Shogun Review: Epic, Violent and Gripping

Best known for playing John Wick’s friend Koji Shimazu, Hiroyuki Sanada comes into his own as the charismatic protagonist of this period drama. The series is available on Disney+ Hotstar.
Shogun Review: Epic, Violent and Gripping

Directors: Frederick E.O. Toye, Jonathan van Tulleken, Charlotte Brändström, Takeshi Fukunaga, Hiromi Kamata, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Writers: Justin Marks, Rachel Kondo, Maegan Houang, Emily Yoshida, Shannon Goss, Matt Lambert, Caillin Puente, Nigel Williams (based on the novel by James Clavell). 

Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Anna Sawai, Cosmo Jarvis, Tadanobu Asano,

Number of Episodes: 10 (dropping on Wednesdays)

Available on: Disney+ Hotstar

Early on in Shogun, a character says the Japanese believe every man has three hearts. One is in his mouth, for the world to know. Another is in his chest, known only by his friends. Finally, there is the secret heart, buried deep where no one can find it. It’s tempting to map the three protagonists of Shogun against this saying. There’s no doubt that the English navigator John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is the show’s first heart. Blue-eyed, foul-mouthed and floundering in this faraway land, Blackthorne is anything but subtle. Shogun’s other two hearts are Mariko (Anna Sawai) and Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), and it takes a while into the show’s 10-episode duration to know which of them has more secrets.

The paths of these three characters cross because Blackthorne washes up on Japan’s shores precisely when Osaka is crippled by political intrigue because its ruler is underaged, and the Portuguese have cast their colonial net over Japan. Lord Toranaga, one of the five regents locked in a power struggle, realises Blackthorne could be a useful ally (or pawn?). Mariko is brought in as a translator upon Toranaga’s orders. Ostensibly, the three have nothing in common. Blackthorne is a foreigner who is seen as a barbarian and is at the bottom of Japan’s social pyramid. Mariko is married into a powerful aristocratic family, but bears the taint of belonging to a disgraced clan. She’s also Catholic and knows Portuguese. Lord Toranaga is descendant of an illustrious family and a confidant of the former ruler of Osaka, who now finds himself handicapped and cornered by his rivals. Even at his most powerless, Toranaga commands authority and has the regal bearing that marks him as elite. What these three vastly different people have in common is that all of them are prisoners. In Blackthorne’s case, this is very literal as he’s thrown behind bars early into Shogun. Similarly, in Toranaga’s case, the show opens with him becoming a political prisoner. Mariko meanwhile is trapped in an unhappy marriage and imprisoned within the constraints imposed by her gender. Over the course of 10 episodes, Shogun shows these three characters come into their own, finding ways to break out and discovering new ties that bind them in unexpected ways.

A still from Shogun
A still from Shogun

 A Bold Prestige Project

Lavishly-produced, smartly-plotted, and beautifully-designed, the show is the best among the spate of recent historical fiction on our screens, including shows like Masters of Air, The New Look and Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. Created by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, Shogun is a bold choice for a prestige project and feels like a flare of hope at a time when the entertainment business seems riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. The American channel FX has been on a high with hit shows like The Bear, but Shogun is perhaps its most ambitious project yet. It’s a show made on a grand scale, but without a well-known face as its headliner. While many will recognise Sanada as Koji Shimazu from the John Wick films, Shogun is the first major American project in which the actor and martial artist is playing the lead role (he’s also a producer). 

Despite being an American show, a significant chunk of Shogun is in Japanese and set in a historical period that isn’t widely known. Shogun places Japanese court politics of the 1600s alongside the bitter rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in those times. It also makes the bold choice of not falling into the trope of showing Japan through a Westerner’s eyes (this was how the show was initially written, but Marks and Kondo changed this once they came on board). All this could have made Shogun a difficult sell, regardless of how beautiful it looks, and the sex and violence that’s woven into the tale. Yet Shogun is one of the most anticipated shows of this year and the initial responses suggest FX’s decision to privilege ambitious storytelling over formulaic and ‘safe’ choices has paid off.

A still from Shogun
A still from Shogun

Set in Japan in the 1600s, Shogun is an accomplished adaptation of James Clavell’s tome by the same name, updated in a way that the narrative respects history and follows the novel’s beats without getting mired in the Orientalist exotica that riddled the original. Clavell’s novel may be a bestseller, but it used 17th century Japan to depict a romance that effectively glorified the manly white hero — the book is fascinated by how …  well-endowed Blackthorne is. Seriously. — and reduced the Japanese to regrettable stereotypes. In contrast, Shogun sidelines the romance to a sub-plot and instead refashions the novel’s plot points to deliver a taut political thriller, anchored by some brilliant acting performances.

Shogun is at its best when its Japanese cast takes the spotlight, exploring the themes of loyalty, honour and ambition. Sawai is mesmerising as Mariko, who gets to be a lot more than a romantic interest. In fact, the sub-plot of Mariko’s love story is arguably one of the weaker links of Shogun along with Jarvis as Blackthorne, whose portrayal of the foreigner feels especially overwrought and laboured compared to the pitch-perfect performances by Sanada as Toranaga and Tadanobu Asano, who plays Yabushige, a malevolent vassal whose loyalties seem shifty. One of the first things we see Yabushige do is order a man be boiled to death in a gigantic cauldron. The violence in Shogun escalates swiftly, its gore offering an unnerving contrast to the elegant beauty of its elaborately designed sets and landscapes. While it may be too cerebral to fit the tag of “Game of Thrones set in Japan”, this show is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Centring the Japanese Perspective

Although Blackthorne is important to Shogun, he feels more like a supporting character and often ends up providing comic relief as he learns about Japanese culture and society, like when he declares with proud pomposity that he only bathes twice a week, unaware of how he’s horrifying his hosts. Throughout the show, Shogun is careful to centre the Japanese perspective rather than Blackthorne’s outsider gaze. For instance, much of Shogun’s dialogues are in Japanese, with subtitles. Meanwhile, the languages of the foreigners — Portuguese and English — are conflated into one language. Whether the character is said to be speaking in Portuguese or English, the dialogues are in English. Conceptually, this might seem confusing, but this narrative device effectively reminds the viewer that to the Japanese, both English and Portuguese sound equally foreign.

A still from Shogun
A still from Shogun

The show’s standout star is Sanada, who is magnificent as a visionary leader, a troubled father, and a man with an unending trove of secrets. Early on in the show, a minor character points to the humming labyrinth that is Osaka, and asks the question that is at the heart of Shogun: “What kind of man wields power in a land like this?” The answer is Toranaga, who is revealed to be much more complex than he seems in the initial episodes, when he has to maneuver his way past other powerful lords. Cunning, calculating and elegant, Sanada holds Shogun together with his very presence. Whenever Toranaga retreats from the spotlight, the show slackens and feels less compelling. Fortunately, Shogun also has a wealth of minor characters who are written with care and add rich complexity to this saga, particularly women like the courtesan Kiku (Yuka Kouri) and the heir’s mother Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), who steer clear of tired tropes about Japanese femininity and instead deliver compelling portraits of ambitious women and the experience of otherness.  

Fittingly for a show about the coming together of different cultures (as opposed to a clash), Shogun stands at the confluence of the old ways of appointment viewing — new episodes drop on Wednesdays — and the newer world of prestige entertainment, which is expansive and international in its worldview. It’s also a show that feeds a long-standing fascination for the exotic Orient, but does so in a way that’s informed by research and curiosity, rather than myopic stereotypes. From the haunting shots of the armours that stand in rooms as silent and magnificent reminders of past conflicts and present stakes, to close-ups that catch the microexpressions that reveal the humanity or savagery of a character, Shogun is storytelling that puts its faith in the audience’s intelligence.  

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