Faith is a luxury in FX’s majestic and searing Shogun, the new live-action series adaptation of James Clavell’s bestselling novel. This is not simply about the intrusive presence of Christianity, installed in feudal Japan by capital-seeking Portuguese. It’s faith in people. Faith between political allies, between family, between strangers who share connections that transcend barriers. When faith is rewarded, it is life-saving. But when faith is misplaced, it cuts deep, like the severing slash of a sword.
Almost 50 years since Clavell’s Shogun hit bookshelves and close to 45 since it was a hit TV miniseries starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune, it is reborn as a sprawling 10-episode drama on FX. Often violent, sometimes erotic, and at all times magnificent in its pure entertainment factor and period immersion, Shogun clears any rightfully placed suspicions over its ungainly premise to tell a classic tale of understanding and discovery, wrapped up in a complex political thriller.
Let’s get the nasty business out of the way: Shogun is a fictionalized telling of real-life 17th century sailor William Adams, the first documented Englishman to reach isolationist Edo-period Japan. Through the eyes of Shogun’s gruff “barbarian” protagonist John Blackthorne (a revelatory Cosmo Jarvis), Edo Japan is practically an alien planet, its austerity and people’s strict adherence to rituals is horrific, yet compelling, to his English perspective.
And look, I get it. In the past decade, American-made media that tell stories of white outsiders in foreign settings have, deservedly, suffered a bad rap. Though these stories are not exclusive to Asian settings (the Oscar-winning giant Dances With Wolves says hello), the high-profile evisceration of Marvel’s Iron Fist have made audiences hyper-aware and hyper-allergic to any such loglines. Which is why it’s a mathematical miracle that Shogun was greenlit at all. It appears the streaming wars’ race for the “next Game of Thrones” can make anyone blind to cultural sensitivity.
The truth is that stories alone don’t offend people. Carelessness does. So it’s a relief that Shogun is not careless. Under the stewardship of producers Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, this retelling of Shogun feels alive, in its sweeping story of people working toward a common understanding, even if the reasons are less benevolent than politically beneficial.
Supplanting the towering Mifune in this remake/reboot as Lord Toranaga, an expunged daimyo, is Hiroyuki Sanada, who since 2003’s The Last Samurai has become Hollywood’s go-to Japanese thespian to portray dignified masculinity. Indeed, Sanada is great in the series, playing the intimidating and intelligent Lord Taranaga with stunning self-assurance. If American audiences haven’t already warmed up to him in blockbusters like The Wolverine, Bullet Train, and John Wick 4, Shogun is sure to make Sanada a household name.
Shogun boasts an impressive ensemble of actors who remarkably assert their individuality despite its overstuffed frames: Anna Sawai is alluring as the pillar-like Mariko, a high-class noble and translator (and inevitable love interest) for Blackthorne. Tadanobu Asano, who got a serious short end of the stick in the Thor movies, shines as the brash samurai lord Yabushige, risking his head in playing both sides of a bubbling civil war. Nestor Carbonell, as a Spanish sailor and rival to Blackthorne, makes for an overall entertaining foil, lending a touch of anti-heroic whimsy reminiscent of a Pirates of the Caribbean baddie. All of these and more add dimension to Shogun’s sprawling universe. The gravitas is always pregnant with genuine weight, while the stray moments of sincere comedy are welcome, never tired.
There’s blemishes on Shogun’s bamboo armor, to be sure. It’s undeniably a serialized cable drama (the lines between FX and Hulu are increasingly blurry these days), with all the bugs and features of these kinds of shows. There’s a serious premium on ornate storytelling, with arduous artistic symbolism that maybe sounded nice on paper but now feel ostentatious to anyone without an English degree. If that doesn’t befuddle viewers, Shogun’s many characters and individual goals swirl in thick political soup that can make keeping up feel like a chore. If you, like me, kept a notepad to keep track of the many houses and power players during Game of Thrones, I suggest you tear up a new page for Shogun too.
Comparisons to Game of Thrones are actually apt for Shogun, in fact, and that’s besides their shared origins as epic tomes. Minus the dragons, and ice zombies, Shogun is an impeccably dressed escapist drama bolstered by top-tier craftsmanship; sex and bloodshed are everywhere, though Shogun rarely feels as exploitative as the HBO hit. It’s too early to know if Shogun will reach the same heights of popularity and attention as Thrones, even if it’s painfully obvious that those behind it desperately want that to happen. The good news is that anyone missing the good old days of wildly expensive cable television, Shogun scratches that itch quite well.
It is, again, so inconceivable that Shogun is even a thing in 2024, and a miracle that it’s actually good. It’s maybe even great. Shogun is a rich, textured, even sensitive grownup drama that knows how to strike the razor-thin balance between spectacle and spectacular. While its labored plotting and dizzying array of characters forbid casual viewing, it’s admittedly nice that there’s a TV show that respects its audience too much to coast on vibes and legitimately strives to deliver on its ambitious scope. That it also just not gross in how it’s still ultimately about a white guy wearing kimonos, carrying katana, and learning about the finer points of maintaining honor is an exhibition of sheer artistic athleticism. Time will tell if Shogun will live by the sword or die by the sword. Whatever the outcome is a matter of faith.
Shogun premieres Feb. 27 on FX.
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