Presence Is Most Keenly Felt in Absence

In the period drama Shogun, set in 1600s Japan, at one point, English sailor John Blackthorne must sit through an awkward tea ceremony at the local brothel. A night with the best courtesan in town was a gift from his lord he couldn’t refuse, but it was also one he — however surprisingly — didn’t actually want.

Mariko, his translator, is the woman John really desires — and the fact that she is present for the entire occasion doesn’t help smooth things over one bit. As Kiku the courtesan prepares and elegantly pours tea for John, which he can only clumsily compliment in Japanese, she teaches her apprentice a lesson.

After moving the teapot, she calls out to Hana, a young courtesan-in-waiting. “Look where the flask just was. What do you see?” “I see nothing, elder sister,” Hana responds, and for Kiku, that is exactly the point. “You see where the flask is no longer. Presence is felt most keenly in absence.”

Noting both John and Mariko’s suffering, Kiku tries her best to comfort them and encourage their genuine romance. Whether she succeeds, we, the viewers, are not entirely sure. Still, sooner or later, the night ends, and life goes on.

Several episodes later, John returns to the village from a trip to Osaka. This time, alone. He knows he won’t see Mariko again, and neither will his consort Fuji, the woman appointed to run his household. In a moment mirroring the tea ceremony, John awkwardly tries to give a compliment: “Fuji, you look…healthy and strong.” Fuji thanks him, and then the two of them take a long, longing look at the empty mat on John’s right. He only has two words left in him, but they’re also all he needs: “No translator.”

The scene only lasts 30 seconds, but it’s more than enough to take us back to Kiku’s lesson: “Presence is felt most keenly in absence.” It’s the kind of echo we’ve all felt in our lives at some point or other. A photo of an estranged friend. A sweater left behind by an ex. A deceased loved one’s favorite belonging. Without the remnants to remind us, we’d have no sense that what’s now gone was once actually there. They amplify both the pleasure and the pain.

That’s why, like life, great art often rhymes — and to use that technique to make that very point, well, hats off to Shogun‘s creators. It’s not 100% clear whether the show is finished after its first season or not, but whenever it ends, I know I’m going to miss it. After all, presence is felt most keenly in absence — and what gives us beautiful if complex moments in reality also makes for great TV.