‘Shōgun’ is an Enthralling Japanese Historical Epic

‘Shōgun’ is an Enthralling Japanese Historical Epic

It’s impossible to truly know what life was like and how people actually behaved hundreds of years ago. There are written records, paintings and then photographs, and, in more recent years, gradually more available video evidence so that those in the present day can perceive a moderately insightful look into the past. Imagining the first meeting between two radically different cultures in an age where seeing really was believing without much verifiable documentation about what to expect across the world is a bold undertaking, yet that’s exactly what the FX limited series Shōgun does in a bold and captivating manner.

There are multiple pieces to the overarching story of this epic series set in the year 1600, starting with Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) fighting to remain relevant and in power with those around him conspiring against him. The arrival of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an English pilot, raises a number of questions about his true motivations for being there and the clash of European culture, religion, and a legitimate fear of outsiders with nefarious intentions. Linking them together is Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a woman whose own family line has been corrupted in the society of her day and who serves as a translator for the two men looking out for traitors at every turn.

“SHOGUN” — “Servants of Two Masters” — Episode 2 (Airs February 27) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX

This is not the first time that this story has been told. Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell, Shōgun was previously adapted into a five-night miniseries broadcast on NBC in 1980. The scope of this saga is indeed quite grand, and the approach here spares no expense, at least in terms of how the finished product looks. The set and costume design evokes an era long ago, and this is definitely a superb example of worldbuilding in which there are so many elements to the story here that feel as if they must exist, and audiences are only watching a fraction of it as seen in this series.

To go with its top-tier production values, this show also assembles a phenomenal ensemble cast. Sanada is among the most internationally popular Japanese actors working today, known recently to action fans for Mortal Kombat and John Wick: Chapter 4. But those who have seen him in more intimate projects like The City of Your Final Destination or his soft-spoken television work in Westworld will know that he is more than capable of anchoring a dramatic role that doesn’t involve nearly as many stunts or death-defying moves. He’s a more than capable lead who very effectively steers the show.

“SHOGUN” — Pictured (L-R): Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, Nestor Carbonell as Rodrigues. CR: Katie Yu/FX

Jarvis, who has gradually built up an impressive list of credits in the last decade, brings a very watchable swagger to Blackthorne, who understands that he doesn’t know the full extent of how things work around him but is more than ready to pivot as he comes to learn what’s important to his captors and potential new allies. Sawai imbues Mariko with depth and personality, not content to be relegated to her fate but also operating within a system that doesn’t necessarily allow her to work outside of it. Nestor Carbonell, a dependable ensemble player frequently seen on television in shows like Lost and The Morning Show, also stands out as another pilot with strong religious convictions whose scenes with Jarvis are among the show’s most enticing. But in a world this massive, there’s much to find fascinating, and audiences are sure to connect with many facets of its multidimensional historical saga.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

New episodes of Shōgun premiere weekly on FX and Hulu on Tuesday through the finale on April 23rd.

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