Shogun TV Series Missed the Mark With Dramatic Swimming Scene


Shogun TV Series Missed the Mark With Dramatic Swimming Scene

By Todd Balf, Guest Contributor

At the close of Shogun’s Episode 3, the early 17-century English sailor John Blackthorne emerges on the ship’s rail alongside his captor, Japanese regent Lord Yoshii Toranaga. Blackthorne, buff and brawny, and stripped down to a ratty loin cloth, springs into the air for a majestic swan dive into the sea near Osaka. Refreshed, he pauses after returning aboard but he is told to do it again. When he asks how many times, he is told as many as lithe, fully cloaked Toranaga wants. “An observational learner,” he bemusedly mutters, then dives again. And again. The point is made that his Japanese host might need more than just proper technique to dive, but a dose of courage too.

The current series on FX and streaming on Hulu is based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel, which tells the story of a shipwrecked English navigator who becomes a samurai in feudal Japan. The show creators apparently went to considerable lengths to reconsider the previous TV mini-series treatment (1980, starring Richard Chamberlain), giving full voice to three protagonists: the warrior Blackthorne, the tortured translator Lady Mariko, and the genius warlord Toranaga. The primary language is Japanese though there is an option to dub in English. An official podcast adds depth to the narrative scenes explaining to Anglo audiences keystone historical events, cultural traditions, and period gender roles. To my eye, all improvements.

But there is more from that curious diving scene. When finally, the waterlogged Blackthorne makes his last dive, the camera follows him back to the ship. He is swimming overhand, and not awkwardly either. He is world class. Face down and fully immersed, his feet are fluttering, his body is lengthening, his arms are flying.

If one was to evaluate the 1924 Paris Games 100-meter gold medal showdown between Johnny Weissmuller, Duke Kahanamoku, and Katsuo Takaishi — a race in which the crawl stroke came into its own — this Blackthorne easily could’ve been in the lane beside them.

Remember the year, however – 1600. The crawl had not been born yet (at least among western swimmers – indigenous swimmers in the Americas and elsewhere had always done it). If anybody in London was swimming at all they were doing the dog paddle or breaststroke. As late as the 19th century in England popular instructions for swimming involved placing a frog in a basin of water and the student trying to imitate its movements while perched over a stool.

But this is not Blackthorne. Perhaps Anjin-San, as the Japanese called him, was an extreme outlier but it is doubtful. Most sailors in the admiralty couldn’t swim at all, the thinking that why bother since the frigid or shark infested seas doomed them anyways. In the 16th and 17th century Englishmen, and practically the whole of Eurasia, was out of the water. Swimming was banned at universities. “It was the high point of fear of the water,” writes Karen Eva Carr in her superb 2023 global swimming history, Shifting Currents. [Water] was the realm of spirits and death.”

By contrast, in Japan, swimming was firmly a part of the national identity, she continues. European missionaries tried to suppress swimming and bathing, banning it in their schools until widespread dissatisfaction forced a reversal.

The mistake of assuming superiority in an arena where Blackthorne likely wasn’t superior seemed like a page from the old colonizer playbook, not a progressive take on an old classic. Given the apparent cultural sensitivities of head writer/producers, Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, and the talent of the show’s numerous Japanese colleagues, the scene is hard to explain. Did a little Hollywood itch get the better of them?

Certainly, it would’ve been easy for show researchers to consult any number of books in both Japan and elsewhere to get it right. Masaaki Imamura, perhaps the foremost swimming historian in Japan, has written numerous articles about his country’s long and ambitious relationship to the sea. Though the western world had on again off again historical relationship with swimming – on during Greek and Romans times, off during the late Middle Ages when fears and prejudices predominated – the Japanese were constant.

Swimming contests in ancient Japan were common, but more importantly, and in the same time period as Shogun, the swimming arts were blossoming with edicts to educate the populace so they could as an island nation “live with nature.” At the same time the samurai class had elevated swimming to a martial art, developing long distance and short distance strokes to best cope with specific environments, from open ocean to fast moving streams.

When Hirohito became prince regent centuries later and was swept up along with his “Prince of Sport” brother in the Olympic movement, it was natural for teachers and planners to switch their emphasis from living with nature to becoming the fastest swimmers in the world. In a little more than a decade the Japanese went from non-competitive to the greatest swimming nation on Earth, famously wiping out the Americans, Aussies and everyone one else at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932.

Knowing the long arc of history is a powerful weapon to possess. For Japanese historians who know better, the end of the Shogun swimming scene might connote something different than what film makers intended.

Lord Toranaga is finally standing next to Blackthorne readying to dive — and apparently to race. Don’t allow him to win, Blackthorne is warned. He hates that. The Englishmen grins giving all the impression he is about to hand it to his opponent.

If only Blackthorne could have known how that race would surely end. If only the filmmakers did too.

Todd Balf is the author of the forthcoming, Three Kings (Scribd/Blackstone), a true story of the barrier-breaking swimmers that launched the modern Olympic age.

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Crete Swim
Crete Swim
1 month ago

As an open water swimmer around the Greek island of Crete, this specific scene in Shogun also caught my attention. Thanks for writing about it. I would just add the more general comment that this is a superb show overall and I highly recommend it!

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