Shōgun review: shades of Thrones

Set in feudal 17th century Japan—as the book and the original series—the new Shōgun captures the era’s mood but has trouble scratching greatness.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in Shōgun
Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in Shōgun // Photo: FX/Disney

In Shōgun—the new miniseries adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 bestselling novel, rooted in history and set in the year 1600—a shrewd lord who refuses to have kingly aspirations and claims he’s only interested in keeping the peace is told early on there’s no room for good men in this age. After all, everyone around him is busy plotting. Some more openly than others. His equal is turning the council of regents he serves on against him, his loyal chieftains are hiding valuable info from their master, hoping to benefit them later, and even the priests who claim to spread the word of the Lord have ulterior motives. Elsewhere, a man is boiled alive, breasts are bared, and a lord watches a woman jerk another man off. What is this, the Japanese Game of Thrones?

Tender, stately, and looks great

While comparisons certainly exist, Shōgun has little interest in mimicking the fantasy epic. For one, it’s not as salacious or in-your-face as Thrones. The series prefers a statelier, proper tone in keeping with the Japanese culture of deference and politeness. There is a lot of talk of honour, loyalty, and seppuku—the ritualistic suicide practised by samurai in feudal Japan. And while it’s more contemplative on the whole, there are times when it cuts underneath that sheen. What I’m trying to say is that it has the capacity to be ugly and violent. Though the violence stems from and is largely rooted in the Japan-ness of it, Shōgun doesn’t forget that it’s designed for TV. Fittingly, the show looks great—the sets, the landscapes, or the costumes—and boasts of attention to detail.

And though the Japanese authenticity is retained, Portuguese is replaced by English—as in the award-winning original adaptation from 1980—which makes everything a bit weird. Like, people will say they know Portuguese and then speak in English the next second. (You get used to it in time.) I imagine the cadre of actors who can speak Japanese and Portuguese isn’t huge.

Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko in Shōgun
Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko in Shōgun // Photo: FX/Disney

More crucially, Shōgun isn’t as wide-ranging as Thrones. It runs for 10 episodes only (like all critics, I have seen eight) and is centred primarily on three characters. The creators, wife-husband duo Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks—the latter is known for creating the J.K. Simmons-led sci-fi thriller series Counterpart and contributing to the story of Top Gun: Maverick—take their time and never rush themselves. And though it’s never slow or stale, the exposition can, at times, be inelegant. That said, Shōgun knows how to turn itself around and transform that inelegant moment into something touching and tender. A lot happens in the subtleties here.

The plot of Shōgun: a lord, a sailor, and a samurai

The start of the 17th century was a turbulent time in Japan’s geopolitics. The Taikō—the de facto ruler of Japan who had unified the country—died a couple of years prior and left behind an heir too young to rule. To protect his son until he could come of age, he had created a council of five lords: a descendant of the richest samurai family (Toshi Toda), a feared warrior with a leprosy affliction (Takeshi Kurokawa), a Christ believer guided only by his greed and ambition (Hiromoto Ida), the caretaker of the prominent Osaka castle Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), and the strongest feudal lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) whose ancestors were shoguns. This is partly why Toranaga is feared by the rest of the council and why they would prefer him dead.

The fragile peace between them is further threatened by the arrival of the first Englishman in Japan, fleet navigator John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis). Until then, the Portuguese—funded and driven by the Catholic Church to spread its word—had kept the sea route to Japan a secret from the rest of Europe and lied about their side of the world to the Japanese. And because the Chinese hated Japan, they had no choice but to trade with the Portuguese. It was a win-win for the Jesuits. Blackthorne’s presence is a calamity. For one, the English are at war with the Portuguese. And two, he’s a Protestant. Toranaga figures he can use Blackthorne to his advantage on every front. He can help expose the lies of the Portuguese and has access to new weapons and knowledge.

Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne in Shōgun
Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne in Shōgun // Photo: FX/Disney

Hoping to make riches and return home to England, Blackthorne, instead, finds himself a prisoner in Japan—or, as he calls it, in the first episode of Shōgun, “this wretched land”. In fact, each side thinks of the other as a barbarian or savage. The Japanese don’t understand the Englishman’s ways and his dislike for regular baths. Blackthorne can’t comprehend how Toranaga approaches the inevitable conflict. Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai)—a samurai loyal to Toranaga who speaks both Japanese and Portuguese—becomes the bridge between Toranaga and Blackthorne. She’s burdened by a disgraceful past, and her husband doesn’t respect her, but she has good political intuition. Mariko, alongside a couple of other female characters, offers a peek into the restricted life of women in medieval Japan.

Always tension in the air

Sawai—a regular in Pachinko and a lead in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, both on Apple TV+—is good in how she communicates a lot with little touches. Jarvis is a natural at playing the flippant, uncaring outsider, but it doesn’t always feel natural. At times, the tone feels off, and the outsider perspective comes in the way of the story and the storytelling. Shōgun feels held back. Sanada—in a rare Hollywood role where he gets to perform entirely in Japanese—makes for an intimidating presence, though he feels restricted in terms of range. With him, too much seems to happen under the surface. Everyone calls him a cunning lord, but you can’t tell if he’s being cautious, being outmanoeuvred, or plotting furiously and pretending to show a meek face.

In Shōgun, there’s always tension in the air. Though everyone pretends to play nice to not incite anything, lest the sword fall upon their own neck, it’s clear that conflict is inevitable. Most characters tend to be so reserved that it’s inherently exciting when others are out of step with what’s expected in Japanese society. Jarvis, an outsider, is responsible for many of these moments. But there’s room for other characters to cause havoc, too. That includes Toranaga’s impetuous son Yoshii Nagakado (Yuki Kura), who’s looking to prove himself, Toranaga’s vassal Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), who tries to play both sides, and Mariko’s aforementioned husband Toda Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe). A dinner scene in the fifth episode, where things get rowdy, is a particular delight.

Shōgun peels away the Japanese onion

Shōgun is partly about the stories we make and the legends we create. Everyone fears Toranaga because of his heritage, even though he shows little interest in it and actively pushes away the notion. If anything, by going after him, they push him toward the very thing. It’s partly a fish out of water tale—Blackthorne learns from the Japanese, and they learn from him, even as they both resist each other. It’s also about gender stereotypes and how our past traps us. Does Mariko conform because she believes that to be right or because of how others might perceive her? Amidst it all, religion uses its influence to do what it does best: serve itself. Over and over, it comes down to politics—people trying to further themselves while negotiating delicately to keep their heads.

And through it all, Shōgun peels away the layers of the onion that is Japanese society. There’s a lot of people feigning respect. (Just bow and say “sama” after someone’s name.) It’s terrific at capturing the mood and laying out the setting. And it’s got three characters who want nothing but to escape: their past, destiny, or heritage. There are moments when the series comes close to being really good—it has the building blocks, after all—but it doesn’t always live up to its potential.

The first two episodes of Shōgun are out February 27 in the US and February 28 worldwide. A new episode drops weekly every Tuesday/Wednesday until April 23/24. Shōgun is available on FX and Hulu in the US, and Star+, Disney+, or Disney+ Hotstar elsewhere.

Akhil Arora