Shōgun: Lost and found in translation - Hindustan Times
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Shōgun: Lost and found in translation

Jun 21, 2024 03:39 PM IST

Unlike the 1980 TV adaptation and James Clavell’s novel, FX's Shōgun emphasises the Japanese perspective, as it explores the tension between fate and free will

Translators are wielded as a sword and a shield in Shōgun, the prestige TV reinvention of James Clavell’s historical novel. Five regents are locked in a power struggle in 16th century Japan. Portuguese merchants, Jesuit missionaries, and one English pilot all get swept up in it. But it is a Japanese translator who holds the key to a future of peace. Savvy in politics and poetics, Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) emerges as the most essential character in the show’s debut season. Translation, through her words, becomes the most captivating dance of diplomacy. So does non-translation and sometimes mistranslation, if the situation demands de-escalation. The job of a translator isn’t merely expressing words in a different language. It is about weighing each word carefully so as to convey its intent, its tone, its sensitivity across cultural boundaries. Sensitivity was of the utmost importance in Sengoku Jidai, a period in Japanese history marked by near-constant upheaval. The courtroom was a minefield where a slip-up could end in catastrophe. To cross it and come out the other side victorious required a deft navigator like Mariko, who understands the power of words to shape nations and alter the course of history.

A scene from Shogun (Courtesy FX)
A scene from Shogun (Courtesy FX)

By the year 1600, the Portuguese held a monopoly on maritime trade with Japan on account of being the first of the Europeans to reach the archipelago. While the merchants brought guns, the missionaries preached “peace be with you.” As the show begins, the mission of colonization through evangelization is well underway. Many of the Jesuits have learnt to speak Japanese to ease their “God-given” task to convert the native population to Catholicism. When the Dutch ship Erasmus washes ashore in the fishing village of Ajiro, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), the English pilot on board, learns his expedition to disrupt the Portuguese interests may not go as sailingly as he had hoped. For starters, his captain and most of his crew succumbed to illness and starvation long before the ship’s arrival in Japan. What’s more: neither can he speak Japanese; nor can the Japanese speak English.

What Blackthorne can speak is Portuguese (rendered as English for the sake of convenience in the show). When he is captured and brought to the Osaka castle, the embattled daimyo (Lord) Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) sends for the Jesuit clergyman Father Martin Alvito (Tommy Bastow) to communicate with the Englishman so as to determine whether he could be an ally or an adversary. Blackthorne is sceptical of Father Martin, who as a Portuguese Catholic is his enemy by default. To translate is to betray, as is often said, itself a translation of the old Italian expression “traduttore, traditore.” A further complication here is that neither Blackthorne nor Toranaga trust their translator enough to do his job accurately without prejudice. Father Martin nonetheless assures Blackthorne he won’t twist his words. As a show of faith, he grants him his first lesson in Japanese with three words: anjin meaning pilot, tsuji meaning translator and teki meaning enemy, so the anjin can point to the tsuji and explain to Toranaga that their countries are at war.

When the season premiere raises the curtain on feudal Japan, there hasn’t been a shōgun for decades. The country had been ruled by a peasant-turned-warlord who took the title of Kampaku (Imperial Regent) and later Taiko (retired Kampaku). The death of the Taiko has left a power vacuum, with his heir too young to take over. Until the boy comes of age and claims the throne, a council of five warlords has been appointed to run the country in the meantime. Concerned that Toranaga has grown too powerful, the other four form an alliance to get him out of the way. Bearing in mind the threat posed by political rivals, Toranaga is quick to recognise the tactical advantage of enlisting Blackthorne as an adviser, believing whatever knowhow the anjin may have gleaned from European warfare could turn the tide in his favour. On top of that, Blackthorne’s distaste for Catholics and their distaste for him could help break the Portuguese stranglehold on Japan. For his mere presence in the country sows seeds of discord within the rival camp. Each day he lives, the rift grows between Toranaga’s chief adversary Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira) and the Catholic regents in the Portuguese’s pockets. If Toranaga is to chat battle strategies with Blackthorne, it stands to reason that he can’t depend on Father Martin.

“This televisual translation isn’t exactly loyal to Clavell’s 1975 novel. Creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks blow the dust off its near-1200 pages, let it air out and make some tectonic modifications that the 1980 miniseries didn’t.” (Amazon)
“This televisual translation isn’t exactly loyal to Clavell’s 1975 novel. Creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks blow the dust off its near-1200 pages, let it air out and make some tectonic modifications that the 1980 miniseries didn’t.” (Amazon)

This is where Mariko comes in. Though she is a Catholic convert, she is a dutiful ally of Toranaga. Being fluent in Portuguese, she is called upon to act as translator. Given Blackthorne’s volatile responses, his unfiltered tell-it-like-it-is-ms and his colourful insults, the job isn’t a straightforward one. When a young Japanese lord tries to take his guns away, he calls him a “milk-dribbling fuck smear.” How do you translate words that seem to be daring for a death sentence? Mariko does it with tact: “With the utmost respect, the anjin apologises for the misunderstanding.” Tension is eased by humorous relief. She relays the spirit of Blackthorne’s words while softening their sting, so his snap provocations aren’t perceived as an affront. Tact is paramount in a country where deals are made behind closed doors of houses with paper-thin walls. Feudal Japan comes alive as a nest of intrigue and subterfuge in Shōgun. Hostages are taken. Assassinations are planned. Debts are settled. Alliances are built and broken. Battle plans are drawn and redrawn. Communication is the lifeblood of the show, in particular the exchanges between Mariko, Toranaga and Blackthorne. The trio seldom agree on matters of honour and pride, compromise and sacrifice, loyalty and liberty. But with Japan on the brink of a civil war, they must work together for ultimate peace.

If to translate is to betray, this televisual translation isn’t exactly loyal to Clavell’s 1975 novel. Creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks blow the dust off its near-1200 pages, let it air out and make some tectonic modifications that the 1980 miniseries didn’t. The original text had fictionalised the story of real-life English pilot William Adams’ arrival in Sengoku-era Japan and his ascent as a samurai under Tokugawa Ieyasu. After outsmarting his rivals and seizing control over all of Japan, Ieyasu named himself shōgun in 1603. For the next 250 years and change, a period known as the Edo jidai, Japan enjoyed relative stability and self-sufficiency under the rule of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. In his book, Clavell conceived his English protagonist to be much closer to the future shōgun than he really was, cast him in a role worthy of a lead in a political drama, and made a Japanese noblewoman his love interest. Screenwriter Eric Bercovici modelled his 1980 TV iteration like a faithful servant to the original Eurocentric text. We see and come to understand a turbulent period in Japan’s history through Blackthorne’s eyes alone. The choice to leave the Japanese dialogue untranslated and unsubtitled made the country, its people and its ways appear exotic and beyond comprehension.

By decentralising the story, Kondo and Marks emphasise the Japanese perspective. By promoting Mariko and Toranaga to leading roles, the saga only gains a wealth of intrigue. By subtitling the Japanese dialogue, the characters are granted a voice previously denied. By way of Mariko’s translations, we are guided into shores beyond our own, to another time, to another place. The culture clash between the Japanese and the Europeans is put into perspective by each branding the other as the savage outsider and their culture as backwards. The codes and traditions that bind each culture are considered and challenged without any suggestion of one being better than the other. Throughout the 10 episodes of its first season, Shōgun’s lavish recreation of Sengoku-era Japan remains an irresistible sight to behold. Landscape shots lend a historical scale and a mythical zeal to the drama. Anamorphic lenses, which create an effect of sharp foregrounds and fuzzy backgrounds, convey the emotional unrest of those who had to traverse the rough seas of the time.

Series poster (Courtesy FX)
Series poster (Courtesy FX)

Instead of turning Mariko into a full-fledged onna-musha (female warrior), the show imagines her as a high born woman, who despite being the last surviving member of a disgraced lineage, has managed to carve out a place for herself by Toranaga’s side with her gift for words. Granted, she is handy with a naginata (polearm), but her wit is much sharper at cutting to the point. When the time comes for Toranaga to enact his grand battle plan, it is Mariko who delivers the opening gambit: by proving to everyone once and for all that it is Ishido who is the real aggressor.

When Blackthorne sets foot on Japanese shores, his belligerent personality, his foul mouth and all the ordeals he endures suggest he won’t survive too long. He is walloped, pissed on, locked up and nearly killed. He is surrounded by people who can’t understand a word he says. The ones who do — the Portuguese — want him dead. Clavell spends the first hundred-odd pages belabouring Blackthorne’s sense of disorientation in the face of a language and customs he can’t make sense of. Like taking a bath every day. The book minces no words when it comes to stinky Europeans that it becomes a bit of a running gag. The show doesn’t mask their stench either. Blackthorne is baffled when asked to bathe a second time in a week. A woman holds her nose like he is a walking health code violation. To be fair, his resistance to bathing stems as much from his fear of the “flux” (dysentery) as from poor hygiene standards of the English. Lack of access to clean water and the cold weather made bathing a luxury instead of a necessity in Elizabethan times.

Daily chats with Mariko educate Blackthorne on Japanese culture beyond language. The more the two exchange ideas, the more they come to respect each other despite their differences. Mutual respect blossoms into affection. In the book, the two speak in Latin in private to avoid their forbidden romance from being discovered by sharp-eared spies. During these moments of intimacy, Clavell renders their Latin in an archaic English to signal a foreign tongue. The show transforms their facile bond from the book into a relationship of equals by allowing for some telling disagreements. Episode 5 sees the two make their respective case for Western individualism and Eastern collectivism. Blackthorne claims Mariko is trapped by meaningless traditions and urges her to free herself from them. Mariko rebuts his idea of freedom with the counter that it is he who is trapped. Because in his search for individual freedom, he can’t ever be free from himself. At least her sense of duty allows her to surrender the idea of self for a greater purpose. All through the show, Blackthorne finds his world view challenged. Once he learns to admire the ways of the Japanese, he begins to question his belief in Europe as the hilt of civilisation. Gradually, he even finds a place and a position for himself in an unfamiliar realm. For helping him escape Osaka, Toranaga honours him with the title of Hatamoto (a rough approximation would be bannerman), a position that comes with a house, servants, and a consort.

Food becomes an essential marker of Blackthorne’s growing adjustment to Japanese culture. He chows down a bowl of nattō, a dish made from fermented soybeans which Mariko warns is an acquired taste. However, “a taste from his home country” doesn’t translate as well. When he prepares some rabbit stew with the available sake instead of the unavailable sherry, his consort Fuji (Moeka Hoshi), Mariko and her husband Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe) all refuse to even sample it — a reminder that as an outsider, it is up to him to assimilate to Japanese culture, not the other way around. In the same episode, Blackthorne gets a rude awakening about the life-and-death import of clear communication in an honour-bound society. For training his army in the use of cannons, Toranaga gifts Blackthorne a pheasant. Instead of cooking the game bird right away, Blackthorne strings it up in the courtyard outside his home to let its meat age. In broken Japanese, he tells Fuji and his staff: “If touch — die!” Confused but ever-compliant, the staff take his order literally. For days, the pheasant rots and attracts flies. The house stinks rancid. No one dares to disobey until the stink gets too much to put up with. The gardener takes it upon himself to get rid of the corpse, a decision that sentences him to death. When Blackthorne learns about it, he is aghast. “I’m troubled by your whole damned country. Life has no value to you,” he complains in anger. Mariko reasons it was his words that cast the die and it was his position as hatamoto that imparted weight to those words.

A sickly gardener sacrifices his life to restore harmony in a village. A samurai messenger is ripped apart by a cannonball to instigate a war. A proud father takes the life of his infant child and his own as an apology to an aggrieved lord. An impetuous son attempts to kill a turncoat only to slip and crack his own head. A dutiful general disembowels himself in protest. Death can come anytime and anywhere in Shōgun. In an unforgiving world where suicide is culturally sanctioned, life can be, as a priest in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon describes, “as frail and fleeting as the morning dew.” The ritualistic practice of seppuku is depicted so often and so flippantly in the novel as if it were the only accepted form of atonement and resistance. Blackthorne is shocked to see a samurai throw himself off a cliff to simply alert his lord to the rope dropped down to save him. The corresponding scene in the show plays out without the need for a dead samurai. It is the sight of the lord drawing out his sword ready to end his life on his own terms that leaves Blackthorne in awe. With each act of self-sacrifice, awe turns to horror over what he considers to be a wanton disregard of human life. What’s so honourable about committing to a code that fetishizes self-sacrifice, he wonders. Just as her father who signed his death warrant by killing a power-mad lord, Mariko is a vassal ready to die for her principles. When she is sent to Osaka on what could end up being a suicide mission, Blackthorne asks rhetorically, “You’d walk into a sword just to prove the blade is sharp?” Leave it to Mariko to explain herself with a poetic response: “Accepting death isn’t surrender. Flowers are only flowers because they fall.”

Sawai creates a complete arc for Mariko with a purposeful economy of words, not with explosive monologues ready-made for an Emmy nomination reel. Each word feels invested with a striking imperativeness. There is a clear sense of a woman who throughout her life has had to make her points quickly, softly, concisely in between the long-winded see-sawing of self-important men. The charged movements of her observing eyes suggest she’s thinking a lot more than she’s saying. Sawai is such a mesmerising performer she doesn’t have to say much to make us feel the great wealth of emotions Mariko must suppress so as to do her job as a mediator better. Her gaze provides an effective shorthand for her character’s resiliency. Next to the graceful Sawai, Jarvis makes for an intimidating presence, only more like a living cartoon of brute strength offset by a reedy voice. Such a quirk allows for moments of levity during testy conversations with samurais and lords. But there is also a soft side to his Blackthorne. Scenes with Mariko almost play like duets, with his usual high-testosterone energy deflected by her quiet dignity in their heart-to-hearts.

With the Eurocentrism toned down, Blackthorne isn’t as disagreeable as he can be in the book. Nor are the lords and samurai all merciless villains. On account of the Japanese never having met an Englishman before, Blackthorne and his crew are thought to be pirates and imprisoned by the lord Kasigi Yabu. The men soon find out the hard way that their captor has a sadistic streak when one of them is slowly boiled alive for his sick pleasure. A crewmate suffers the same fate in the show. The lord, renamed Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), isn’t the same schematic character however. He may be an ambitious man loyal to none but himself. He may readily switch to whichever side he thinks has the best chance of winning. But there is a visible moral ambiguity that keeps us guessing.

A scene from Shogun (FX)
A scene from Shogun (FX)

So does Toranaga. At least in regards to pointless death, if not a lot else, Toranaga shares Blackthorne’s sentiment. “Why is it always that the people who are so eager to go into battle are the ones who have never been in it?” he asks. If there is even a small chance of sorting out the conflict without bloodshed, Toranaga wants to take it. It isn’t until his hand is forced that he makes his big play. In the finale, a defeated lord about to commit seppuku waxes poetic about Toranaga’s strategizing. “How does it feel to shape the wind to your will?” he asks. To which, Toranaga replies, “I don’t control the wind. I just study it,” insisting he is a mere student of nature, not a master.

Centuries of living in a powder keg of touchy warlords had taught the Japanese to be cautious with their words. Centuries of surviving in a hotspot for earthquakes and tsunamis has hardwired the people to accept that there is no negotiating with nature. In a land beset by chaos and uncertainty, poetry took on a ceremonial function. Shōgun weaves haikus and rengas into its scenes and its very seams to signify the power of poetry in the courtroom. Toranaga and Mariko mourn the loss of a general not with an overt display of emotion, but with an exchange of verses.

Toranaga: The sound of rain on the leaves can be heard.

Mariko: Still more fragile is the dew of tears on my sleeves even in springtime.

Toranaga: Waiting, the pine tree never withers in winter.

Mariko: If I could use words like scattering flowers and falling leaves, what a bonfire my poems would make.

In the penultimate episode, Mariko travels to Osaka on Toranaga’s behalf to undermine Ishido’s authority. Taking the floor at the meeting with the Council of Regents, she starts off by congratulating Ishido and Lady Ochiba no kata (Fumi Nikaido), the mother of the heir, on their “joyous engagement” — in effect a backhanded compliment. Mariko and Ochiba were childhood friends until the former’s father killed the latter’s father. The act tarnishes Mariko’s family line, while forcing Ochiba to become the consort of the Taiko. Now, the two women with a shared pain and anger are caught on opposite sides of a power struggle. On seeing Mariko for the first time in a long while, Ochiba remembers their childhood spent competing in poetry contests. When Ochiba asks Mariko to present the opening line for an upcoming poetry contest, Mariko obliges: “While the snow remains/Veiled in the haze of cold evening/A leafless branch.” The words signal a coded notice to Ochiba, whose name translates to “falling leaves” in Japanese. Ishido praises the poem but misses the subtext. Yabushige complains about the seasonal misalignment. Only Ochiba understands the poem for what it is: a warning that she is not prepared for the future to come and that the power she holds is fleeting and will fall away like leaves in the winter.

As surely as winter follows autumn, spring will follow winter. This belief in the impermanence of things is what, perhaps, gives the Japanese the courage to face death and disaster with an extraordinary resilience. This attunement to the rhythms of nature is what led the people to embrace the philosophy of wabi-sabi ie, to appreciate the beauty of impermanence and imperfection. One of the elemental tenets of wabi-sabi is uketamo. A simple translation would be the absolute acceptance of whatever is coming. A Stoic approximation would be amor fati (a love of fate in Latin). Wabi-sabi or amor fati, no one in Shōgun embodies the tension between fate and free will, beauty and impermanence, duty and desire, better than the translator Mariko-sama.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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