Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in SHŌGUN

Shōgun Review: A New Era of Prestige TV

The new historical drama is a tale of political maneuvering, sabotage, and unlikely romance.

Just when we thought prestige TV was over, FX’s Shōgun arrives to usher it into the next era. The historical drama presents a rich tapestry of political maneuvering, sabotage, and unlikely romance set against the vivid backdrop of feudal Japan. With a well-acted cast of colorful characters, unforgettable scenery, and a thrilling political plot, Shōgun is an early contender for best new series of 2024.

Based on James Clavell’s best-selling novel by the same name, the series tells the story of John Blakthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an English sailor who travels to Japan in 1600 to establish trade relations. At this time in history, the only Europeans the Japanese know are the Portuguese, who are at war with England. John ultimately fails his original mission, but he instead finds himself at the center of a deadly competition between powerful Japanese magnates in a world completely unlike his own.

The first episode, “Anjin,” opens on a gloomy ship at sea. Our protagonist is the ship’s “pilot” — what we’d understand today as the navigator for sea voyages. From the moment that beaten-down vessel emerges from the fog on the outskirts of a poor fishing village, history is set in motion, forever changing the lives of John, his beautiful translator Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), and the rest of the Japanese people.

SHŌGUN Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne
Courtesy of FX Networks

Shōgun vividly brings feudal Japan to life with beautiful, meticulously designed sets that capture the country’s natural beauty. While it’s difficult for a non-historian to discern the accuracy of the set design, it ultimately doesn’t really matter. The series is immersive in the ways that count. The world feels lived in and fully developed, spanning across classes, regions, and purposes. From the filthy prisons to the impressive city of Osaka, the bowels of ships to the inner sanctums of the Portuguese, each location feels distinct and authentic.

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The important distinction for Shōgun is that it delights in visual splendor and political intrigue but not exotification or orientalism. We the viewers get to experience feudal Japan for the first time through John’s eyes, but the show makes equal efforts to give audiences a view of John’s foreign ideas and experiences through the eyes of Mariko. As an Englishman and sailor living in 1600, his knowledge, values, and assumptions are foreign to today’s viewers.

This balanced approach prevents Shōgun from falling into white savior trappings. John may have valuable knowledge, but he is the unrefined “barbarian” in this circumstance. For example, he doesn’t understand basic hygiene and his idea of medicine is laughable. Early on, John refuses to bathe, expressing concern that he’d catch a disease. Over time, he learns to adopt the Japanese customs — all while grappling with the country’s often brutal value system, which places family honour above all else (including life itself).

SHŌGUN Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko
Courtesy of FX Networks

Shōgun could be the long-awaited successor to Game of Thrones, for better or worse; that series was also based on a best-selling book and, although historical fiction, was inspired by England’s 15th-century War of Roses. Clavell’s 1975 novel Shōgun is also a work of fiction, but it takes inspiration from the historical events that led up to the Battle of Sekigahara, which effectively ended the Sengoku period in Japan. In real life, an Englishman named William Adams did land in Japan in 1600 and, remarkably, became a high-ranking samurai for the rising shogunate Tokugawa Ieyasu. As a result, both epic shows present the same compelling narrative structures, intricately woven with differing alliances, motivations, and histories.

Also like the HBO hit series, Shōgun features a cast of high-caliber actors, with veterans in prominent roles, like Hiroyuki Sanada (John Wick: Chapter 4), who plays the clever Lord Yoshii Toranaga, and Tadanobu Asano (Mortal Kombat), who plays the underhanded yet very charismatic Lord Kashigi Yabushige. As the star, Jarvis does a lot of heavy lifting but does not disappoint; known for his breakout role in William Oldroyd’s Lady MacBeth, the actor balances charm, passion and vulnerability, delivering an electrifying on-screen performance.

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Shōgun takes a page from Game of Thrones aesthetically as well, and this is where the show is at its weakest. The title credits sequence feels like the Shōgun version of the iconic Game of Thrones opening. John speaks in an overly gruff manner that occasionally feels forced and, worse still, the night scenes are sometimes so dark it’s nigh impossible to tell what’s happening. One scene in Episode 3, “Tomorrow is Tomorrow,” should have been thrilling fight sequence; instead, it is undermined by poor direction and muddy lighting. When you can’t tell who is stabbing whom, or where people are in relation to each other, it takes you out of the moment. Despite these minor annoyances, Shōgun is a remarkably polished series—impressive even when taking into account FX’s history of excellent television programming.

FX’s Shōgun premieres on Disney+ in Canada on February 27. 



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