Review: SHOGUN, An Early Contender for TV Event of the Year

New Adaptation Brings Fresh Life to Classic Novel

It’s still early days in the year but it’s tough to imagine anything topping Shōgun, currently airing weekly on FX and streaming on Hulu, as the television event of the year. With its exquisite craft, riveting story, and stacked ensemble bringing rich life to even the smallest of characters, Shōgun feels genuinely epic in a time when even the most expensive of other shows have begun to develop a closed off, hermetic feeling.

Adapted from a massively influential (and plain just massive) novel by James Clavell, previously adapted into an iconic miniseries in the ‘80s, Shōgun plunges you into a dense plot of competing factions and deadly rivalries in 1600 Japan. The nation’s leader has just passed away, leaving behind an heir too young to rule. To avoid war, rule of the nation is given over to five lords to serve as regents. As the series kicks off, Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) finds himself in the crosshairs of the other four regents and a scheme to have him impeached (which would result in not only his death, but the death of his entire family and household).

Toranga has two wild cards up his sleeve (along with, you know, swords and other actual weaponry). There’s the Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), a member of Toranaga’s household who plays the role of quiet, submissive woman but has abilities and secrets that make her a force to be reckoned with in the deadly game of thrones (not that one) underway.

And then there’s the Englishman.

Immediately various Last Samurai-shaped alarm bells begin going off. Whether or not Tom Cruise is the actual titular last samurai, there’s an instinctive concern that a story set in Japan needs to toss in a token white guy as the audience identification character, rather than trusting that audiences will just as easily identify with Japanese characters and performers. Shōgun is, in all its iterations, a stranger in a strange land story which invites an inherent Othering of the culture being discovered. That may be endemic of this narrative, no matter how sensitively and carefully it is updated.

That being said, 2024’s Shōgun goes out of its way to strip as much Othering as possible from how the story is presented. The Japan of this series is not presented as exotic and its people are not depicted as aliens to be gawped at. There’s a matter-of-fact, lived in naturalism to the setting and performances that serves to make Japan feel like the relatable, neutral starting point, while in turn making the presence of the English-speaking characters the actual foreign element.

It also helps that when the Japanese characters refer to John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) as a “barbarian”, there’s no real arguing with them. Introduced as a filthy, almost feral survivor, Jarvis plays Blackthorne not as a dashing adventurer but as a combustible ball of potential danger. Even as he settles down over the course of the first three episodes, Jarvis never shakes the sense of seething manic danger he carries when he arrives. Combined with an accent that comes across like Tom Hardy trying even harder than usual, Jarvis purposefully stands out like a sore thumb as a volatile element in an otherwise intensely controlled environment.

My understanding is that the novel and original miniseries are grounded almost entirely in Blackthorne’s point of view, with the earlier miniseries even going so far as to not subtitle the Japanese dialogue. 2024’s Shōgun, however, takes great pains early on to ground Blackthorne as only one component part of a sprawling ensemble. Sanada, a producer of this miniseries, is an actor who is good in any role, which only makes it all the more frustrating when he is underutilized in negligible roles in lousy Hollywood product. As the de facto lead of Shōgun, he is finally afforded the chance to demonstrate what a commanding screen presence he has always been, combining a regal bearing with a coiled intensity, even sprinkling in a rascally warmth as Toranaga reveals a mastery of elaborate schemes and trickery.

Sawai is an instantly arresting presence as Mariko, even as the character remains something of a mystery after three episodes. As a translator between the various factions, she quietly controls the power in each exchange between the Englishman and the Japanese lord, and Sawai does quietly remarkable work depicting how Mariko is an active participant in those exchanges by how she shapes and shifts the words going from one language to the next. Sawai is remarkably attuned to how the tilt of a head or the flick of an eyelid can communicate massive amounts of unspoken thought.

But lest you think that Shōgun is another slog of Prestige TV, ten hours of shapeless plodding plot that’s all expensive production design without a bit of pulse behind it, rest assured that for all its handsome dressing and expensive laurels, this is pulp storytelling at its finest. The violence is frequent and ferocious, coupled with a charged tension running throughout most every dialogue scene. This is a world in which saying one wrong thing is the difference between life and losing your head. Even without the threat of lethal consequences, there are complex dynamics at play in every exchange, turning each interaction into equal parts a negotiation, a linguistical dance, and a contest of wills.

And for as densely plotted as Shōgun is after even three episodes, creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, along with their creative teams, work have clearly worked very hard to make sure that the complex chess board of a plot is always legible. I may have difficulty describing the full scope of the story being told, but in every scene you know what the characters want, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what the major obstacles in their path currently are. That may seem like faint praise, but as the streaming age continues to sacrifice basic narrative pacing and structure at the altar of binge-viewed content farms, smart and careful dramatic writing is worth its weight in gold.

Shōgun is impressive in all respects. Its costumes, sets, and locations are stunning, its action is cleanly staged and shot, and its ensemble is stuffed to bursting with terrific performers palpably relishing getting to play with material this good.

A third of the way through the season, the only question is whether or not the rest of the series will live up to such a sterling opening run. With a start this strong, there’s every reason to believe Shōgun will go the distance and prove itself to be a TV event for the ages (again).

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