Review – Shōgun (2024 Miniseries)

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Overview

Directing Jonathan van Tulleken, Charlotte Brändström, Frederick E.O. Toye, Hiromi Kamata, Takeshi Fukunaga, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Producing Michaela Clavell, Rachel Kondo, Michael De Luca, Edward L. McDonnell, Justin Marks, Jamie Vega Wheeler, Eriko Miyagawa, Hiroyuki Sanada, Erin Smith, Tom Winchester

Writing Rachel Kondo, Justin Marks, Shannon Goss, Nigel Williams, Emily Yoshida, Matt Lambert, Maegan Houang

Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Cosmo Jarvis, Anna Sawai, Tadanobu Asano, Takehiro Hira, Tommy Bastow

Genre Drama/Historical Fiction

Platforms Hulu/Disney+

Release Date February 27 - April 23, 2024

I was invited this past February to a television premiere for a new show coming out that I had never heard of. My small Anglican parish was home to some world travelers and educated deacons who were excited about an upcoming adaptation of a popular book I hadn’t heard of, and they wanted to celebrate its premiere. Upon arriving, I was met with the largest spread of expensive sushi and Japanese liquors I’d ever seen, and our host introduced the show while wearing authentic Japanese regalia. Despite going in with no expectations, I was completely absorbed by the first two episodes of the best television drama I’d seen in years.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Severe bloody violence, with multiple characters stabbed, beheaded, guts spilling, and characters being blown apart by cannons
Language/Crude Humor: Frequent crude, sexual, and severe language throughout
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters casually drink alcohol
Sexual Content: Some explicit nudity and sex scenes, including full frontal female nudity, men’s butts, and scenes taking place in a prostitute’s home
Spiritual Content: The show explicitly deals with the politics of the Reformation, the rivalry between Catholicism and Protestantism, and the native Shinto religion of Japan
Other Negative Content: Depictions of Machiavellianism, suicide, and murder
Positive Content: Themes of unity, communication, and avoiding unnecessary conflict

Review

When James Clavell published Shōgun in 1975, he likely did not imagine he was writing a historical fiction novel that would become one of the decade’s most enduring works of fiction. Best known as the screenwriter for The Great Escape and The Fly and the producer of Roots, Clavell’s writing career spread across six novels and dozens of movies. After selling six million copies, Shōgun was adapted into a 1980 television miniseries and then mostly fell out of the public consciousness, until it was revived recently for Hulu.

Shōgun dropped upon a mostly unsuspecting public this February and received a modest amount of anticipation. I hadn’t heard of it, but I’m also a hermit living in Rural Wisconsin. What do I know about relevancy? Regardless, I went into the show expecting something modest and schlocky and walked away feeling like I’d just experienced something profound. The show has developed a strong following, enough to possibly warrant Hulu to adapt the book’s sequels into subsequent seasons of the show, and stands as one of the notable television events of 2024.

Many have compared Shōgun’s success to that of Game of Thrones, and the comparison is notable. The two series have a non-trivial amount of overlap between content and themes, particularly with their violence, sexuality, and dense plotting. However, the two shows also couldn’t be more different. Game of Thrones is a lurid pornographic soap opera, while Shōgun is a drama of hidden motives, polite society, and complex rituals. The former wants to indulge in its nihilism, while the latter wants to teach you to see something more meaningful in its perspective of the world.

The series is set in 1600, at the start of Japan’s Edo period. Following the death of the country’s unifying leader, five regents now control the nation and there is much internal squabbling and talk of war between them. As tensions rise between the regents and the prospect of civil war begins to loom, a Dutch merchant ship carrying a starving crew of English pirates crashlands on the coast, with its surviving captain John Blackthorne being taken into custody by the established Portugese Catholic Jesuits, who wish to have him executed before he can spread Protestantism or negatively harm trade. His arrival begins to cause a chain reaction as the regent conflict makes him a useful pawn, and he becomes a welcomed guest, despite being considered a rude barbarian.

Shōgun is one of the most dense shows in recent memory, and it has taken me a while to keep up with it. Watching the show is a commitment to paying attention, which isn’t always easy when you’re a busy adult. It is also enriching, and will likely be a rewarding watch upon subsequent viewings with its dense network of story threads, character motivations, and revelations better understood.

The drama of Shōgun is hidden in the depths of each character’s hidden motivations. Feudal Japan is a high society of secrets and masks. Everyone is expected to behave strictly in obedience and politeness that regulates how they talk and interact, with even the smallest movements having deep symbolism and importance. To navigate this world, these characters need to be able to bury their deepest desires and goals. Their closest allies cannot even be trusted. Small breaches in etiquette can be pretenses for ritual suicide.

The appearance of Blackthorne thus serves as a vital entry point into the complexity of this world. He is a clueless low-class Englishman with a thick cockney accent, and the world he is from is nothing like the world he is entering into. Initially, his conflict is simple. He’s a Protestant feuding with Catholics. His motivations and enemies are clear. He wants to disrupt the Catholic Church’s colonialist stronghold on the New World and spread his religion and nationality’s influence.

It rapidly becomes clear that the world isn’t impressed by him. He’s just a “barbarian,” and the xenophobic nature of the society around him means he must conform to their standards rather than convince them to conform to his. Much of his story is ultimately about him gaining humility in this new world and learning to communicate properly.

Shōgun’s greatest strength naturally comes from Hiroyuki Sanada’s performance as Lord Yoshii Toranaga, the leader of one of the country’s largest clans. Sanada’s Hollywood career has been remarkable, albeit one where he’s mostly been a solid presence in larger movies. His larger performances in films like The Last Samurai are eclipsed by numerous smaller roles in blockbusters like The Wolverine, Minions, Avengers: Endgame, and John Wick: Chapter 4.

Sanada turns up in Shōgun with possibly his greatest performance, as a character whom others fear seeks to become the titular Shōgun, unifying the country under a military dictatorship following a potentially bloody civil war. Yet, he presents himself as a wholly honorable and sympathetic leader. His heart seems to be on his sleeve, and the slow reveal of the layers of his motivations in its final minutes marks its best dramatic storytelling.

Shōgun has already set itself apart as the television event of the year. While I’m somewhat late to the party to sing its praises, it doesn’t need much from me. It’s easily my favorite work of television since HBO’s Chernobyl, standing alone as both an excellent adaptation of a great novel and a great work of dramatic storytelling in its own right.

The Bottom Line

 

Shōgun has risen to prominence for a reason. It's the television event of the year, with some of the best dramatic storytelling and performances in the past few years.

 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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