Shōgun on FX Review

As a long-time fan of the 1975 James Clavell novel, I was equally fascinated and skeptical when I heard they were making/rebooting Shōgun for TV. The novel, while sometimes bloated and long-winded, is a huge landscape of many characters and interwoven personalities and politics, and translating that into a series, especially only ten episodes, seemed a somewhat daunting if not impossible task. But after watching the first episode, it became very clear to me that those behind the show weren’t fooling around. The massive set pieces, costumes, and actors were all at the top of their game. They delivered a magnificent story and a titan in the world of television series.

Shōgun, created by the husband-wife team of Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, follows John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an English navigator who lands on the shores of Japan at the turn of the 17th century. He quickly finds himself knee-deep in all kinds of trouble and forms a very odd and unlikely alliance with Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), who also finds himself with problems, trying to stave off other fellow lords while they all vie to become the next ruler of Japan.

To make things even more interesting, both men are joined at the hip to Mariko (Anna Sawai), who Toranaga has assigned to interpret for Blackthorne. There are many story threads in Shōgun that weave together, but none are more fascinating than the relationship between these three individuals and how their actions and decisions affect so many.

While Blackthorne moves back and forth between admiration and loathing for Japan’s customs and traditions, he is constantly being manipulated by many besides Toranaga, most notably Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) who is Lord of Izu, and Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), Ruler of Osaka Castle and Toranaga’s chief rival. While the plot boils down to rivals competing for power and the relationships between Mariko, Toranaga, and Blackthorne, there is a lot going on.

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Clavell’s book delves deep into many of these characters, their families, family history, and how it all shapes the political landscape of Japan. This is a tall order to bring to the small screen, but it was done with care and made for a very seamless and well-paced story.

Enough cannot be said about the look of this show. From costumes to weapons to settings, everything looks stunning, and the viewer has the feeling they have indeed been dropped in this time period, experiencing the world of Japan in all its beauty and anger. Storms, earthquakes, mudslides, you are immersed and impressed with how life can be so cruel, yet those who live here pick up and carry on. It is almost comical to see Blackthorne, a man whose life exists mostly on a ship in the middle of the oceans, at the mercy of the weather, to be horrified at how Mother Nature consistently rains down its terror on this country. He is helpless and has no control, which feeds his anxiety and fears, lashing out like a child at times as he is lost in a world he doesn’t understand.

Oddly enough, Blackthorne is one of the weaker links in Shōgun. There are times his outbursts seem almost ludicrous, and how he kept his head on his shoulders was truly a miracle. Stumbling his way into saving the day on numerous occasions, he also seemed sloppy at times and hard to believe. However, Kondo and Marks made a smart decision in toning down Blackthorne’s overall narrative and letting others step in and take the reins.

Women have a very strong voice, and not in an arrogant kind of way, as Hollywood tends to do. This is especially true for Mariko, who is involved in most of the storylines in one way or another. When I saw it was Anna Sawai playing this incredibly important character, I was a bit hesitant to jump on board, having not been convinced after watching her in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. However, she completely captures the essence of Mariko, a complex character with a complicated background and involved in so many pivotal events in the series. She is in many scenes and thoroughly convincing, including a truly remarkable effort in episode nine.

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As is usually the case, Hiroyuki Sanada is imposing and powerful, giving us a version of Toronaga that would make Clavell proud.

The supporting roles are very well played, giving substance to the characters and not making them simply background music to this eloquent and powerful piece of art. A huge shout-out must go to Moeka Hoshi, who plays Usami Fuji, a smaller but very key role in the show. She leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.

There was obvious passion here in terms of the actors and their performances. Not once did I get the sense that someone was mailing it in. Some were definitely better than others, but the cast came together to make each of their characters interesting enough to demand your attention.

It’s a credit to the showrunners and those involved in creating the whole look and feel of Shōgun that they steered clear of diving hip-deep into the Western fascination with all things Japanese. There are things in the show, such as ritual suicide, ninjas, assassins, and sex, that seem to be the usual tropes thrown into any Japan-themed endeavor, but it is too well crafted and well-acted for the viewer to dwell on it very long.

In the world of television, where there is a seemingly endless avalanche of disposable shows, Shōgun shines brightly. Its wonderful mix of poetic dialogue, brutal combat, and beautiful aesthetics demands our attention and makes it worth our precious time.

Shōgun can now be streamed on Hulu.


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