Thursday, May 2, 2024

Review: Shogun Season 1

Shogun is prestige TV at its finest — the plotting and political machinations of Game of Thrones set amidst the backdrop of late Sengoku-era Japan in the 17th century (spoiler free).

When James Clavell wrote his novel Shogun in 1975, he was writing it as a white man entranced by Japanese culture. And while painstakingly researched, at its center is the experience of John Blackthorne, an Englishman who gets shipwrecked in 1600s Ajiro. The 1980 TV movie version continued this theme of focusing on the white visitor, though it featured Toshiro Mifune (the world-renowned actor and star of countless Kurosawa samurai films). Unsurprisingly, it was less than well-received in Japan, as viewers felt the depiction disregarded the culture and history of their native country.  

Adapting a problematic novel

This new adaptation takes a different tack, and it's made with an enormous budget, today's CGI technology, and a modern respect and appreciation for non-Western viewpoints. It takes Clavell's source text as a starting point and rough plot guide, rather than a recreation. Which is good — the book (which I read about 400 pages of before putting it down), is filled with incredible storytelling, but there are racist tropes and musings from the POV of Blackthorne that have no place in modern re-creations.

Instead, the show centers the Japanese characters as the primary voices in the story, and nearly all of the dialogue is in Japanese (check out this article about the hard work that went into translating for the show. Eriko Miyagawa, the producer, worked closely with actor/producer Hiroyuki Sanada to make sure Shogun was accurate to period Edo.) 

The plot

Blackthorne, an English navigator, gets swept up in the political drama of late Sengoku-era Japan, but for much of the show, he is literally watching and observing the action happening around him, understanding some but often missing the language and cultural knowledge to give anything context. 

After landing in Japan, Blackthorne is taken to Lord Toranaga, who is intrigued by his ship and cannon technology. The Portuguese have already colonized Japan, but they're Catholics, so Anglican Blackthorne views them as a hostile influence. As the Englishman learns about Japanese culture and politics, he becomes a key player in Toranaga's plans, navigating complex alliances and rivalries while trying to find a way back to his homeland. 

Toranaga is the one you're rooting for the entire show — a former fifth of the Council of Regents who are ruling while the Taiko's son comes of age. He's a good man, crafty and wise like Odysseus, and doesn't want to steal power. His actions are forced by his rivals, but they're no less brilliant for that.

The world

When there's a power vacuum in a monarchy (like the War of the Five Kings in A Game of Thrones),  a clash of power is sure to ensue, and in feudal Japan, it ends up being brutal. For the royals in this world, there is a stark and ruthless code of honor. Early on even in the first episode, we witness a young samurai make the mistake of dishonoring Toranaga's rival, and he is ordered to commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide) to atone for his sins. His infant son is also killed in order to end his bloodline, now contaminated with dishonor. 

Apart from the characters of this world is the visually stunning depiction of 1600s-era Osaka and Edo. CGI enables these feudal cities to come to life as we spend time in castles, fishing villages, and even period-era ships with samurai in full battle armor.

There's more than just on-screen brutality and war, though. We get glimpses into the beauty and art of feudal Japanese culture, from the telling of poetry and playing of music to the elaborate tea ceremonies and rock gardens found in many homes. The quiet parts reminded me of the wonderful time I spent playing Ghost of Tsushima a few years back — all zen and cherry blossoms. 

Women in Shogun

Like with A Game of Thrones, much of the action is done by the male warriors (a consequence in each of being based on actual history and the misogyny of the times). But the emotional heart and core of Shogun lies in what happens to the female characters — and how they persevere. 

Mariko, the translator, is the daughter of a disgraced warrior, and while she longs for death, manages to find purpose in her being left alive (there's also an incredible fight scene where she squares off against a dozen men with aplomb.) Similarly, Fuji, the widow of the previously mentioned samurai who commits seppuku, carries on with a grace and duty that is near otherworldly. Even the mother of the heir to the throne manages to manipulate the council of regents to do her bidding — without ever raising her voice or a powerful gesture. 

The verdict

Shogun is a wild ride, but not one that's undertaken easily. It takes work to watch this show, and you'll find yourself googling ideas, words, and history to help you understand everything that's happening. But it's worth it. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: The period attention to detail is absolutely mesmerizing; Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Toronaga's performance is stellar and will hopefully garner him an Emmy or Golden Globe nod; my favorite character, however, is Yabushiga and his grunts.

Penalties: It's a very complex show with many, many characters; some of my favorite action scenes are so darkly lit as to be near-unwatchable in the daytime.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.