HIROYUKI SANADA in Shōgun (2024)

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

TV Review

FEUDAL Japan has been immortalized time and again in books, plays, and movies, most notably in the jidaigeki (period piece) genre led by the likes of Akira Kurosawa. James Clavell’s sprawling 1975 novel Shōgun is the most influential “East meets West” take on this genre, adapted into a miniseries in 1980, but arguably transformed into its best form in FX’s Shōgun.

The historical fiction series, set in Japan in the year 1600, is made up of 10 episodes. It follows English navigator John Blackthorne (played with charm and confusion by Cosmo Jarvis) who is a stranger in a strange land.

As the title suggests, Blackthorne encounters the warlord Yoshii Toranaga (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), a man deeply embroiled in power struggles and life-threatening politics in a bid to become the new shōgun. Based on the real-life historical figure Tokugawa Leyasu, head of the Edo shogunate and third “Great Unifier” of Japan, Mr. Sanada lends an air of embattled, emotionless power and majesty to the role.

Blackthorne’s goal? To get his wrecked ship and crew back so he can leave Japan — though fate has other things planned for him.

Co-created by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, FX’s Shōgun is a fictionalized tale for sure, but nonetheless rooted in history to the point that its main draw is its accurate depiction of Japan and Japanese culture. It goes great lengths to show that, despite, and perhaps even because of, strict honor codes, feudal Japan was a complex society.

Jarvis and Toranaga play their roles well, as the bumbling and barbaric yet useful court jester from another land, and the dangerous and conniving figure of power that keeps him alive. Completing a trio of topnotch performances is Anna Sawai as the graceful yet strong Lady Mariko, the translator and Catholic convert with her own compelling tangles with fate.

The series stands out in its dedication to beauty and accuracy, whether through costumes, character movements, or cinematography. Fans of the jidaigeki genre and Japanese culture as a whole will be pleased. Mr. Sanada, aside from being the titular warlord, has said in interviews that his role as series producer has been the most important, since he oversees the show’s authenticity.

Aside from the main three characters, Tadanobu Asano as Yabushige and Moeka Hoshi as the consort Fuji are excellent. Without spoiling the story, the former shines more and more as the episodes go by and his character precariously (and sometimes clumsily) plays both sides, while the latter comes across as both respectful and worthy of respect despite her limited station as a woman.

FX’s Shōgun boasts more than just delectable, historically accurate visuals and a dedicated, unbeatable cast of characters. It also serves up oodles of political intrigue. The heir to the imperial throne is a young boy, making succession a tough matter amid power struggles among five council regents. All the while, trading rights and religious converts are being fought over by the Portuguese versus the Dutch, and Protestants versus Catholics.

It is in this setting that Blackthorne becomes anjin-san (Japanese for pilot) and lands in the good graces of Lord Toranaga. With the help of Lady Mariko as his translator, he learns to grasp the tradition, protocols, and brutality of Japanese culture.

However, what sets the series apart from the 1980 adaptation is its in-depth character study of every player in the game, be it a Japanese or a foreigner. The old show chose not to subtitle Japanese dialogue, so that American audiences would feel as lost as Blackthorne, a dramatically effective tool that anchored viewers to his learning experiences.

In contrast, FX’s Shōgun uses translation to dive into the interiority of all the characters, balancing the “stranger in a strange land” culture shock element with an exploration of culture through well-written dialogue in various languages. Before Lady Mariko, Blackthrone contends with Catholic translators who are untrustworthy and twist his words.

Lady Mariko’s faithful translations elevate her to the role of interpreter, as she translates the words as well as the cultures of the parties involved without offending either side. It’s a perfect interplay of minds.

Beyond the pivotal role of interpreting, she embodies the concept of “shukumei,” roughly defined as fate. With the cards she is dealt as a woman of a disgraced bloodline, she masterfully and bravely charts a path according to her principles. Many of her strong moments are done in silent protest.

In short, much of the appeal of Shōgun (the original novel, the 1980s miniseries, and this latest series) is witnessing the clash of cultures. And yet it goes beyond that every time, delving into sociopolitical struggles and an exciting take on a historical turning point for Japan.

This wonderfully told piece of television is available on Disney+.