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Shogun Hiroyuki Sanada Anna Sawai Toranaga Mariko.png

How 'Dune 2' and 'Shōgun' Handle the White Savior

By Chris Revelle | TV | March 21, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | March 21, 2024 |

Shogun Hiroyuki Sanada Anna Sawai Toranaga Mariko.png

You’ve almost certainly heard of the “white savior” concept in American media. It’s the trope by which American film and television allows other non-white cultures to be seen: as strange backward worlds that a white person can change for the better through their strength of will and innate goodness. Think of Dances With Wolves or its notable spiritual offspring Avatar as prime examples, or even much of the Daenerys storyline from Game of Thrones in which the white-haired white royal body-surfed an entire crowd of grateful people of color.

These are essentially apologistic gestures that register the evils of colonialism without fundamentally challenging them. The white savior trope expresses sympathy for the oppressed, but it’s a sympathy disconnected from any holistic reckoning with colonialism; sure, some white people are bad and racist, but this white person is quite the opposite. The white savior trope ultimately imagines the oppressed as an interchangeable marginalized group whose strife and salvation come only from white people. Even when the trope is examining the evils of colonialism, it fails to see the larger picture and fails to interrogate the power structures holding them up in any real way.

The concept of the white savior is undergoing a fascinating discussion in culture lately. The Dune films, especially the most recent second one, have made the deconstruction of the white savior one of their animating goals. The original novels were somewhat agnostic about their messianic hero Paul, a white noble-born chosen one who becomes a religious icon and leader to the Fremen, a fictional community heavily coded as Middle Eastern/North African (MENA). As much as Dune (the books and films) is fiction about a fictional universe, it’s allegorical in using many real-world references to help the audience understand its larger meanings. The films sought to take the story in a more critical direction of colonialism and avoid the white savior pitfalls.

In the novel, Paul’s organization of the Fremen into his personal army bent on destroying his rivals is presented with a political remove characteristic of sci-fi in the mid-60s which is to say that we just sort of watch things happen without a lot of emotional resonance or pausing to wonder how less powerful groups like the Fremen might feel about it. They are simply the deeply religious community that eagerly strikes wherever their leader points them. Dune 2 steers in a different direction with Paul’s Fremen love Chani reenvisioned as a skeptical revolutionary ultimately disgusted by the white savior turn Paul takes. It’s a good move, to lean into the white savior aspects as a way to criticize them because, within the context of the story, it feels like a villain turn. This moment, one that’s usually played as a glory note for the protagonist, is framed as a betrayal of Chani and the Fremen in general. He wishes to use them as a horde to butcher his enemies and take over, to become the new oppressor.

However, there is a significant drawback to Dune’s approach here. Though the Fremen are presented as MENA folk who reference Islamic concepts and use Arabic words, they’re played by a mishmash of non-MENA people of color. This catch-all amalgam of “non-white people” is similar to Avatar’s approach in which the Na’vi were a mix of many different indigenous cultures. This non-specificity contributes to a problem: we don’t really know the Fremen. As the brilliant Roxana Hadadi wrote on Vulture, we don’t see the Fremen outside of the religious beliefs that Paul and his mother Jessica manipulate to build power. We don’t see how they form relationships, how their communities function day-to-day, nor what their lives are like beyond their oppression. Dune expresses a lot of sympathy for the Fremen but is not that interested in them as people. Though it takes pains to condemn the white savior Paul becomes, it still carries the incuriosity about the oppressed the trope suggests.

On the other hand, we have Shōgun a mini-series adaptation of the novel of the same name on FX and Hulu. This is another tale that seems ripe for white savior criticism as the book places us in the point of view of John Blackthorne, a sailor trying to make contact with “the Japans” to open trade between Japan and England and burn down as many Portuguese Catholic settlements as he can along the way. The arc of Blackthorne learning about Japanese culture and becoming a hatamoto (or bannerman) under Lord Yoshii Toranaga carries the distinct possibility of pulling a white savior moment in which this white man drops into Japan and not only saves the day but transcends Japanese culture to do it with his inherently superior English worldview. This would make Blackthorne our protagonist and primary point of view; essentially making Shōgun Blackthorne’s story. Instead, Shōgun flips this dynamic over and sets the story as a sprawling and intricate intrigue within the Japanese government at a time of great flux and uncertainty.

The former Taikō (or leader) has died and in his place rules an uneasily-balanced Council of Regents. Toranaga is in a precarious position: the council wants to censure and execute him because he’s becoming a threat to their own plans and general political stability. As Toranaga is formulating a Xanatos gambit to keep his head and come out on top, here comes Blackthorne with his surly pirate crew on a big boat replete with cannons to complicate everything. We spend a lot of time in Blackthorne’s point of view because his perspective as an outsider experiencing the Sengoku period of Japan matches ours as the audience, but we are never led to believe this is Blackthorne’s story. Instead of being a tale about this scruffy white guy washing up in Japan and upending the social order with his amazing Anglican ways, it’s a story about a fraught time in Japan’s history into which Blackthorne blunders and complicates.

Unlike Dune, Shōgun is telling a story about a real historical period in our world. Though fictionalized with new names for the major characters, Shōgun tells the story of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power and the beginning of the Edo period. To create an authentic and respectful portrayal of Japanese culture, producer and star Hiroyuki Sanada led the way and insisted on employing experts on the culture of the time. This ensured that everything from costumes to hair to sets to even blocking and how actors would look at one another followed the mores of the time. This creates an environment where virtually every moment teaches the viewer something about Japan in the 1600s: superstitions, food, gender roles, societal norms, political machinations, architecture, and more. Shōgun creates such a richly detailed view of Japanese society that viewers can’t discount the Japanese people because we’re getting to know them much more than we might’ve expected from this kind of story.

In Toranaga’s story, Blackthorne is a useful tool, a means to an end, and this framing keeps Blackthorne from overtaking the narrative as any sort of messiah. Dune, as thankfully critical of white saviors as it is, fails to create the same interiority for the Fremen that Shōgun gives the Japanese. This is partially due to the inherent shortcoming of addressing real-world inequity through a fantastical lens, but Dune has space to know the Fremen more than we’re allowed. In this comparison, we see that deconstructing the white savior as an individual is only part of the solution and that refuting the white savior will only take you so far if you do not also humanize the oppressed.