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Shōgun: The best show you aren’t watching

Apr 20, 2024 09:06 AM IST

Shōgun is a window into Japanese culture, traditions, language, and societal mores in the 17th century. Shōgun is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

FX’s Shōgun is easily the best television show of the year so far. The tale of feudal Japanese politics and warfare in the 17th century, which gets complicated after the arrival of an English sailor, is simultaneously epic and intimate. Also read | Shōgun creators on the need for adapting the book for this generation: ‘Where have we gotten it so wrong over the years’

Shōgun: Get to know everything about the series based on the James Clavell novel.
Shōgun: Get to know everything about the series based on the James Clavell novel.

The premise

Based on James Clavell’s 1975 bestseller of the same name, Shōgun tells the story of Lord Toranaga, an enigmatic Japanese leader struggling to keep the peace against a council of regents who fear his power, while also navigating the spread of Christianity by way of Portuguese missionaries. His efforts are confounded by the sudden appearance of an English sailor, John Blackthorne, who claims the Portuguese are not the benevolent allies they seem to be. More crucially, Blackthorne’s ship has cannons, a new weapon which could hold the key to victory for whoever controls the Englishman.

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Shōgun is television on a grand scale

After making great shows like The Americans and The Bear among others, Shōgun is FX’s attempt at creating their own Game of Thrones. The book is epic in its scope, and the show has some stunning setpieces that showcase the best in production design and visual effects. The action scenes notwithstanding, the most stunning sequence so far involves an earthquake that decimates Toranaga’s forces.

A window into Japanese culture

It’s not just the elaborate production design, Shōgun is a painstaking recreation of Japanese culture, down to the traditions, language, and societal mores of the time. A highly successful miniseries adaptation in 1980 centered the white Blackthorne and did not even subtitle the Japanese dialog. The modern version makes no such mistake, the show is primarily in subtitled Japanese and the translations are carefully chosen to highlight the nuances of the dialog. Importantly, Toranaga is a narrative equal to Blackthorne, if not an outright lead.

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Hiroyuki Sanada in a still from Shōgun.
Hiroyuki Sanada in a still from Shōgun.

The key players

The nominal lead of the show is Cosmo Jarvis who plays Blackthorne. Jarvis’ Blackthorne starts off broad and loud, with the usual western notion that he is the civilized man in a land of barbarians. Over the course of the season, as he learns to appreciate Japanese culture and understand their sense of honour, Jarvis’ performance mellows and becomes more quiet and internal. Toranaga is played by veteran actor Hiroyuki Sanada (John Wick: Chapter 4) in a charming and inscrutable performance, punctuated by bursts of vulnerability. Special mention must be made of Tadanobu Asano (Thor) as Yabushige, a scheming lord who is pledged to serve Toranaga but is constantly double crossing all sides in an attempt to come out of the conflict alive.

The real star of the show is Anna Sawai (F9) as Lady Mariko. The only truly bilingual role on Shōgun, Mariko is a complex character torn between the competing demands of her duty, her religion, and her sense of honor. As the only person who can communicate with Blackthorne, Mariko becomes a key confidante of Toranaga. This is a star-making role for Sawai who delivers a carefully calibrated and sensitive performance that also allows her to play a badass when the plot demands it.

The saga comes to an end

Through the first nine episodes, we see Toranaga as a skilled practitioner of the political game, playing chess while his opponents are playing checkers. Meanwhile, Blackthorne has gone from being a pawn to someone who is at least somewhat trusted by Toranaga. It’s been a thrilling and terrific ride so far with the penultimate episode ending on a devastating cliffhanger that could have crucial implications for Blackthorne and Toranaga. The stage is now set for an explosive climax next week.

If you haven’t been watching the year’s best show, it’s not too late to start. You could binge through the season this weekend before the season finale on Tuesday. Shōgun is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

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