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‘Shōgun’ is TV’s Next Big Epic

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | March 5, 2024 |

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | March 5, 2024 |


Fifteen minutes into the first episode of FX’s Shōgun, set in 1600 feudal Japan, an important meeting takes place among The Council of Regents, a quintet of lords who collectively rule Japan in the wake of their former leader’s death, who held the title of Taikō. One of these men, however, is clearly on the outs; Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) has become more of a hindrance than an asset to his fellow council members, especially Lord Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), who attributes their collective ire to Toranaga’s growth of his fiefdom and overall power, though it’s obvious a more compelling motivation lies just below the surface. They volley back and forth in seemingly perfect civility, but with each of Toranaga’s assurances (“I will never be the first to break any peace”) and cautious objections—including the accusation that he’s holding the mother of the Taikō’s child heir captive (“The Lady is no more a hostage in my castle than I am here, in this one”)—it becomes increasingly clear that Toranaga’s up to his eyeballs in trouble.

Oh, subtext, how I’ve missed thee.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a television offering that doesn’t do more than its fair share of handholding. Make no mistake, Shōgun isn’t a series to turn on while you fold laundry or get dinner started, something which has little to do with the fact that roughly 75% of the show’s dialogue is in Japanese—the remainder is in English though it’s predominately intended to be understood as Portuguese, a curious choice made presumably to keep the series from being 100% subtitled. Information is delivered swiftly, with titles and hierarchies weighing heavily throughout, all through a rich cultural lens that feels utterly authentic even when it defies modern conventions; a scene in which a disgraced man, in a bid to restore his honor, has not only requested to commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide) but to also end his bloodline via the death of his infant son is beyond comprehension for most viewers, particularly in the wake of the distraught mother who’s forced to endure this loss.

Despite whatever historic specifics that are beyond common knowledge, it doesn’t alter the fact that everything feels incredibly real. In addition to a starring role, Sanada also doubled as a producer to ensure the final product be as authentic as possible (per VF), the result of which (alongside the efforts of dozens of consultants and numerous crew members) is a world that feels more carefully crafted than any of its peers or most of the big budget films to come out in at least the past five years.

For all of its craft, it’s the political intrigue that keeps things at a brisk pace. Because just as things begin to look grim for Toranaga, an unexpected pawn in the form of a brusque Englishman named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) whose incidental usefulness is the only thing keeping him alive. His presence, specifically as an English Protestant, acts as a political pry bar with the Catholic Portuguese who have claimed Japan as part of their growing empire, a fact they’ve conveniently withheld from the Japanese themselves. It’s an immediate source of friction for translator Mariko (Anna Sawai), whose loyalties are caught between serving Toranaga and the Catholic faith that she’s adopted.

There’s a number of tv comparisons going around, namely to Game of Thrones, which is uninspired at best, as the only points of similarity would be political intrigue set in an alternate time setting; if one were really desperate to draw out one-to-one comparisons to highlight a struggle for power in which a fish out of water plays a vital role, Deadwood would make just as viable a comparison (guess that makes Blackthorne Alma Garret). It’s the sort of hand-crafted epic that feels part of a bygone era given the exhaustive use of CGI—though content-wise they couldn’t be more different, I couldn’t help but think of the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender and how unbearably cheap it looks. Though only the first two episodes are out, I strongly suspect we’ll be clamoring for more once it ends. Alas, Shōgun is intended as a limited series, as the season covers the entirety of the James Clavell novel of the same name which acts as the source material. If I had to pick one thing for it to have in common with those aforementioned HBO series, it would be the time and resources for it to be picked up for an additional season or two.

Shōgun airs on FX and is available to stream on Hulu with new episodes released each Tuesday.

Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. She can be found on Bluesky or Twitter.