Shiba Ryotaro (1923 – 1996) was primarily a writer of historical fiction for which he painstakingly carried out vast amounts of research, not unlike William T. Vollmann. Historical fiction does not have a very high standing in the West, though some of our finest writers have turned their hand to it. But Shiba was an enormous success in Japan with his series of sometimes extremely lengthy novels treating significant persons and events in recent Japanese history. Donald Keene, who knew Shiba well and wrote about him (along with Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio and Abe Kobo) in his Five Modern Japanese Novelists
reports that there were special Shiba corners in Japanese bookstores because of the constant demand for his books. Keene and others have suggested that Shiba's prestige grew to the point that for many Japanese, Shiba was the voice of Japan, that he had a finger on that which makes Japan Japan.
Needless to say, I had to read some of Shiba's texts, and I started with the books dealing with the termination of two and a half centuries of Japan's isolation from the outside world and the end of the Tokugawa rule.
Drunk as a Lord is a collection of four texts, three of which focus on the life and activities of important players in the turmoil leading up to the Meiji restoration at the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu. What emerges quite clearly is that the Bakufu was already tottering on its last legs - the appearance of Perry's fleet in 1858 just put a last stick in an already riled wasp's nest. But the story I really enjoyed was "Date's Black Ship," about an outcast at the very bottom of Japanese society who, because of his special genius for engineering and ability to cobble together his own parts, became the heart and mind of a daimyo's dream of manufacturing the first Japanese steam ship. What a fascinating story! Despite the amateur's brilliance, the hurdles set up by the arrogant and ignorant samurai "running" the project doomed it. The abuse he had to endure from all of his superiors - which were everybody else - and the stoic patience with which he did endure it (result of a lifetime's training) really emphasize for me the distance between Tokugawa Japan and the world in which I live.
The Last Shogun (1967) gives us the life of the last ruler of the Tokugawa Bakufu, in fact the man who personally ended it by abdicating and retiring to his domain (though there were yet some battles fought by the new imperial army with a few of the supporters of the Bakufu who refused to accept Tokugawa Yoshinobu's fait accompli). Although in three of the pieces in The Drunken Lord the reader is shown aspects of the developments leading up to the collapse of the Bakufu, it is in The Last Shogun that one finds a full picture. And a fascinating sight it is, too, to see the major players hemming and hawing, hedging their bets, changing sides in a shifting, multi-sided struggle in contrast to the fanatics on every side who take their swords and slice some more or less randomly chosen official to pieces, usually ending up in the same state. Oh, the greedy, cowardly and opportunistic officials in the imperial court are truly a sight to behold! And the nefarious machinations of the Ming dynasty eunuchs have met their match in those of the Ooku (the "great interior"), the women in the shogun's castle.
Keene was careful to make clear that his admiration of Shiba was as a person and as an intellectual, not as a great writer on the level of a Kawabata or a Mishima. He also suggested that Shiba may not translate well.(*) On the evidence of these two translations, Keene had a point, but the generally workmanlike prose is clear and obviously guided by intelligence and a deep understanding of Japanese history and the nature of our poor species.
(*) When Keene wrote Five Modern Japanese Novelists, Shiba had yet to be translated into English, and Keene made no effort to translate Shiba himself.