The Purpose of Violence in James Clavell’s Shogun

James Clavell depicts a Japan gripped in the throes of an uneasy interregnum. Ambitious lords scheme to discredit and destroy each other, forcing their rivals to break the peace of the deceased Taiko or to commit seppuku. The Portuguese plot to retain monopoly on the Japan-China trade, while the Jesuits seek to convert all of Japan to Catholicism. Into this simmering cauldron sails John Blackthorne of the Erasmus, whose knowledge and cargo could change the course of history forever.

As a work of fiction it is a masterpiece of literature. The 2024 live action adaptation is lauded as a masterpiece in its own right. Yet the most criticism I’ve seen leveled at the show is that it fails to depict the Battle of Sekigahara.

This isn’t a failing on the producers’ part. With a modest budget (by modern standards), recreating a massive battle with over eighty thousand warriors on both sides would be nigh-impossible. More to the point, the series set out to be a faithful adaptation of the book, and in the book, the climactic battle is described in just one paragraph.

For an audience used to modern action set pieces and conventional story structures, I can see why it is a disappointment. But I would argue, however, that glossing over Battle of Sekigahara makes perfect thematic sense—and that describing it in detail would have undermined the work.

To Shatter A Fragile Peace

The main conflict in Shogun is political. Every major player is plotting against every other player, moving men, materiel and information like pieces on a Go board. With so many plots in motion, there comes a point when plots collide.

This is where violence occurs.

Combat in Shogun is swift, intense, and unexpected. Open warfare is a violation of the Taiko’s law: anyone who breaks the peace forfeits his life. Thus, violence is performed covertly, through proxies and deniable actors.

The covert nature of violence means that it comes a surprise, both to the audience and the intended targets. There is little to no warning that violence is imminent, not until the swords are drawn and blood is spilled. The closest Shogun comes to outright warfare is the escapes from Osaka, where samurai are shown dressed in the panoply of war, marching out stoically to meet their fate. None of the major characters are depicted plotting violence until the scene is concluded.

As violence comes as a surprise, the outcome of combat is uncertain. Throughout the battle sequences, the audience is left guessing as to how or even whether the intended target(s) will survive. It maintains suspense and tension from start to finish.

When combat occurs, it represents a failure. One player discovers he is at a disadvantage and wants to claw back a position of advantage. Or another player wants to seize an advantage for himself. Subtlety and misdirection have failed. Violence becomes the final arbiter. He who is better skilled at arms, and more importantly at strategy, will win the day. This creates an opportunity for unexpected outcomes. Combat can end in shocking, yet entirely organic, ways. The consequences that flow following are likewise surprising, yet also organic.

Stealth and surprise are key elements of the series. Everyone wants to hide their plots from everyone else, at least until it is too late to stop a plot in motion. The players are cunning, ruthless and intelligent, and more often than not, succeed in maintaining deception and surprise.

This is what makes the combat work in Shogun—and why depicting the Battle of Sekigahara would have undermined the story.

The Inevitability of Victory

Throughout Shogun, Toranaga Yoshii patiently moves pieces across the board, setting up a final victory against his enemies and clearing the road to the office of Shogun. Despite many setbacks, he plays a masterstroke at Osaka Castle, turning his enemies and their supporters against each other. Though Japan is once again plunged into warfare, his politicking ensures his victory at Sekigahara. His enemies have no answer to his final ploy.

Combat in Shogun occurs when plots collide. When a plot is not countered, it succeeds. When the endgame plot can not be countered, victory becomes inevitable.

The Battle of Sekigahara is known to history. The massing of forces, the deployment of firearms, the defection of multiple warlords, the defeat of the Western Army. There was nothing that Toranaga’s enemies—or Tokugama Ieyasu in the real world—could have done to prevent any of these.

The outcome of the battle was assured before it even began. This is one of the highest principles in Sun Zi’s Art of War. Because victory was assured, there was no need to depict the battle in detail. Unlike the other battles in Shogun, there was no stealth, surprise and uncertainty, and therefore no suspense, no room for drama, no opportunities for a sudden reversal. Though larger in scale and stakes, The Battle of Sekigahara lacks the critical elements that make up all the other smaller-scale conflicts. Depicting the battle might create an adrenaline rush for the audience—but compared to the smaller, tighter, combats, it would be only a cheap thrill.

It is fitting for Shogun to end with the characters concluding their respective arcs with their own personal dramas. As a character-driven story, the audience needs to have closure for the characters they have followed from the beginning. There is no conventional ‘climax’ as Western storytelling understands the term, but the actions of the final combat scene sets the stage for Toranaga’s victory.

Explicitly showing the Battle of Sekigahara would be nothing more than a concession to those used to conventional storytelling structure—and a disservice to the rest of the work. It would contradict the established circumstances under which combat takes place in the story. As the outcome of the battle is already known, there is nothing in it but spectacle. The conflicts in the story are driven by intrigues and manipulation, and so it is fitting for the final conflict to also be resolved in the same way.

Lessons for Writers

What does this mean for a writer? Scale, stakes and spectacle are nice to have in a battle sequence, but they aren’t necessary.

To create a memorable combat sequence, there must be an element of uncertainty. The outcome should always be in doubt until the final moment. The protagonist must earn his victory, by outwitting or outfighting his enemies. The enemy begins in a position of advantage, and so the protagonist must reverse it. Or, alternatively, while the protagonist begins with the advantage, the enemy seeks to reverse it, and so he must fight to prevent it.

This, in a nutshell, is how you create suspense. With suspense, you keep the reader immersed all the way to the end. It is how you can magnify the impact of a twist at the end of the scene, or the beginning of the next. The novel Shogun is an exemplar of how to integrate combat into a setting of high intrigue—and, most importantly, when not to depict it.

If victory is assured, detail becomes unnecessary.

Martial arts is the heart of Saga of the Swordbreaker. There is a conventional action-packed climax to the series. Check out the newly-released final book, Invincible Under Heaven, here!





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