[Issue #8, Fall 2002]
Drunk as a Lord: Samurai Stories
By Ryotaro Shiba
Translated by Eileen Kato
Kodansah International, 2001
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
Ryotaro Shiba was hugely popular in Japan, where he published over 40 books
on Japanese history, most in fictionalized form. Born Teiichi Fukuda in
Osaka in 1923, he studied Mongolian at Osaka University of Foreign Languages,
then worked for a time as a newspaper reporter. He tried his hand at historical
novels in the mid-1950s and therein found his true metier. His work is tinctured
with insights as tart as his people -- many of them lightly disguised historical
personages who reshaped, and in some cases misshaped, Japanese history during
turbulent times. By the time he passed away in 1996 his lively characterization
and scholar's insistence on accuracy had turned him into a national (and
to some, a nationalist) icon. The writer Matsumoto Ken'ichi memorialized
him this way:
When the historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba passed away,
the nation lost a great critic of our civilization, someone who both inspired
and admonished us. I could not help wondering how we would get on without
him -- such was the importance of his historical perspective to postwar
Japan. The theme that preoccupied him throughout was, "Who are the
Japanese people?" As a storyteller, Shiba explored this theme through
his portrayals of specific historical figures. In this sense he remained
a storyteller even after he had ceased to write novels.
Until this Kodansha edition, Mr. Shiba went unpublished in English and the
European languages. Thanks now to the elegant yet colloquial translation
of Eileen Kato, we now have four of his novelettes in a single book.
Drunk as a Lord narrates the writhing last years of the Tokugawa
shogunate, a dynasty that had ruled Japan with dwindling effectiveness from
the early 17th century. By the mid-1800s Japan was impoverished by economic
mismanagement (due in no small part to the absence of a notion that there
is such a thing as economics) and a centuries-long policy of rejectionary
naval-gazing. The drumroll of disintegration was hastened by the arrival
of Commodore Perry's "black ships" bearing the message that, after
two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed exile, Japan had better "open
up" to trade with the West -- or else.
Mr. Shiba's narrative depicts the last convulsions of dynasty amid the overturn
of Japan's ruling structure. For fifteen years after Perry, Japan was wracked
by marauders, oppression, and rebellion, culminating in civil war. Drunk
as a Lord relates the last days of the bakufu (shogunate system of military
government) and the way the many players in the drama responded to the pressures
they both made and endured. The four stories depict four feudal lords --
in some cases via the foil of their retainers -- who adopt very different
attitudes about the fact that Japan was being forced to modernize.
The title Drunk as a Lord is somewhat misleading because only one
of the four novelettes -- the first and at 102 pages the longest -- actually
describes a drunk. However, as a woozie Yamauchi Yodo (b. Toyoshige) is
a doozie -- a poet-turned-daimyo (domainal lord, equivalent to a medieval
fief lord in the West), whose attainments are blemished by his reaching
for the saki bottle in response to nearly every event that confronts him.
As if the fates gave prowess to those they would ruin, his bite at debate,
his decisiveness when those around him dither, and his loyalty to the emperor
might have made him a great statesman. But the saki pot won. He died at
the age of forty-six of a stroke, the great in him having been made small,
and the small in him having been made great.
The second story, "The Fox-Horse," relates the death of a brilliant
lord and the effect this has on a younger sibling who yearns to take his
place. Alas, his envy is greater than his probity, and in an attempt to
showily emulate his elder brother's style, he marches at the head of a great
army to Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo today) to push for reform. Lacking his brother's
intellect and subtlety, he makes a fool of himself.
"Dati's Black Ship" may well be the most entertaining and edifying
tale in the book. A lowly lantern repairman -- so lowly he goes only by
one name, Kazo -- is both slovenly beyond description and a mechanical technician
of genius, a sort of Tokugawa bergeek "who could look at a thing once
and then improve upon it." He is given the task of duplicating a ship
like one of the "black ships" of Commodore Perry. Neither he nor
any of those expecting him to do it have the slightest clue about how one
of these ships works -- none has even laid eyes on such a vessel. Even so,
Kazo is inspired by the sight of a pulley used by fishers as they unload
the holds of their vessels, and he does end up building the ship. It is
equivalent to you or I producing a working "Star Trek" cruiser
with a set of socket wrenches and a bunch of bossy twitterers looking over
our shoulders. The technical obstacles he overcomes are not untrivial; but
far more illuminating are the social obstacles he overcomes: a ponderously
structured, centuries-honed culture which denies the very concept of a low-born
doing something significant. The way he succeeds turns this tale of technical
invention into a drollery of manners. If you want insights why the gerontocracy
of today's corporate Japan is in such trouble, read this chapter.
"The Ghost of Saga" is a success story of divine madness. An elderly
daimyo named Kanso, Lord of Nagasaki, Japan's only aperture to the world
at the time, is prescient enough to see that the Tokugawa shogunate is tottering
and will fall. He is so certain that this will bring civil war that he decides
the only way to protect his own clan domain is to build a modern naval and
armed force equipped with Western-type weapons. He knows that if he is detected,
he will be seen as plotting to overthrow the Emperor. That would mean a
long stay in a small, dark room from which he would ill-likely emerge upright.
Yet he is so single-minded about building his military force that he takes
up smuggling arms and for the money to pay for them. Adopting a life of
abstemiousness in order to throw his personal income into his military,
he secretly stockpiles an astonishing array of weapons. Yet in the end,
he has a moment of clarity while admiring the cherry blossoms in Kyoto,
and realizes he in fact has no real intention to use these weapons he worked
so hard to create. He gives all of them to the imperial army and ends his
political life with a poem"
When blossoms bloom over his head
It is fitting that an aged man
Should blush for shame.
Relatively straightforward, simple stories these, despite their cornucopia
of characters (at times the characters erupting off his pages read like
War and Peace on fast-forward). Their simplicity, like a good pen-and-ink
painting, hides a long apprenticeship with the red pencil.
Mr. Shiba's view of history is called Shiba-shika. It is a view that people,
not ideology, determine the way history works. His stories are historical
to the extent that they are based on actual people and events, but fictional
in that the personalities he paints and the scenes he portrays are largely
imaginary. He writes the feelings or thoughts of historical figures as though
it is their own voices funneling through him onto the page. His isn't historical
fiction as much as historical channeling.
He mostly avoids turning prominent figures of his time into dramatis
personae. The great and famous are but fringe on the edges of his weft.
He focuses on figures socially inferior to the notables of the time, yet
who grasp the need for change -- and more important, the how of change --
that escapes their superiors. Open-mindedness is a natural survival mechanism
for those of little power; those in power are unable to imagine anything
different from the past.
Mr. Shiba's belief that individual human beings determine history hints
at a deep love for people. His world is of heroes and geniuses more than
the macros of economics; of supply and use versus tribalistic cultural patterns;
of commonweal versus submission to hierarchy. Given the right conditions,
anyone with courage, spirit, and pride in self can make history. In his
1961 essay "Watashi no shsetsu sah" (How I Write My Novels), he
explained his craft this way:
When I examine a human being, I climb up the stairs, go
out on the roof, and peer down on the person from that vantage point. It
provides an entirely different scene from that one gets by observing people
at eye level.
For him, the antithesis of their spirit was ideology, which he characterized
as "bunk" -- or to put it in his own words:
Under almost all ideologies is a foundation of bunk. To
obscure the fact that it is bunk, people construct the system on top of
the bunk as elaborate and precise as possible.
as a Lord from Amazon.com
Dana De Zoysa has lived for many years throughout Asia, including the Philippines,
Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and India. He has also lived in Holland and France,
and traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa. He has published numerous
books, articles and reviews on Asia-related and developing-country topics.
CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts
& Features | Guidelines | CBR