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Shōgun Review: FX's Historical Limited Series Is a Complex, Breathtaking Spectacle

The adaptation of James Clavell's novel immerses viewers in a sweeping story

Keith Phipps
Eita Okuno, Anna Sawai, and Hiromoto Ida, Shōgun

Eita Okuno, Anna Sawai, and Hiromoto Ida, Shōgun

Katie Yu/FX

James Clavell's 1975 bestseller Shōgun is the sort of book that invites readers to get lost in its pages. It begins simply enough, with a shipwreck that brings a Dutch ship, including its English pilot John Blackthorne, to the unfamiliar shores of Japan in the year 1600. Its first stretch unfolds through Blackthorne's eyes as he becomes acquainted, sometimes through harsh experience, with the ways of his hosts. But that doesn't last. There was a formula for such tales when Clavell wrote the novel, and, if he'd followed it, Shōgun would have kept its focus on Blackthorne as he assimilated until becoming a hero to his new people, a man more Japanese than the Japanese. But Clavell didn't stick to that expected script. It's filled with detailed descriptions of customs unfamiliar to most readers, but, like Blackthorne's experiences, these serve as stepping stones toward a much broader depiction of Japan at a pivotal moment.

FX's new miniseries adaptation of the novel — previously brought to television via a wildly popular 1980 miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune — follows the same course. The focus begins narrowly, following the sick and starving crew of the Erasmus as it washes up on the shores of Japan, then sticking close to Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) as he and the rest of his crew are taken prisoner by the first Japanese people they meet. But it doesn't take long for the scope to widen, and as the series progresses, Blackthorne becomes just one major character among many in a complex story in which the struggle for power and personal intrigue become entwined and nearly every character is torn by conflicting loyalties.

Hiroyuki Sanada, most recently seen in John Wick: Chapter 4, co-stars as Yoshii Toranaga, one of five daimyos ruling Japan by committee until its previous successor's heir comes of age. It's an unstable arrangement. Toranaga wields tremendous power, but finds himself surrounded at all times by threats, particularly the ambitious maneuverings of his rival Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira). But Toranaga is a man of tremendous guile, with an ability to keep his true plans to himself, plans that include the manipulation of carefully chosen allies (or, as is sometimes the case, pawns). Among the most important is Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai, also the star of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters), the daughter of a disgraced family who's married to the son of Toranaga's second-in-command. A Catholic convert able to communicate with Blackthorne via Portuguese (the lingua franca of Europeans in Japan rendered here as English), she acts as Blackthorne's translator and guide as he becomes drawn into the politics and warfare of his new land.




  • Deftly juggles complicated history with human drama
  • Never loses its forward momentum
  • Action scenes are distinctive
  • Its three leads are well matched


  • N/A

Clavell drew from Japanese history, specifically the lives of English navigator William Adams and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shōgun of an era that lasted through the Meiji Restoration of 1868. To even attempt outlining the plot of Shōgun in broad strokes would be foolish, though the miniseries, co-created by the husband and wife team of Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, makes it easy enough to follow. The series is invested in spinning a compelling yarn but also in depicting the complexities of Shōgun's historical moment. Beyond the dueling daimyos, other players include the Portuguese Catholics and the entwined religious, financial, and political hostilities that make them an enemy to the Protestant Blackthorne. Kondo and Marks' adaptation works remarkably as a spectacle as well, with British Columbia effectively subbing in for Japan. The sets are elaborate, the production design filled with period detail (later episodes depict Tokyo in the early stages of becoming a megalopolis, complete with looming buildings still under construction and sprawling marshes destined to become busy city streets), and the action scenes breathtaking and distinctive, ranging from battlefield assaults to a nighttime attack in the middle of a dark forest.

It's the human drama, however, that makes the series work. Shōgun's three leads are well matched. Jarvis brings confidence and a Richard Burton-like blustery gruffness to Blackthorne, an attitude frequently humbled by the customs and codes of feudal Japan. Sawai delivers subtle work as his sometime translator, sometime protector as she does her best to conceal her feelings for him while grappling with a troubled marriage and haunting past. Sanada is commanding, playing a character with plots within plots who's skilled at hiding his true feelings but lets them overwhelm him in unguarded moments. Other standouts include Tadanobu Asano, who makes the unreliable and hot tempered Yabushige strangely likable (no mean feat for a character who boils another man alive in the first episode).

In a sense, Yabushige embodies the moral complexity of the series. Ishido may be the piece's obvious villain, but nobody emerges with clean hands, and the series is unblinking in depicting codes of honor that appear brutal to modern eyes. Seppuku is depicted as an obligation, and a not infrequent one at that. And in one harrowing sequence, Blackthorne has to confront the unintended consequences of jokingly, he believes, warning others not to touch a pheasant he's hung outside his home. There's a lot going on in Shōgun — thematically, historically, and dramatically — even before factoring in the complex relationships of a dozen-plus supporting characters. This adaptation handles it all adeptly without ever surrendering the forward momentum of its compelling plot. It feels like a complete world, the kind in which, like the source material, it's easy to get lost.

Premieres: The first two episodes premiere on FX and Hulu on Tuesday, Feb. 27, with subsequent episodes airing weekly
Who's in it: Hiroyuki Sanada, Cosmo Jarvis, and Anna Sawai
Who's behind it: Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks
For fans of: Complex and action-driven narratives, complicated characters, richly realized historical dramas
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 10