Literature / Asian Saga
The Asian Saga is a series of novels by James Clavell, set in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Iran over a period from 1600 to 1979. The novels don't form a single continuous story, but are linked together by recurring characters, and their descendants, and a theme of examining interactions between Asian peoples and Westerners.
The novels, in chronological order, are:
- 1600, Japan: Shogun (1975)
- 1841, Hong Kong: Tai-Pan (1966)
- 1862, Japan: Gai-Jin (1993)
- 1945, Singapore: King Rat (1962)
- 1963, Hong Kong: Noble House (1981)
- 1979, Iran: Whirlwind (1986)
, King Rat
and Noble House
have been adapted for film and television (with the Shogun
miniseries/film starring Toshiro Mifune
being the best known adaptation), and Shogun
was also adapted as an Infocom
computer game and a Broadway musical. Also there was a strategy game based on Tai-Pan
for many platforms, including ZX Spectrum.
This series provides examples of:
- Affably Evil:
- Quillian Gornt from Noble House is a primary antagonist, and yet somewhat charming in his own way - he's a son of a bitch, but he also has quite a way with women. In fact, after he drowns (between Noble House and Whirlwind), Ian Dunross retires from being Tai-Pan of the Noble House because life is just too boring without his archrival there to compete with.
- His ancestor who founded the Gornt company is a big character in Gai-Jin, and while he isn't exactly evil, he wastes no time in trying to get Malcolm Struan's widow to jump in bed with him. Even though he founds the company which becomes the Noble House's enemy, you can't help but like him, if for no other reason than he has balls.
- Author Avatar: Peter in King Rat and Noble House is based on Clavell himself.
- Badass: Too many examples to list, but from Whirlwind the Finnish pilot Yokkonen who fends off a mob of protestors with a fire axe, punches his way through a road block, convinces his captors to follow him in storming a fortified compound and rescuing his wife. Also, the one commando who liberates the prison camp in King Rat.
- Shogun makes this clear: you have to be this in order to be a samurai.
- The Bad Guy Wins: One possible interpretation of Shogun, depending on whether you consider Toranaga to be the bad guy or not. He is unquestionably power-hungry, ruthless, manipulative and has no regard for keeping solemn promises he made in the past, but his combination of genuinely caring for certain people coupled with being an all-round Magnificent Bastard of the highest order makes the reader more likely to overlook his bad aspects. It doesn't change the fact that he is arguably the darker shade of gray in the Gray and Gray Morality of the book.
- Benevolent Boss: Dirk Struan of Noble House knows all too well what conditions on ships are normally like, so he makes sure to pay wages on the day, in silver, and equips his ships with the best of everything. Sailors fight for the chance to work aboard one of his ships.
- Berserk Button: In Shogun, asking whether or implying that Toranaga wants the Shogunate for himself is the only thing that consistently gets an emotional reaction out of him. That being said...
- Blatant Lies: Toranaga resents any implication that he wants to be Shogun. Going as far as saying "Who cares about titles, power is what matters" to an envoy. They both know perfectly well that in Japan titles, even when completely removed from any real decision-making, are still potentially very important. Eventually when the Emperor is made to ask Toranaga to be his shogun, he "reluctantly accepts".
- Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": A mild, item-related example: In Shogun, Clavell insisted on calling the Kusarigama blades (which are clearly scythes) as "knives-with-curved-blades-and-very-long-wooden-handles".
- Canon Welding: King Rat was originally not part of the Saga; although it's set in Asia, it's different in style (and much shorter) than the others. Then the protagonist showed up as a supporting character in Noble House...
- Continuity Nod: Noble House has countless:
- The love story between Dirk Struan and Mei-mei is a legend in Hong Kong.
- Tess Brock, now known as Hag Struan, is used to scare children, and the knife she stabbed into her father's portrait is left there for fear that she return from the grave to wreak vengeance on those who would disobey her.
- Several prominent Hong Kong brothels have a bidding war for Dirk Struan's great-great-great-great-great-grandson's virginity, believing Struan to have been the pinnacle of manhood.
- In Noble House, the Struan empire is shown to have strong ties to Toda Shipping, and one of their Japanese associates is a woman named Riko Anjin. John Blackthorne was given the name "Anjin" in Japan, and Mariko Toda was his lover.
- Corrupt Cop: Large portions of the Hong Kong police, especially Donald C.C Smyth: head of the East Aberdeen precinct and the Dragons: a group of Chinese Police officers who run a large portion of the illegal gambling in Hong Kong.
- Chekhov's Gun: The coins.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: In Shogun, Ishido (Ishida Mitsunari's Expy) is buried up to the neck in mud, and random passers-by are invited to take turns sawing away at his neck with a bamboo saw. It took days for him to stop screaming and finally die.
- Also from Shogun, one of Blackthorne's crewmates is boiled alive, a punishment that other characters in the book mention occasionally and fear greatly. A samurai also ends up getting bayoneted in the gut and disemboweled, slowly cut at and mutilated, then left to be eaten by wild dogs for his dishonorable pleas for mercy.
- Domestic Abuse: Several characters are this by modern standards, but are completely normal for the time. The Victorian-era Tyler Brock is shown to occasionally threaten his wife with violence, but they nonetheless have a very close relationship and are very happy togethernote . Buntaro is well within his rights to hurt or even kill Mariko by samurai law, but Toranaga is still angry with him for beating her up because she's his only interpreter, and when he chastises Buntaro he criticises him for his short-sightedness and lack of self-control rather than saying it's wrong for him to beat his wife. Buntaro is also a somewhat sympathetic case, as he does genuinely try to control himself and reconcile with her, and Mariko explicitly says that she deliberately angers him with her eternally polite and icily deferential behaviour.
- Doorstopper: All of the books save for King Rat.
- Determinator: Most of the main characters in each book go through hell and only come out in one piece thanks to this. It is noted in Tai-Pan that successful ship captains tend to be this by default.
- The Dung Ages: The filth of the 16th century Europeans (confirmed by the Real Life accounts of the Elizabethan Age) is shocking to their Japanese contemporaries, while things hardly improved until the 1840s (the timeframe of Tai-Pan) among people of low birth like sailors and traders.
- Eternally Pearly-White Teeth: the hero of Literature/Tai-Pan is the only European to have them. Proof of his moral degeneracy, as he learnt tooth care from the Chinese, who consider European teeth to be disgusting and evidence of un-necessary neglect. Most Europeans live for the day they can have the whole lot pulled out and replaced with false dentures; one rival dies when stoically ignoring an abscess, which develops into blood poisoning.
- Excrement Statement: What better way to punish disrespect?
- Face Before Reason:
- Tai-Pan: One of Dirk Struan's most notable characteristics is that he'd rather die or have his family hate him than lose face in front of his colleagues and enemies. His methods for getting around this problem is one of the things that qualify him as a Magnificent Bastard.
- Being set in cultures where face is very important, quite a few characters from various books fall into this.
- Full-Name Basis: In the text The Snake, Donald C.C Smyth is often referred to in full rather than just his fore or surname like all the other characters
- The Fundamentalist: Whirlwind is full of them (unsurprisingly, since it's set during the Iranian Revolution). Shogun also has quite a lot of fanatical Christians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) which again is to be expected due to the setting. Tai-Pan and Gai-jin have a few, but they're not really a plot point.
- Gambit Pileup: Especially in Shogun.
- Genius Bruiser: Quite a few characters need to be this in order to survive the intrigue and violence of the settings. Dirk Struan probably takes the cake, being a very big yet very quick man who is also a Magnificent Bastard.
- Going Native: In Shogun, John Blackthorne, to the point that he find his former companions "alien".
- Gratuitous Japanese: Despite being used incorrectly sometimes; in one egregious case, one character of Shogun wants to beg another not to kill someone, but she uses "dozo", which means "please [suit yourself/ go ahead]" instead of "please [don't do that]".
- Historical-Domain Character: The pre-20th century novels feature No Celebrities Were Harmed versions of many historical figures. In Shogun, these include (in the backstory) Oda Nobunaga (under the name of Goroda) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (under the name Nakamura).
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: While many of the romances are between Westerners and East Asians, and so some difference in size is to be expected, Blackthorne, Dirk Struan and Erikki Yokkonen are explicitly stated to be big even by Western standards, and some of their lovers are small by Eastern standards. Malcolm Struan and Angelique Richard also have this dynamic even though they're both European, so the author seems to be fond of this trope.
- Informed Ability: An unusual example in Shogun. Toranaga is repeatedly stated to be a military genius and an amazing battle commander who has never lost a battle in his life, yet the reader never actually sees him leading in a battle, and the moments when we see him planning a campaign are very brief and not particularly detailed (possibly because the author was not an expert on samurai warfare strategies). However, because we get many, many examples of his brilliance in political chessmastery and manipulation, we don't really have any reason to doubt the people who say he's a great general, so he gets away with it better than most examples of this trope.
- Kangaroo Court: Whirlwind has a huge number of people executed by the hastily set-up and completely untrained religious courts, who often don't even understand their own religious laws particularly well. In one case, the victim was actually set free by the court, but the guard escorting him out applied his personal interpretation of God's will to a random occurrence and led him to the firing squad instead.
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- May-December Romance: Tai-Pan's May-May and Dirk Struan.
- The Mole: Several in Noble House. John Chen is one in Struan's for Linc. Sevrin is a soviet network of moles in the Hong Kong police and business and Brian Kwok is one for the PRC.
- Morton's Fork: The Catholic hierarchy faces one of these in Shogun - they're being pressured by both Ishido's faction and Toranaga's faction for support, with it being made clear that failure to commit or backing the losing side will result in the loss of their power and influence. Since Ishido openly dislikes them and will restrict them anyway if he wins, they decide to back Toranaga - who secretly dislikes them and will restrict them anyway if he wins.
- Nightmare Fetishist: Yabu is shown as such as a bit of a Establishing Character Moment. When one of Blackthorne's men is being boiled alive, most everyone else is kept awake and made very uncomfortable by the screaming. Yabu, meanwhile, is described as not just enjoying it but it is all but blatantly stated that he is getting aroused by listening to them. Almost immediately afterwards, he has a threesome with a woman and a boy and on a few occasions thinks back fondly on "The Night of the Screams".
- Ninja: Shogun features a ninja attack at one point. They fail to kill Mariko/Gracia Hosokawa only because she commits suicide.
- Noble Bigot: Given that one of the main interests of the series is the clash between vastly different cultures, it's no surprise that there are many very prejudiced characters who are highly admirable in other ways. Some of them grow out of their prejudices (to one extent or another), while others don't, but are still fundamentally good people.
- No Man of Woman Born: The method by which Ishido is executed.
- Out with a Bang: One of the protagonists of Gai-Jin.
- Personal Seals: Show up and become plot points in the expected fashion.
- Plot Coupon: The four broken coins given to Dirk Struan by Jin-Qua. Each half coin allows the bearer to ask one favor of any size of Noble House. One of them was used to get Chiang Kai-Shek out of China when the Communists took over.
- Pretty in Mink: Venus Poon in Noble House complains about her lover promising her one, until he finally gives it to her.
- Privateer: John Blackthorne in Shogun.
- Reliably Unreliable Guns: In Tai-Pan, mention is made of how the muskets the Chinese use are ancient and poorly kept, more likely to kill the shooter than the person they are trying to shoot. Sure enough, not long after this mention, Dirk Struan is in a fight with some Chinese sailors when one attempts to shoot Dirk. The gun blows up in his hands,taking his hands with it.
- Reckless Gun Usage: All over the place in Whirlwind by the Iranian revolutionaries, unsurprising since they are armed (and trigger-happy) civilians rather than trained soldiers. One such instance is when one of them finds his gun jammed, looks down the barrel, and then bashes the rifle butt against the ground with the barrel pointing towards him. At the same time there's another revolutionary who's attached grenades to his belt by their pins. The helicopter pilots (most of them ex-military,) are naturally horrified and try to stay as far away as they can. It's not totally clear whether the lack of care is simple stupidity or whether it's part of their fanatic belief that everything happens at the will of God, so either they'll be fine anyway, or they'll die and there would be absolutely nothing they could do to prevent it.
- Averted in Shogun; Rodrigues carefully inspects the armoury on his ship, and is furious when he finds a musket with an improperly maintained flint that would cause it to be dangerous. However, many other characters are somewhat careless about pointing muskets, pistols or cannons at people while they're still considering whether or not to kill them.
- It's also pointed out that the unreliable nature of early firearms meant that it was virtually impossible to be safe around them anyway; in Tai-Pan an unfortunate pirate blows off his own hands when he fires an old musket.
- Samurai in Ninja Town: In Shogun, everyone believes that the target of the ninja attack is the Anjin-san (the gaijin samurai). In reality, its the Lady Mariko. Not that it matters, because the castle is full of samurai, and the ninjas are attacking in force.
- An earlier example, when the very ninja-like Amida Tong assassin attacks the castle where Toranaga is staying at, it is assumed the assassin was going after Toranaga. The real target is later determined to Blackthorne/Anjin-san and the assassin's employers are hinted to be the Portuguese. This was when Anjin-san was just a Funny Foreigner, not samurai.
- Self-Made Man: Both Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock started with nothing and worked and schemed their way into being two of the most powerful men in Asia. Their backgrounds and attitudes put them at odds with many of the upper class politicians and soldiers they have to deal with, and their exasperation with their blinkered social superiors is one of the few topics on which they completely agree.
- Linc Bartlett and Casey Tcholock from Noble House also fit this, though they at least come from an era where this was less shocking.
- Sexophone: In the adaptation of Noble House, this is Venus Poon's leitmotif.
- Soap Opera: The adaptation of Noble House plays a lot like the nighttime soaps that were popular at the time.
- Seppuku: In Shogun:
- Subverted by Blackthorne who attempts it but lives to tell, still getting benefits as it raises other people's opinion of him.
- Played straight by Mariko, who commits suicide before being killed by ninjas, and before killing herself she states that her death shall be seen as seppuku. It does, and since her master Toranaga's Batman Gambit depended on her commiting suicide, he wins his bets and becomes shogun.
- Also played straight by Yabu, who has his treachery revealed at a time when he has also ceased to be useful, and is ordered to do this by Toranaga. For all his many faults, everyone who attended the suicide said his was the most dignified and graceful they had ever seen.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Variation. William Longstaff has his name written out in Chinese characters, not knowing that his translators are getting back at the round-eyed foreign devil by transcribing his surname with the characters for "Odious Penis". Much hilarity is had by everyone who reads Chinese.
- Smug Snake: Quite a lot of examples from every book, which is unsurprising in a series where virtually everyone, regardless of competence or intelligence, gets involved in the Gambit Pileups. Probably the best example is Yabu in Shogun, who is repeatedly shown to believe that he is stronger and cleverer than Toranaga. He is very wrong.
- The Starscream: Yabu is determined right from the start to betray Toranaga and take his position. Toranaga is fully aware of this, and plays him expertly to keep him loyal, at least until he doesn't need him any more and is provided with a convenient reason to get rid of him...
- Stock Ninja Weaponry: In Shogun, the shinobi aiming at Mariko's life are described wielding poison-covered shurikens, swords and "scythe-like knives connected to long weighted chains" (aka: Kusarigama).
- The Strategist: Toranaga
- Translation By Volume: In the Shogun miniseries, Blackthorne's first interactions with the Japanese all involve him speaking very loudly and very slowly.
- Translation Convention
- The Triads and the Tongs: Feature prominently throughout.
- Troll: In Tai-Pan, Dirk Struan; he throws a lavish ball with a huge prize for the best dressed woman in the then near cultureless Hong Kong, knowing that every female European on the continent will do nothing but nag their husbands into insanity for weeks before hand about buying dresses/getting their hair done etc.
- Upper-Class Twit: William Longstaff from Tai-Pan is not totally brainless, but he is very set in his upper-class English mindset and not very decisive, and as such is completely out of his depth when dealing with self-made traders and Chinese ambassadors in the fledgling Hong Kong. When he has to deal with European politics, he is noticeably more adept. Dirk Struan even comments that he would be as out of his depth at any court in Europe as Longstaff is in Hong Kong.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: All of his books (with the possible exception of Noble House) are based on real historical events, and their protagonists on real people, but the names have all been changed, along with anything else that got the way of the story.
- The Noble House is based on Jardine House, and the events depicted in the novel as one week in the 60s were in fact several years in the same decade for Jardine.
- Yamato Nadeshiko: Mariko Buntaro both subverts it (refuses her husband in private instead of being subservient to him) and plays it straight ( prefers death rather than renouncing to her ideals). Then again, she is an expy of Gracia Hosokawa who was an Ur-Example of the trope.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: In Shogun, Toranaga is never going to let Blackthorne leave Japan. Ever.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: In the Shogun miniseries, used as a Translation Convention. Portuguese (and/or Japanese and Dutch, depending on the POV character) is rendered as contemporary English. When Blackthorne and Mariko slip into Latin, however, it's rendered as Ye Olde Butchered Englishe. "I say thou art beautiful, and I love thee!"
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Lots of characters try this, with varying degrees of success. One instance which works, and is carried off so well it appears on the Crowning Moment of Awesome page, is Toranaga offhandedly ordering Yabu commit seppuku.
- Your Normal Is Our Taboo: A staple of the series and featured from all cultural sides, since one of the series' primary themes is the interaction between Western and Eastern cultures.