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Dan Webster reviews “Shōgun”

Television still of Cosmo Jarvis and Anna Sawai in Shōgun (2024).
Shōgun, DNA Films/Gate 34/Michael De Luca Productions/FX/Hulu, 2024.
Television still of Cosmo Jarvis and Anna Sawai in Shōgun (2024).


As historical dramas go, each era has its own take. Facts may be facts, but our reactions depend on the perspectives we attach to them.

A classic example involves Christopher Columbus. In elementary school a half century or more ago, it was common to teach children about him by first making them memorize a simple line: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Our teachers never taught us the following stanzas of the Jean Marzollo poem, but at least one talks about the natives being “very nice” and giving Columbus’ sailors “food and spice.” And it ends like this: “The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”

It would take decades for the truth to reach, and be accepted by, a larger adult audience, that Columbus was a cruel taskmaster—as well as a bad navigator—who enslaved those same “kind” indigenous people, the ones who survived at least. Same facts, different narrative.

Let’s now look at Shōgun, the 10-part miniseries, streaming through Hulu and FX, that is based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell. Clavell’s work, which spans some 1,000-plus pages, involves several stories in one. The year is 1600, and a ship that includes the English sailor John Blackthorne (played by Cosmo Jarvis) has survived the cross-ocean journey to land on the shore of Japan.

One problem: Japan is a closed society, its only trading partner the Catholic Portuguese. Blackthorne and his Protestant crew are taken prisoner, treated brutally, with only Blackthorne—who is used as a pawn in the power struggle among several Japanese lords—eventually earning some status.

Regarding that power struggle, it comes about following the death of the reigning Taikō, whose heir is too young to take over. That leaves five regents to rule in his place, which is never a good plan (remember the lessons of the Second Triumvirate that temporarily ruled ancient Rome). Lord Ishido (played by Takehiro Hira) in particular lusts to become supreme leader, the Shōgun, but he must first eliminate his arch foe, Lord Toranaga (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). For his part, Toranaga has no such ambition, which puts him at a disadvantage when the other four conspire against him.

As these events gradually evolve, Blackthorne (referred to dismissively as the Barbarian) is forced into a relationship with the married Mariko (played by Anna Sawai). A loyal follower of Toranaga, she is a confirmed Catholic and the only one who can communicate with Blackthorne—a fact that drives Mariko’s husband Buntaro (played by Shinnosuke Abe) into a jealous rage.

Other characters come and go, from the rascally sociopathic Yabushige (played by Tadanobu Asano)—who plays to whatever side benefits him the most—to the grieving widow Fuji (played by Moeka Hoshi).

It's never easy to adapt a lengthy novel, even into a 10-part miniseries. Events have to be condensed and chronologies shifted just to make some sort of sense. And the budgetary limits of streaming-service production are obvious. Shōgun is no sweeping Akira Kurosawa drama, with grand battle scenes—a la Ran or The Seven Samurai—played out with a cast of thousands.

Much of the action, including a devastating earthquake, is augmented by CGI—though to be honest, some of it—the decapitations and scenes of seppuku—are graphic enough to disturb anyone overly sensitive to violence.

But the main quality this version of Shōgun boasts is that it immerses itself in Japanese culture, which is in contrast to a 1980 miniseries adaptation that starred Richard Chamberlain (who couldn’t be more different from the rough-hewn Jarvis). As created by the husband-wife team of Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, and aided by a number of Japanese producers (including Toranaga actor Sanada), writers and directors, this adaptation of Clavell’s novel avoids Hollywood’s old-school tendency to see everything though a Westerner’s eyes.

Blackthorne’s attitudes are portrayed as only slightly less foreign to a modern sensibility as the Samurai codes are that constrain the Japanese. In any event, it’s doubtful that school children will be singing rhymes extolling the virtues of either—and that, ironically, is something to celebrate.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for