Sweeping, Dazzling, Thrilling: Feudal Japan-Set Historical Epic 'Shogun' Is Grand and Gripping Viewing

One of the best new TV shows of 2024 has arrived via this second small-screen adaptation of James Clavell's bestselling 1975 novel.
Sarah Ward
February 28, 2024

Following in the footsteps of Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese acting icon and frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator, isn't an easy job. But enlisting Hiroyuki Sanada (John Wick: Chapter 4) to tread where the Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo star once did is a genius move in television's second adaptation of Shōgun. James Clavell's bestselling 1975 novel has reached the small screen before, in 1980. Back then, with Mifune as war hero Lord Yoshii Toranaga, it told its tale in five movie-length parts. Now, boasting the resolute and restrained Sanada in the role (and also as one of the show's producers), it returns 44 years later as a sweeping, dazzling and thrilling ten-episode miniseries — streaming on Disney+ Down Under from Tuesday, February 27 — that perfects many things, its casting high among them.

Sanada has equally well-chosen company; picking him, Cosmo Jarvis (Persuasion) and Anna Sawai (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters) as Shōgun circa 2024's leads is a masterstroke. The 17th century-set series makes plenty of other excellent decisions, but getting its core trio right is still pivotal. Richly detailed, the samurai series knows how to thrust its viewers into a deeply textured world from the outset, with complex performances at its centre an essential anchoring tactic. Sanada's Toranaga is among the political candidates vying to steer the future of the country. Jarvis is John Blackthorne, a British Protestant sailor on a Dutch ship that has run aground in a place that its crew isn't sure is real until they get there. And Sawai is Toda Mariko, a Japanese noblewoman with her own complicated history, who is also tasked with translating for the Englishman.

Each of Shōgun's three key characters encompasses much more than their basic descriptions, of course. The portrayals that bring them to the screen make that plain from the moment they're each first seen. Weight and heft have long lingered in Sanada's layered performances — be it in his turns in J-horror's original Ringu films, or in Sunshine, Lost and Westworld — which befits a regent with his own plans for his nation, separate from his fellow council members, a year after of the death of the last supreme ruler. He cuts a contemplative but determined figure, who is as canny with strategy as with seizing opportunity; Blackthorne's arrival sees him in both modes. Reminiscent of Tom Hardy (Venom: Let There Be Carnage), Jarvis brings raw bluster and astonishment to his part at first, then slowly dawning understanding. As for Sawai, she exudes duty, stoicism, shrewdness and sorrow as a woman whose choices are so rarely her own.

When it opens, Shōgun finds feudal Japan in crisis mode given its heir is to young to rule, Toranaga facing enemies and Blackthorne among the first of his compatriots that've made it to the nation, the latter much to the alarm of Japan's sole European inhabitants, all Catholic and from Portugal. While it is indeed still a story where a Westerner enters as an outsider, then becomes enmeshed in the daily goings-on, this Shōgun doesn't ever present Blackthorne's as the only or chief perspective. Sanada is the show's first-billed talent. The series' devotion to unravelling its narrative with Toranaga, Mariko and Blackthorne evenly at its heart never wavers. And, nor does its exploration of perspective — because what a splintering Japanese society means to one of its leaders, an interloper fresh to its shores and someone accustomed since childhood to be at its whims ("we live, and we die; we control nothing beyond that," Mariko says more than once) is completely different.

Early in, creators Justin Marks (Top Gun: Maverick) and Rachel Kondo (on her first TV credit) don't let the fact that "barbarian" is flung around by almost everyone escape attention. Usually it refers to Blackthorne, as used interchangeably with "anjin", the Japanese term for pilot. Toranaga swiftly gleans how handy the Brit's 500 muskets and 20 cannons will be if the acrimony directed his way by his regent counterparts results in war. His new vassal lives at his direction, then, as does Mariko. She'd prefer to surrender her life than exist without her disgraced family or stay with a warrior husband (Shinnosuke Abe, Keiji Shichinin) that she feels nothing warm for, but honour dictates otherwise. It's obligation, too, that has her convince her spouse's niece-by-marriage Usami Fuji (Moeka Hoshi, Turn to Me Mukai-kun) to submit to a heartbreaking decree, which is how Mariko is introduced.

In another of the dialogue's aphorisms, people are compared to pebbles that are pushed here, there and everywhere by the elements. It isn't just the metaphor that lands, but also the granularity; Shōgun looks and feels intricate, and is staged and plotted to match. Spies, love, loyalty, courtesan life, gardening practices, earthquakes, rabbit stew, duplicitous allegiances, ambition in a variety of forms, how gravely one's word can be taken: they're all weaved in. In its overarching narrative, Toranaga is beckoned to Osaka, where his main rival Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira, Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story) wants to put him in his place to snatch up overseeing the country for himself. That's truly the framing, however, as is Blackthorne initially washing up in a fishing village.

Although Toranaga declares several times that he's not after the titular position, Shōgun is another series for the streaming pile that's about fighting for supremacy, as Game of Thrones and Succession both famously were. As with just the former, it's another grand and gripping epic. While it's impossible not to see those links, knowing that both battling over who'll grasp power and traversing sprawling worlds are among pop culture's favourite things right now (and for some time) doesn't make Shōgun any less impressive. Rather, Marks and Kondo's spin on Clavell's book is a reminder of how magnificent and mesmerising such efforts can be when they're at their very best.

The scale is immense, and yet there's no skimping on intimacy. With authenticity as its guide, the minutiae is meticulous, demanding that the utmost notice is paid to everything at all times. The scenery alone is so exquisitely and sumptuously shot that it'll doubtless inspire tourist pilgrimages. Shōgun is visceral, too; gore is also no stranger from the get-go, when being boiled alive proves one way to deal with Japan's newcomers — and frequently from then on, including via seppuku. This is potent, thoughtful and immediately engrossing viewing, and lavish and precisely made also. As skilled at giant setpieces as it is at plunging into political scheming and emotional yearning, Shōgun makes getting drawn in instantaneous.

Check out the trailer for Shōgun below:

Shōgun streams via Disney+ from Tuesday, February 27.

Images: Katie Yu/FX.

Published on February 28, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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