Shōgun review: An extraordinary historical epic with heart

Decades before HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire captured the imaginations of viewers, Shōgun captivated Americans with its gripping tale of political intrigue set in a feudal otherworld. The nine-hour NBC miniseries, based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel about an Englishman thrust into the midst of power struggles in feudal Japan, drew an average of 25 million viewers per night and played a significant role in igniting the miniseries craze that began with Roots.

It’s somewhat surprising that it has taken so long for a network to revisit this blockbuster IP, but fortunately for FX and Hulu, the long-awaited production—initially announced in 2018—has proven to be worth the wait. From its very first frame, the new Shōgun is a visually stunning epic that seamlessly blends breathtaking landscapes with intimate human drama, never allowing its lavish set pieces to overshadow the intricate storytelling at its heart.

When Pilot Major John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of Ajiro, Japan, in the year 1600, he is on the brink of death. Sent by the Church of England to explore “the Japans” and challenge the Portuguese Catholic church’s dominance in trade, Blackthorne’s arrival coincides with a critical moment for Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Lord of the Kantō region. Facing a potential death sentence from the country’s Council of Regents, who fear his growing power, Toranaga sees an opportunity in the arrival of the English “barbarian” and his ship full of advanced weaponry. Taking Blackthorne under his wing, Toranaga, aided by his devoted vassal Mariko (Anna Sawai) as translator, seeks to glean insights into the Western world and exploit the tensions between Catholics and Protestants to strengthen his position in the power struggle with the Regents.

SHOGUN -- Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga.

Clavell’s meticulously crafted narrative continues to captivate audiences, as evidenced by its enduring popularity across various mediums, including video games, a board game, and even a Broadway adaptation. At its core, Shōgun intertwines enthralling palace intrigue with the ever-relevant themes of prejudice and xenophobia, resonating deeply with viewers. The premiere episode, “Anjin,” wastes no time in establishing the high stakes, particularly through Toranaga’s tense encounter with the council, led by the formidable Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira). The palpable tension threatens to erupt into violence when one of Toranaga’s soldiers, visibly provoked, nearly incites bloodshed. However, Toranaga’s unwavering commitment to peace diffuses the volatile situation, setting the stage for a series rife with suspenseful moments.

Early on, Blackthorne’s preconceived notions of the Japanese as “godless savages” are challenged when he witnesses Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), a samurai, prepare for seppuku—a ritualistic suicide—following a failed rescue attempt at sea. This encounter leaves Blackthorne shaken and prompts a gradual realization of the profound significance of honor, loyalty, and faith in Japanese culture. As Blackthorne navigates this unfamiliar terrain, he forms an unlikely bond with Toranaga, who recognizes the foreigner’s intellect and persuasive abilities, laying the groundwork for a complex relationship fraught with intrigue and mutual respect.

SHOGUN -- Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko.

At the heart of Shōgun lies the captivating relationship between Blackthorne and Mariko. Even for viewers unfamiliar with Clavell’s novel or the NBC miniseries, their dynamic is immediately recognizable as that of star-crossed lovers. Brought together by Toranaga’s machinations, Blackthorne and Mariko find themselves simultaneously drawn to and at odds with each other, their interactions reflecting the stark contrasts between Japanese and Western cultures. As they grapple with differing views on religion and loyalty to Toranaga, the series delves into the themes of noble suffering versus individual freedom.

Blackthorne, embracing the freedom of a seafaring life with its “no tomorrow” ethos, sees the world through a lens of self-interest. In contrast, Mariko, haunted by the tragedy of her family’s murder and bound by duty to Toranaga and her abusive husband Buntaro, embodies unwavering discipline and stoicism. Their clashes reveal the complexities of their personal philosophies, with Mariko challenging Blackthorne’s pursuit of unfettered freedom with her poignant observation: “If freedom is all you ever live for, you will never be free of yourself.” Despite appearing subservient to Japan’s patriarchal society, Shōgun gradually unveils the ways in which Mariko and other female characters navigate and subvert the constraints imposed upon them.

Mariko’s resilience is showcased in the series’ meticulously crafted action sequences, such as her daring attempt to fight her way out of Ishido’s castle. Shōgun, true to Clavell’s vision, delivers grand-scale storytelling with an abundance of epic battles—seafaring showdowns, forest ambushes, and intense hand-to-hand combat. While reminiscent of the spectacle seen in Game of Thrones, some action scenes suffer from poor visibility, detracting from their impact. Nevertheless, when fully illuminated, these sequences are visually stunning and emotionally resonant, further enriching the tapestry of characters and conflicts woven throughout Shōgun.

SHOGUN -- Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne.

In the 1980 miniseries, Mariko, portrayed by the luminous Yoko Shimada, embodied a generally soft-spoken and submissive demeanor. However, Sawai, known for her role in Pachinko, breathes new life into the character, portraying Mariko with a steely strength and spirited temper more resonant with a modern audience. Similarly, Jarvis channels the confidence and arrogance reminiscent of Richard Chamberlain’s portrayal 34 years ago, yet injects his John Blackthorne with a layer of skepticism and wry humor, particularly evident in his bemused reactions to the unfamiliar customs of this new world. (“Two baths in a week? What, do you want me to catch the flux?”) Furthermore, Blackthorne’s banter-filled camaraderie with fellow sailor Vasco Rodrigues, played by Nestor Carbonell with a prodigious beard and exuding swagger, provides some of Shōgun’s most entertaining moments in the initial episodes.

Amidst a standout ensemble cast, Tadanobu Asano shines as the cunning and slightly unhinged mercenary Yabushige, skillfully manipulating both Toranaga and Ishido in his pursuit of security and power. While Mariko and Blackthorne serve as the romantic focal point of Shōgun, the most poignant relationship for me was the bond between Lord Toranaga and his loyal vassal, Hiromatsu, portrayed by Tokuma Nishioka. With decades of friendship underpinning their dynamic, Hiromatsu effortlessly exchanges jokes with Toranaga while fearlessly challenging his decisions when necessary. Their relationship reaches a climactic peak in a late-season verbal showdown that is profoundly affecting, as Sanada and Nishioka imbue their characters with a depth of love and respect that resonates deeply. Amongst the heart-stopping battles in Shōgun, this poignant argument between two dignified old friends leaves an indelible impression, showcasing the series’ emotional depth and complexity.


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