Theatre Review: Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

Although I’ve never formally studied Japanese history, the more stories I read and films I watch, the more I fall in love with this mysterious past. So when I heard that Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai was coming to Sadler’s Wells in London, I bought a ticket almost instantly.

Anjin tells the story of William Adams (played by Stephen Boxer) – an Englishman piloting the Dutch ship ‘The Liefde’, which was shipwrecked on the shores of Japan in 1600. Immediately, the Protestant crew run into Jesuit missionaries who take a disliking to them and claim they are pirates, attempting to get them crucified. Luckily, Domenico (a young Japanese Jesuit priest born into a samurai family) speaks English and defends the new arrivals, helping Adams and his crew. The regent (not yet shogun) Ieyasu Tokugawa (played by Masachika Ichimura) hears about the foreigners and wants to meet them, so they are brought before him, with Domenico acting as Adams’ interpreter and teaching him some basic customs and etiquette, such as bowing.

Stephen Boxer as Anjin (Picture: Takayuki Abe)

Stephen Boxer as Anjin (Picture: Takayuki Abe)

(Image source:

Adams is granted an audience with Tokugawa and his chief retainer, Masazumi Honda. Tokugawa is curious about this foreigner and listens with interest to what he says about England and about warfare. At this time, Japan is in a state of high tension, on the brink of war. After the death of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, his seven-year-old son Hideyori has been left in charge of a council of ministers, but Ieyasu Tokugawa has seized control as regent, causing anger among the council and with Hideyori’s mother, Yododono, who doesn’t like Ieyasu.

Masachika Ichimura as Ieyasu Tokugawa (Picture: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Masachika Ichimura as Ieyasu Tokugawa (Picture: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

(Image source: Evening Standard)

The result of this tension is one of the greatest battles in Japanese history – the Battle of Sekigahara. Ieyasu’s army win the battle, and he is made shogun by the Emperor. By this point, Adams has become an important advisor and friend to Ieyasu, and gets the name Miura Anjin (the pilot of Miura – a penninsula located in Kanagawa). He is also given the title ‘hatamoto’ (direct retainer of the shogun), and told he cannot leave Japan, even though he says he wishes to return home to see his wife and child. As he cannot leave Japan, Adams gives in to his temptations and takes a Japanese wife, Oyuki, and has two children, Susanna and Joseph.

Edo period screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara

Edo period screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara

(Image source: Wikipedia)

In 1605, Ieyasu retires and passes on the title of shogun to his son, Hidetada. In 1613, captain John Saris and his English ship arrive in Hirado port with a letter from King James I to Ieyasu. Ieyasu finally says Adams can return home to England with Saris, but Adams, a divided man, eventually chooses to stay in Japan.

Lady Yododono and the Toyotomi clan are finally defeated in Osaka in 1615, but there is a new threat. Shogun Hidetada Tokugawa is pursuing a fiercely anti-Christian policy, where even wearing a crucifix is not allowed, and the lives of many, including Adams’ Japanese wife, are under threat.

Ieyasu Tokugawa and William Adams

Ieyasu Tokugawa and William Adams

(Image source: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation)

Firstly, what a plot! The story spans about 16 years, from Adams’ arrival in Japan in 1600 to Ieyasu Tokugawa’s death in 1616. Incidentally, that’s the same year William Shakespeare died in England. Anjin is an important play which tells the story of the first Japan-British relations, and so it’s not actually such a strange thing to look at what was happening in the UK at the time that all of this was happening in Japan. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the same year that Adams arrived in Japan (1600), Elizabeth I died and James I was made King in the same year that Ieyasu Tokugawa became shogun and opened the Tokugawa Shogunate which became known as the Edo period (1603), The Gunpowder Plot happened in the same year as Adams became Miura Anjin (1605), and Shakespeare died, aged 52, in the same year Ieyasu died, aged 74 (1616). Now, we are celebrating Japan400 – the 400th Anniversary of Japan-British Relations (that is, 400 years since King James I gave his message to Ieyasu Tokugawa, in 1613). With the letter was also a precious goblet, which was given to the shogun, Hidetada, and a telescope, given to Ieyasu. The Japanese sent gifts back – two suits of armour, ten paintings, and permission for the British to reside and trade in Japan forever.

You can see why I’m in love with this story, can’t you?

Last Monday, before seeing Anjin, I went to a talk by Set Designer/Production Manager Youichiro Kanai. Kanai has worked with a lot of the greats directors, including Yukio Ninagawa, on projects including Shakespeare, kabuki and opera. Kanai’s scenery company and family business was established in 1886, and he now employs over 400 people, making sets, props and costumes for theatre productions. This is his 7th time working in London theatre, and he seemed excited to be back, and to be working with the RSC’s Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, who is Anjin‘s Director.

Youichiro Kanai

Youichiro Kanai

In the talk, Kanai explained how Doran was inspired by some Japanese folding screens (byobu) he had seen, and wanted Kanai to use the gold clouds from these screens in his set design.

Folding screen

The image above, scanned in from Anjin‘s programme, shows a Japanese folding screen depicting the first English in Japan, and you can clearly see the gold clouds Doran was so keen on. In particular, it was the Nanban Byobu, screens depicting the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan, which inspired Doran. Although Kanai showed photos in his talk, I was still looking forward to seeing how this idea had been translated to the stage when I arrived at the theatre yesterday.

Anjin - empty stage

The set was gorgeous! Everything looked like a folding screen had just come to life – layers of gold clouds filled the stage, and during the interval this beautiful image was shown:

Anjin - empty stage

Anjin - empty stage

There are 40 scenes in Anjin, and a lot of detailed sets, but the changing of scenes was seamless. Anjin has been shown in Japan a number of times before, and most of the scenery and props have been used since Anjin‘s first performances in 2009. Everything was shipped over to London in large shipping containers, arriving only last Sunday. I thought this was cutting it all a bit fine, as the play opened on Thursday, but luckily everything worked like clockwork.

One of the most impressive props, and something Kanai seemed particularly proud of, was this fibreglass horse which Ieyasu rides:

Fibreglass horse

(Image source: Hackney Gazette)

Even though it is wheeled on to the stage with a person hiding inside it, it somehow manages to not be too cheesy, and the horse fits in with the rest of the set quite nicely. My personal favourite sets were the moon viewing scene (pictured above) and a one scene which had a house in the background with some trees, which I just thought was lovely. I can’t find a picture of that scene, though. I also really liked the way the ships were shown as silhouettes at the back of the stage.

Hearing Kanai talking so enthusiastically about working with Doran to create the set really added something to the play for me when I saw it all coming to life. I’ve read lots of stories about this period in history, but it wasn’t until watching Anjin that I actually felt like the history was starting to make sense in my head. If I’m honest, I’m still a little fuzzy about some parts, but hopefully with time, with more stories, films and plays, I will start to understand the history of Japan and its friendship with the UK.

The one thing that really struck me in Anjin was the way the English are depicted, and how nothing has really changed. Adams adapts quickly, falling in love with Japanese culture and trying to learn the language. He soon learns that when he’s told to bow, he should bow, even if it seems strange to him. However, when other Englishmen come to Japan they behave badly, causing trouble, getting drunk, and refusing to abide by the customs of the land. Even today, both kinds of English people can be found in Japan and, sadly, it’s the latter which seem to be in the majority. If this story can teach us one thing, it should be that friendships are built on mutual respect and understanding for one another, even if your culture or background is different.

Although I don’t yet know all the ins and outs of this period of Japanese history, I like this story very much, and have a lot of respect for Adams. He was a man who simply wanted to see the world, understand others, and make new relationships, and look what he achieved!

A scene from Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

A scene from Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

(Image source:

Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai is on at Sadler’s Wells theatre until 9th February. For more information, please visit: Anjin is part of Japan400, which will see a number of Japan-related events happening throughout the year. For more information about upcoming events, please visit:

13 thoughts on “Theatre Review: Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

  1. What beautiful sets and costumes! Thanks for sharing this! It sounds like a truly wonderful show. I only wish I could have seen the performance myself.

  2. Shogun series sure is a great production and this review too. Not to take any credit but in fact some of the information is wrong. The namban byobu above is part of the japanese heritage, it’s from the early 17th century and the non-japanese in it are spanish and portuguese. The big trousers they are wearing are “bombaxa”/”bombatcha” and they are also present in pictures from Ormuz, India and Mexico. The english were not depicted in “namban art” since namban jin means portuguese and spaniards – the “barbarian ones comming from the south”. Sorry for my english. and again, this seams a great play and i wish I could see it.

    • Hi there. Thanks for your comment and for correcting the information above. Actually, that was taken from the programme for the play, so it’s a shame there was a mistake in it. Thanks! :)

    • In fact, as Keiko Suzuki (“The Making of Tojin”) and other scholars have shown, there was much confusion and conflation in Edo period Japan as to the characteristics of foreigners. Countless images clearly identified as, for example, Okinawan, or English, show figures in Korean hats, Dutch shoes, and Chinese robes. It’s true that Nanban pictures are normally most closely associated with the Spanish and Portuguese, but the English came from the south as well, and I have a hard time believing that commoner town painters at the time necessarily had the starkest, clearest idea about exactly which peoples (and which fashion styles) belonged to which country.

      • Good point, Toranosuke. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the subject myself, but it’s fascinating and I need to learn more. I’m sure it’s quite true that painters wouldn’t necessarily know people’s nationalities and would have mixed up their fashions.

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