Samurai salespitch

by Roger Shatzkin

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, p. 16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Paramount Pictures' announcement that they may offer a two-hour-plus version of tv's twelve-hour SHOGUN for theatrical release reveals typical big-time Hollywood folly when it comes to understanding the world of the small screen. What will be sorely missed in any pared down version is what all the by now copious criticism of this mini-epic failed to note as well: the commercials.

As I glued myself to late feudal Japan night after night a pattern began to emerge. Every ten minutes or so Chrysler's Lee Iacocco would pop up, hyping his welfare K-dillacs in commercials replete with mousy American consumers literally 'beating the pump' -  punching away at sponge mock-ups of America's newest one-arm bandits. Hold on. Lee would rather be punching out his Japanese corporate counterparts, or trashing Hondas, Toyotas, Datsuns, and Subarus. Then the light bulb lit; and it wasn't Ford's better idea. At some level SHOGUN was American capitalist allegory — vintage post-war West meets East. Not convinced?

Just ashore in Japan, Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain — no limey seadog but our own technocrat Kildare) insults his Samurai captor by indicating that he'd like to urinate on the barbarian so-and-so. The Samurai show who's really king of the hill by forcing Chamberlain prostrate and pissing on him (with nice sound effects). Oh Sweet Revenge for World War II. Mssrs. Honda, et. al., micturating away merrily on Iacocca and his compatriots at Ford and G.M..

Discipline and social organization: A large part of SHOGUN is designed to highlight the incredibly hierarchical nature of medieval (and by extension modern) Japanese society. What obedience These people know their place. The peasants (hardly glimpsed) don't count; the Samurai elite and their retainers do. They're ideal workers who'll cut anybody's throat for the boss. And there's no unemployment compensation. Screw up and you carve up your own stomach faster than a chef at a sushi bar.

Mercantilism forever: Even ambitious Lord Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune) will not let Chamberlain attack the Portuguese colonialists' Black Ship. Though there's no love lost between him and the wily imperialists, Toranaga insists that international trade — even carried on by his enemy — is better than no trade at all.

Hints of things to come department: Some of the nicest people in SHOGUN have begun to merge East and West. Lady Mariko (Yoko Shimada) and a Nipponese Jesuit defrocked for an overactive libido have the best of both worlds. They are Christians (and Western) when it's convenient, Buddhists (and Japanese) when it's not. And vice versa.

West beats East? Even if the Japanese have their society honed down to four-cylinder efficiency, Americans still have some expertise. With the love of his life Lady Mariko gone (and no chance possible for a meaningful intermingling of East and West?), Chamberlain starts work on a new oceangoing vessel. (The Japanese, as the Portuguese pilot has told him, are not too hot at sailing the open seas.) Final image: Chamberlain/Blackthorne/Kildare, blueprints in hand, directing his obedient band of Samurai craftsmen around the frame of his new ship. The enlightened American will absorb the lessons of the orient and re-emerge the better for his experience.

O.K. So you're not a Trilateralist paranoic; or you don't like allegory. You thought you watched twelve hours of people doing superb John Belushi imitations. Maybe.

But consider this: two of the other most watched miniseries in tv history also entertained and also plugged into psycho-socio-historical cultural events as vital as the ramifications of shifts in the world capitalist balance. In terms of audience appeal SHOGUN joins the select company of ROOTS (America's dirty secret — slavery) and HOLOCAUST (the West's not so secret dirt — Nazi fascism and atrocities).

Still not convinced? If you don't think that SHOGUN was in the tiniest part about Sonys and Sylvanias, Corollas and K-cars, ask Lee Iacocca. He knows. And if he has friends at Paramount, he should pass the word.