‘Shōgun’ Episodes 1 and 2 review: An endlessly engaging samurai saga

With a cast that infuses fresh life into the clever writing, FX’s mesmerising series following a power struggle in 17th-century Japan blends modern drama with traditional samurai thrills

March 04, 2024 01:54 pm | Updated 01:54 pm IST

A still from ‘Shōgun’

A still from ‘Shōgun’ | Photo Credit: Disney+ Hotstar

Stitching together the markers of a finely executed modern drama, without compromising on the thrills of traditional samurai saga, FX’s Shōgun ushers in a mesmerising time. The show’s initial episodes indicate that despite being constrained by the limited number of episodes, a measured pace carried forward by smart writing will deliver an epic.

Adapted from James Clavell’s 1975 novel of the same name, the show chronicles the arrival of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) in Japan in the 17th century. Believed to be the first Englishman to set foot on the islands, his storm-ridden sea journey leaves him stranded in a remote Japanese village. His presence soon becomes intertwined in the power tussle between the feudal lords eyeing the position of Shogun — the de facto military ruler of the country.

Blackthorne’s status, which is already precarious as he has been declared a pirate by the natives, is further threatened by the Portuguese missionaries in Japan. Carrying sway over the local politics and the island’s Catholic faith, the Portuguese view Blackthorne’s Protestant English nationality as a direct threat to their existence in Japan. Quick to realise the potential benefits of exploiting this enmity, Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a feudal lord whose own life is in danger, wastes no time in enlisting Blackthorne in his machinations.

Shōgun (Japanese, English)
Creators: Rachel Kondo, Justin Marks
Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Cosmo Jarvis, Anna Sawai, Tadanobu Asano, Takehiro Hira, and others
Episodes: 10
Runtime: 45-50 minutes
Storyline: As 17th-century Japan undergoes political turmoil for the coveted post of the shogun, the first Englishman to set foot on the island finds himself in the middle of it.

Admittedly, Shōgun’s subject matter and its keen focus on depicting period-accurate details will sound intimidating to a larger, international audience. The issue was addressed in the novel by dedicating lines upon lines explaining the technicalities of the political positions. While a necessary addition, these often tend to break the flow and take you out of an immersive universe. It is therefore a delight to see how effortlessly the show bridges this knowledge gap with its writing.

The novel is defined by a close study of each of the many different characters. Its writing often meanders along with their thoughts spinning an intricate personal and political web. And while we may then feel that we have come to know the character enough to confidently predict their next move, the rug is pulled from under us. Clavell spent over 1,000 pages to get this effect and the show is only allowed 10 episodes.

Increasing its reliance on dialogues, Shōgun’s precise writing saves the show from turning into a history lesson. Though not a chapter-by-chapter adaptation, the consistent pace at which the show goes through the events of the first two episodes enables it to even devote time to those portions that were otherwise only implied in the book.

The vast cast of Shōgun infuses fresh life into the clever writing. Hiroyuki Sanada is given a vast canvas to portray a range of emotions, and Anna Sawai instantly commands your attention. Playing Mariko, a relative of Toranaga’s General, Sawai gives a pitch-perfect performance as someone who is asked to be a translator for Blackthorne. Sawai’s delivery of the same dialogue, first in English and then translated into Japanese, indicates the way the show’s writing intends to fully utilise the emotions stored in a language.

Shifting the gears of power, the show executes the race to the Shogunate alongside the enmity between Catholics and Protestants. Power as stored in religion, as existing on the tip of the tongue with the language you speak, as embodied in the status you are given at birth, is explored in various permutations and combinations in Shōgun which will no doubt become a welcome weekly affair.

The first two episodes of Shōgun are available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. New episodes will air every Tuesday.

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