How Japanese can a Westerner feel?
James Clavell's "Shogun" is more than a book and a TV mini-series (now airing on NBC) about 17th-century Japan, it is an industry in itself. And Mr. Clavell delights in every aspect of his astounding success.
Besides the 1975 original best-selling novel in hard cover, Dell is issuing a 2.5-million-copy tie-in edition, having already sold more than a million copies.
A 2 1/2-hour theatrical version, filmed at the same time as the 10- to 12 -hour TV version, will be released in Japan and the rest of the world some time soon, to be followed by a foreign TV version. In addition, Dell is also publishing "The Making of James Clavell's 'Shogun,'" a $10 Delta trade paperback to coincide with the TV mini-series.
"Please, don't call it a mini-series," Mr. Clavell laughs during an interview in the Japan Society here, overlooking a lovely Japanese garden as a traditionally gowned Japanese woman serves us. "Call it a maxi-series."
Mr. Clavell is a prominent member of a special California tribe known as the "Hollywood Brits," a group of displaced Englishmen who have made the Los Angeles area their home but have constructed their own tight little society to replace their original "tight little island."
Some would say he has paid his dues as a member of any society, having spent three years during World War II in Changi, the infamous Japanese detention camp in Singapore, after serving in the Royal Artillery. Although reluctant to speak harshly about the Japanese, he is willing to say meaningfully that only about 10 ,000 prisoners survived of the 150,000 captured in that area. He also admits that much of his first novel, "King Rat," was autobiographical.
Exactly how authentic is the 17th-century Japan depicted in "Shogun?"
A Japanese newspaperwoman, vieing the mini-maxi-series with me, referred to it as "an American version of what Japan in the 1600s was like." She was not at all unhappy with it -- implying that any additional American familiarity with Japan would be good, even a slightly distorted version.
Said Mr. Clavell: "We got all the best help we could from the Japanese in order to make it authentic. Sometimes it was infuriating. For instance, we used proper tatami mats and during the shooting they wanted everybody to take off their shoes on the film set. Well, the cameraman didn't want to bother all the time. And the Japanese custom is that you never sit on the crack between tatami mats. Well, for camera angles, sometimes the actors would have to sit on a crack. It caused enormous problems. But in the end it was worth it because it is correct and accurate. But after all, we had to go on what's been handed down. We weren't there in 1600. . . ."
How didm author Clavell do his research?"
"I got my point of view out of reading and out of artwork -- those marvelous Japanese prints of that period. You can't research 1600 Japan in Japan, other than in museums. But the Vatican is the greatest source of Japanese material because the Jesuits and Franciscans were the reporters there. The Jesuits were there from about 1550 thorough 1660."
How much time did Mr. Clavell spend in the Vatican? In Japan?
He disregards the questions.
"To create 'Shogun' I had to know everything about Spain, about Portugal and England of the period because they were the armed forces of the world.Then I had to know about Japan, and if you want to know about Japan, you have to know about China because China has always been the mother of Japan. Zen Buddhism, the calligraphy, the painting they've adapted, the pottery, the eating utensils. But I think the Japanese are more than adapters -- they are innovators because they take things and make them Japanese."
Does Mr. Clavell consider himself a Japanese scholar?
"Absolutely not. I don't really consider myself anything but a storyteller. I keep going back to what I've been told. I've been told that my "Tai-pan' explains Chinese to Europeans and that 'Shogun' is an insight into the Japanese mind.
"I've spent lots of time in Japan. I've been there half a dozen times and spent weeks there in various places.But, in a way, I've lived there forever."
Despite his self-described great ties to Japan, Mr. Clavell doesn't feel Japanese. "To be Japanese is to be Japanese. There was a Westerner called Lafcadio Hearn who was so Japanese he wrote better Japanese poetry than the Japanese, his calligraphy was better. But he died of a broken heart because the one thing he did not learn was that he would always be a foreigner in Japan even topugh he could speak Japanese."
Mr. Clavell is a bit impatient with those who may quibble about his impressions of Japan in his book and film. "Don't forget, 'Shogun', is the romantic age, it's King Arthur and the knights of the round table. There are great parallels between the Japan of the samurai and England. Both countries are islands, don't forget.
I'm nostalgic for the time of the British Empire. In those times the world was a much more ordered place. In those days the English people ruled almost incorruptibly. The Indian Civil Service was, I believe, almost uncorrupted in any way. Nowadays, it's almost everybody for themselves. I remember my father saying to me when I went off to service, 'Remember, you are blessed by being English.' I've neve forgotten it. I still feel a responsibility to my heritage."
Mr. Clavell is now an American citizen although he maintains a home in Surrey in England. "Home is where your books are. . . ."
What does Mr. Clavell plan to do in the future? He is already a very successful Hollywood screenwriter ("The Fly" and "To Sir, With Love" and "The Great Escape"). Might he do a modern Japanese story?
'I'm already writing something which I call loosely 'Asian Saga.' 'Shogun 1600," 'Tai-pan 1841,' 'King Rat 1945,' and 'Noble House,' which comes pout next year, is 1963. It brings 'Tai-pan' up to date, taking the main characters from 'King Rat' and bringing them up to date. It also takes the descendants of some of the 'Shogun' characters and brings thme up to date. So, in effect it is the first of the inyterlocking novels I plan. The next novel I want to call 'Nippon' and bring 'Shogun' up to date from Shogun to Perry, Perry to today -- there's not too much difference.
"But these are all long-term plans and I don't know if I have the strength to do it all. But if I can pull it off, I can then tell in fiction terms the involvement of the Anglo-Saxon in Asia, from the first man named Will Adams whom I call John Blackthorne up till today.I don't know what the sixth book would be -- maybe "The Empire Strikes Forward," he laughs. But the interview is convinced that he might even pull that one off, too.
What does James Clavell hope the current siring of "Shogun" will accomplish?
"I think the prime thing is to give people some relaxation. But I hope it will also give people some insight into the character of Japan. No. 1 is to entertain them, take them out of themselves for a period of time as I did in the book. And the second thing is to open their eyes.
"We need Japan from a national point of view -- and I'm talking straight politics now. They are our only ally in Asia. And even more important, there's a great deal we must learn from them as they've learned so successfully from us in the last 100 years. They've gone so far ahead of us. There are certain things in their attitudes such as a search from harmony, an understanding of their own art. How they are polite to one another. And they have maintained a personal dignity which we have lost.
"I hope this TV airing will encourage people here to treat the Japanese as real equals, to say: 'Yes, this is a foreign culture but it is a very interesting one.' After all, it is only a few years ago that we were trying to beat each other to death."
Mr. Clavell is a bit overwhelmed by the power and the burden investd in him by the mass-audience viewing of the film version of his book.
"'Shogun' is . . . most Westerners' introduction to Japan," he says, paling just a bit, but smiling in jest as he adjusts his ascot. "That's an appalling responsibility!"