NBC to keep the "flow" of blood to a minimum. And I must also point out that there is a lot of earthiness and eroticism, both seemingly integral parts of daily life in Japan of the 1600s.

"Shogun" may leave some inveterate theatergoers hungry for a revival of that recent Broadway musical, Stepehn Sondheim's "Pacific Overture," which dealt with a similar situation in more delicate yet still grandiose style.

Delicate "Shogun" is not. "Grandiose," yes. Its philosophy, stated over and over again in Oriental musings about "karma," is that "life is just an illusion" and to many Orientals, life and death are interchangeable. Most of these thoughts, however, are unfortunately spoken in pidgin English, in difficult-to-understand Japanese-accented English, or, I think, in Japanese -- and often in both, since the use of English and/or Japanese is inconsistently presented.

In some scenes, for instance, Chamberlain translates his own stumbling Japanese. In others, he doesn't. If you see subtitles when you view "Shogun" it will mean that the top NBC brass saw what I saw and insisted at the last moment that the story line had to be made more clear to mass audiences.

Whether or not you spend the complete 12 hours with "Shogun," it is an electronic experience you will want to share at least partially with the millions of Americans who will be inticed into watching out of curiosity. The question for them, for you -- and for NBC -- is: Should I stay with it for the whole week?

The answer at this point is as inscrutable as Orientals are portrayed on the screen in "Shogun." And, perhaps, as inscrutable as the plot of the series itself.

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