Every Scene a Chess Match in Shogun

A man and woman kneel on Japanese mats
Cosmo Jarvis as BLACKTHORNE, Anna Sawai as MARIKO in SHOGUN

Please note: This review was written after seeing only the first two episodes of the show.

The word epic gets thrown around too often in the film and TV criticism game, but I would be remiss if I left the adjective off the list of appropriate descriptors for Shōgun, the adaptation of James Clavell's best-selling novel of the same name, along with strong sense of place, atmospheric, richly detailed, and engrossing. The first and only other adaptation came out 44 years ago in 1980, at the height of the broadcast television miniseries era, which means at least two generations have passed.

In the year 1600, Japan lies at the edge of a sword. The emperor has died, leaving an underaged son as heir apparent. He leaves the country in the care of five regents, including Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada; 47 Ronin), whom the other regents conspire against. Into this political instability sails British ship's pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis; Lady Macbeth), who seeks to interrupt the exclusive alliance Portugal has formed with Japan. John's crew is initially captured and sentenced to death, but daimyo Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) decides to spare his life, believing he can use him for leverage. Blackthorne is taken to Toranago's home, where he meets Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai; Pachinko), a convert to Catholicism and a trusted advisor to Toranaga. Shōgun chronicles the story of these three main characters as they build alliances, guard their true motives, and attempt to follow the unwritten codes of conduct they hold dear.

A man takes out his sword
Hiroyuki Sanada as TORANAGA in SHOGUN
Shōgun keeps and holds your attention from the first moment. Yes, there's a good deal of action, with shipwrecks, sword fights, and brave climbs down steep cliffs. Within the first half hour of the first episode, a man is boiled alive in his own pudding, screaming for hours. But the true action takes place within the loaded conversations these characters have on a regular basis. Each phrase feels carefully chosen, each gesture of the arm selected to send just the right message. For the Japanese and the European outsiders vying for their allegiance, these interactions are chess matches happening in 4D. The Japanese believe they have the advantage, but Blackthorne (whom they come to name Anjin) proves a quick study. And each of them underestimates the other.

Shōgun begs comparisons to fantasy epics like Game of Thrones but also historical series, like Rome and The Tudors, with time dedicated to the court intrigue and political conniving. Those who have watched Martin Scorsese's Silence will also have an advantage here, since that film takes place during the same time frame and addresses the cultural and religious clashes between the Japanese and the Portuguese. 

Toranaga has the power and the political strings to keep Blackthorne alive; Blackthorne has information that could help Toranaga gain an advantage over his enemies. Toranaga also believes he has a copacetic alliance with the Portuguese Jesuits who help him translate; little does he know, though, that the Portuguese consider Japan their property to conquer rather than an equal partner. Blackthorne knows this and uses this knowledge to create a wedge he can manipulate to gain his own advantage. Lady Mariko's role in all of this is yet to be revealed, but we realize she's an important figure. All of this makes for fascinating stuff that will keep readers engaged and wanting to know more. The Japanese samurai code creates a mystique that gains our respect and fascination from moment one, but Blackthorne continues to surprise us with his ability to evolve and absorb knowledge. Who will gain the advantage in the end?

Five men dressed in uniforms in the woods
Foreground: Tadanobu Asano as YABU in SHOGUN
The breathtaking cinematography by Sam McCurdy and Gagaku ensemble-inspired score by Nick Chuba and brothers Atticus and Leopold Ross doesn't hurt either (yes, that Atticus Ross). The research team certainly did their homework and pulled many intriguing details into the writing. Each moment feels authentic and purposeful. Notice the way that Lady Mariko walks from room to room, almost as if she's gliding.

This is only the second adaptation of this reputable novel, and Asian representation has come a long way since the 1980s. In the NBC series starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese only spoke through translators, clearly putting the audience in the perspective of Blackthorne. He was the only main character. In this new version, the writers add subtitles to every frame. We are privy to their words regardless of Blackthorne's presence. When the Japanese speak Portuguese to Blackthorne, it delivers in English, a clever and effective device for being in Blackthorne's head. This is no longer a white man's show or a white man's world, resulting in a stronger understanding of all the players on the field. 

A man dressed in fine Japanese robe sits on ground
Hiroyuki Sanada as TORANAGA in SHOGUN

If the first two episodes serve as a true barometer of what is to come, viewers are in for an intriguing 10 episodes of cinematic television. My only fear is that success will inspire FX to decide to squeeze out extra seasons. But I'll hold judgment for now.

Release info: First two episodes air on Hulu on February 27, 2024. Future episodes will drop on a weekly basis, with the finale airing April 23, 2024.

Final score: 5 out of 5 (so far)