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‘Shogun’ Is High-Stakes Event TV at Its Finest
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‘Shogun’ Is High-Stakes Event TV at Its Finest

Feb 27, 2024

There have been several shows aspiring to be the “next Game of Thrones,” including HBO’s own prequel series about the fall of House Targaryen. What unites many of these would-be successors is that they’re works of fantasy: If Thrones proved that audiences had an appetite for a series featuring dragons and ice zombies, the thinking goes, viewers will hunger for something similar. But while the fantasy elements were an essential ingredient for Thrones, the secret sauce was something a bit more grounded: the high-stakes politicking. HBO might’ve spent an ungodly amount of money to bring Westeros to life, but to paraphrase Tyrion Lannister, the show never felt more assured than when it boiled down to great conversations in elegant rooms. (A passive-aggressive argument between Varys and Littlefinger honestly felt more charged than some of Thrones’ battle scenes.) Throw in the painstakingly detailed history of Westeros, and Thrones was one of the most immersive experiences the medium has ever seen.

The television landscape has evolved quite a bit since Thrones was at the height of its popularity: The influx of streaming services means that consumers’ viewing habits are increasingly fractured, while Peak TV is finally starting to plateau after years of extravagant spending. In essence, the conditions aren’t right for any show to become the “next Game of Thrones,” no matter how compelling a program may be. But if any series deserves to cut through the noise, the new FX limited series Shogun is a worthy contender for the crown: a sweeping historical epic oozing with political intrigue.

Based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel of the same name, which was previously adapted into a miniseries for NBC in 1980, Shogun is set in 17th-century Japan with the nation on the precipice of a civil war. It’s been a year since the taiko, the supreme leader of a unified Japan, died. The taiko’s heir is too young to lay claim to the throne, so a five-person Council of Regents has been established in his place. While each member of the council has their own agenda—two of the men have converted to Catholicism after the Portuguese established trade with the island nation—the most enigmatic of the bunch is Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a renowned warrior who hails from a dynastic family. The other members of the council have united against Toranaga, fearing he plans to anoint himself shogun and rule Japan in a de facto military dictatorship.

Led by the scheming Lord Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), the council is readying a vote to impeach Toranaga, which would double as a death sentence. But when a battered Dutch vessel arrives on the shores of Japan, piloted by the English sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), Toranaga sees an opportunity. As a Protestant, Blackthorne is an enemy of the Portuguese-allied members of the council and could be a useful bargaining chip against them. But more importantly, Blackthorne has knowledge of Western warfare, and his “barbarian” ship is loaded with cannons and muskets: weapons that could turn the tide in Toranaga’s favor if war were to break out.

It’s a dense setup, and one of the thrills of Shogun is trying to keep track of the shifting allegiances between the major political players. The situation is especially fraught because of the strict set of rituals and decorums unique to Japanese culture. In the premiere, for instance, one of Toranaga’s samurai speaks out of turn when Ishido insults his lord—as punishment, the samurai is ordered to commit seppuku and end his bloodline. In moments like this, Blackthorne is an effective audience proxy, reacting in disbelief as the people around him seem to treat life and death so callously. (Blackthorne’s culture shock is also where Shogun embraces some levity: He can’t fathom why people in this country choose to bathe more than once a week. Blackthorne, I know it smells crazy in your kimono.)

Of course, Blackthorne doesn’t speak Japanese, so Toranaga enlists Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a noblewoman from a disgraced family, to serve as Blackthorne’s translator. (As a converted Catholic, Mariko speaks Portuguese, which is how she and Blackthorne communicate, although all of their dialogue in the series is in English.) With time, Mariko and Blackthorne bond over the bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves: two pawns in a tense political chess game in which one false move could lead to an all-out war that tears Japan apart.

What separates Shogun from other historical epics, though, is how effectively the series exercises restraint. Make no mistake, there are scenes of shocking violence where characters are swiftly decapitated, disemboweled, or blown into gory chunks of flesh by cannon fire. But for the most part, Shogun focuses on the careful steps characters take to avoid walking the path of destruction, none more so than Toranaga. In his heyday as a warrior, Toranaga’s greatest asset was letting his opponent strike first: Fighting was always a final recourse rather than something to embrace. It’s a mindset Toranaga carries into the political arena, patiently waiting for his rivals to make a play before revealing his hand.

These qualities make Shogun a subtler show than viewers might expect from such a lavish production. But this approach aligns with a Japanese proverb that’s frequently cited throughout the series: “A man has a false heart for the world to see, another in his breast to show friends and family, and a secret heart only known to themselves.” Fittingly, Toranaga keeps his cards so close to the chest that not even his most trusted advisers seem to know if he’s really gunning to be shogun. That the characters internalize so much of what motivates them can, at first, make Shogun a difficult series to connect with on an emotional level. But once you get on Shogun’s wavelength, there’s plenty to savor in reading between the lines and knowing how much is left unsaid by the characters in key situations. (Mariko is the queen of throwing shade within the polite strictures of society.)

Naturally, the one exception to the rule is Blackthorne, who begins the series as a foulmouthed brute unafraid to speak his mind. In a lesser series, a character like Blackthorne would be painted as a savior: the white outsider with a fresh perspective who swoops in to save the day, à la Dances With Wolves or The Last Samurai. But what elevates Shogunabove movies of that ilk is that Blackthorne isn’t there to save anyone; if anything, Japan saves him. Later in the series, when Blackthorne reunites with a belligerent former shipmate drunk out of his mind on sake, he hardly recognizes the man he once was. All he sees in his old comrade is the absence of honor and civility: a humbling moment for a character who grows to appreciate all that Japan has to offer.

I certainly appreciate that Shogun exists in the first place. This is the kind of large-scale event series that feels increasingly rare at a time when networks and streamers are scaling back after years of excessive spending. Of course, it’s also not surprising that FX, of all places, has taken such a big swing: it’s a network that’s long been synonymous with prestige television. What’s more, FX is known for miniseries that blossom into full-fledged anthology shows, including Fargo, American Crime Story, and Feud. Could Shogun follow suit? The series may be a self-contained story, but Clavell ended up writing six novels that constitute his Asian Saga: historical fiction centered on Europeans in Asia and what happens when these two cultures intersect. (Historical epics are having a moment, so why not enter the Clavellverse?)

In any case, Shogun more than deserves to stand on its own. The level of craftsmanship that went into the series is apparent in every gorgeous frame, as is the commitment to foregrounding the story from a Japanese perspective, rather than solely a Westerner’s view. (The vast majority of the dialogue in Shogunis in Japanese, which shouldn’t be a problem for anyone willing to overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.) All told, Shogun won’t just scratch the Game of Thrones itch: It’s the best new series of the year, a ruminative epic that, in moments big and small, always manages to cut deep.

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