Shogun review: Power and violence in feudal Japan

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Shogun is streaming now on Disney+.
Shogun is streaming now on Disney+. Credit: Disney/FX

It would be reductive to label Shogun as “the next Game of Thrones” because the compelling and intense series is very much its own thing. It doesn’t need to hitch a ride on another’s coattails.

But when it comes to political power plays, life-and-death stakes, a sweeping historic setting and lots of gory violence, the comparison is inescapable for anyone who is still trying to find something similar since GoT ended in 2019. Sure, House of the Dragon… exists.

Shogun immediately impresses, as if it’s extending a hand to pull you into its brutal, murderous world, where life is far from assured but survival isn’t the only game because everyone has an ulterior motive.

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Adapted from James Clavell’s 1975 novel, which was based on 17th century historical figures and events, Shogun starts with the arrival in Japan of a merchant boat carrying a dozen European crew, led by ship’s pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis).

Blackthorne is an English protestant who wants to break the power of the Portuguese Catholics who have infiltrated Japan. The Portuguese were ostensibly missionaries, spreading the word of their Christian god to the “savages” of the East, but there were strong political and trade reasons for their presence.

Shogun is streaming now on Disney+.
Shogun is adapted from a 1975 novel. Credit: Kurt Iswarienko/FX/FX/Disney

At the time, Queen Elizabeth I was still on the throne and England was six decades into its break from the Catholic church. The enmity between these two branches of Christianity were high (Portugal and Spain were avowedly Catholic), and inextricable from the empire games between European powers.

Blackthorne and his men are captured before they can make it ashore by a noble “loyal” to Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) and becomes a disrupter in the existing political manoeuvring within the Japanese aristocracy.

Toranaga is one of five regents following the death of the most recent ruler. The council is charged with caretaking the throne until the heir comes of age, but the threat of civil war is imminent. One of the other regents, Ishido (Takehiro Hira), has formed a bloc against Toranaga.

This is the combustible environment in which Blackthorne becomes a significant player because his information about Portuguese ambitions is of great interest to Toranaga, a canny strategist who seems to be several steps ahead. He also recruits the astute Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), the Portuguese-speaking daughter-in-law of his general.

As Toranaga, the legendary Japanese actor Sanada (John Wick 4, Westworld) brings gravitas to his wizened and wily character. You can almost see his mind whirring, and it’s why Ishido views him as a competitor who must be stopped.

Shogun is streaming now on Disney+
Legendary Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada. Credit: Disney/FX

Sanada’s casting was crucial because this version of Shogun is not the first time Clavell’s book was adapted into a TV series. The previous iteration, broadcast in 1980, centred only Blackthorne and made short shrift of the Japanese characters whose dialogue wasn’t even translated into subtitles.

Here, Toranaga, Blackthorne and Lady Mariko are given equal due to play out their intricate, interwoven arcs.

This version is predominantly in Japanese with some English (standing in for Portuguese), which means audiences will have to pay attention, but that only makes Shogun even more engrossing when you can’t scroll through Instagram at the same time.

And you won’t want to because you’ll want to take it all in - its grand themes of power, diplomacy, betrayal and war, its expensive production values, the visual mastery and choreography of its action scenes and its unflinching depiction of arbitrary violence.

The 10-episode miniseries, with its rich world-building and carefully plotted twists, begs to be inhaled. But with its expansive ensemble of characters and complex story, Shogun, which is released weekly, rewards patience.

Shogun is streaming now on Disney+

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