‘Shogun’ Is TV’s Most Epic Series Since ‘Game of Thrones’

FX
FX
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Forty-four years after it was originally adapted into an acclaimed 1980 miniseries, James Clavell’s inspired-by-real-events 1975 novel Shōgun returns to the small-screen courtesy of FX, whose re-do (premiering Feb. 27) may not boast the star power of its predecessor (which was headlined by Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune) but compensates with a more expansive scope and richer narrative. Large-scale warfare, one-on-one showdowns, affairs, imprisonments, executions, assassins, espionage, betrayals, subterfuge, and military strategy are all delivered by this 10-episode epic, whose saga of a wayward Englishman in feudal Japan during a time of great crisis is, if never wholly exhilarating, a stately and compelling vision of honor and treachery.

In 1600, sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) of the Dutch merchant vessel Erasmus becomes the first Englishman to make it to “the Japans,” where he’s immediately viewed as a pirate and a spy by the locals, beginning with ambitious Omi (Hiroto Kanai) and his scheming uncle Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano). Japan is currently in league with the Catholic Portuguese, who have long controlled its trade, and while John is unwilling to reveal his true motives in the region, he makes no bones about his disgust for his fellow Europeans, with whom his Protestant homeland is currently at war. To the Japanese, John is a “savage” and a “barbarian” deserving of no respect, as illustrated by Omi literally peeing on his head after one of John’s many furious outbursts. Yabushige has his own designs for the visitor, who’s referred to as “Anjin” (i.e., pilot). However, they’re upended when Hiromatsu (Tokuma Nishioka) arrives—having apparently learned of the Erasmus courtesy of a village operative—and declares that the ship’s arms, and John, are to be transferred to the Osaka stronghold of Yabushige’s master, Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Toranaga receives John at a momentous moment in his life and his country’s history. The nation’s reigning Taiko has recently died, and since his heir is still a child and not yet ready to assume command, he has placed control of Japan in the hands of a five-person Council of Regents. Toranaga is a member of this group but on the outs with his fellow Regents because he’s currently protecting the Taiko’s heir and the boy’s mother, Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido). This has enraged Toranaga’s rival Ishido (Takehiro Hira), who sees it as an opportunity to consolidate his alliance with his fellow (Catholic) Regents and to finally do away with Toranaga (who claims to not want to follow in his illustrious ancestors’ footsteps by becoming Japan’s ruling Shōgun). Ishido is also secretly conspiring with Yabushige, who’s trying to play both sides of this struggle to his personal benefit. To Toranaga, John is a curiosity and a potential tool to be wielded in this conflict. More pressing, though, is Toranaga’s ongoing imprisonment in his own home by Ishido, who demands the immediate release of the Taiko’s adolescent son.

John enters this maelstrom as a fish out of water, clueless about the country’s customs, codes of conduct or language. In that last regard, he’s aided by loyal Toranaga disciple Mariko (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ Anna Sawai), who as a Catholic is able to speak Portuguese and, thus, serve as John’s official translator. It’s apparent from their initial encounter that John and Mariko are destined for (thwarted-by-circumstance) romance. At a whopping 10 hours, however, Shōgun has the luxury of taking its time with every one of its storylines, which are first carefully laid out and then gradually intertwined. Courtesy of showrunner Justin Marks, the material moves at an unhurried but purposeful pace, never dragging as it explicates its many knotted relationships and the burgeoning stakes created by John’s appearance.

A photo including Eita Okuno as Saeki Nobutatsu, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, Hiromoto Ida as Kiyama Ukon Sadanaga in the series Shogun on FX
FX

There’s an enormous amount of plot in Shōgun, from Toranaga’s ongoing feud with Ishido, to John’s simultaneous acclimation to this land and efforts to escape it (with his men and ship), to the duo’s tenuous alliance, which is solidified by a boat trip in which the Englishman teaches the Japanese lord how to properly dive into the water. John and Mariko’s blossoming feelings for each other are complicated by numerous factors, not least of which are Mariko’s husband Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe) and her family’s infamous past, just as Toranaga quest for survival is made more difficult by pacts and partnerships that can never be fully trusted. Mariko’s explanation of the “eightfold fence”—a figurative interior wall that the Japanese are taught to erect so they can hide their true hearts from the outside world—is crucial to the proceedings, since suspicion and deception are the orders of the day, and vital to keeping one’s head on their shoulders.

A photo including Tadanobu Asano in the series Shogun on FX
FX

Shot on location and, in large part, in Japanese (save for the Portuguese conversations that are dramatized in English), Shōgun’s wealth of period and cultural details lend it depth and heft. Toranaga and John’s story is one rooted in ideas about integrity, sacrifice, and duplicity, and if a few of its strands remain a tad fuzzy, it largely coalesces into a sprawling and stirring portrait of individual and mass warfare orchestrated by men and women who understand that getting what they want means holding their cards close to their vest. Triumph and ruin are ever-present possibilities for all of its players, and those unfamiliar with Clavell’s tome (or the prior TV version) will find it difficult to predict precisely where it’s heading. That’s a byproduct of sharp writing and directing as well as excellent performances, here led by the sturdy Jarvis (who resembles a burlier Ryan Phillippe), expressive and heartfelt Sawai, charismatic Asano, and regal and commanding Sanada, who does a commendable job filling Mifune’s titanic shoes.

A photo including Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Yuki Kura as Yoshii Nagakado in the series Shogun on FX
FX

Shōgun’s sole shortcoming is that it never quite hits the overpowering highs it seeks; rather, it’s an engrossing watch that’s rarely edge-of-your-seat thrilling. Nonetheless, that’s hardly something about which to unduly complain, especially in light of the fact that it doesn’t stumble on its way to a finale that wraps things up in uniquely complex and moving fashion. Marks’ grand rendition of this beloved tale may be very good rather than great, yet in a TV world increasingly awash in mediocrities, that’s more than enough to earn it viewers’ recurring time and attention.

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