Thursday, June 20, 2024

Shogun: A guide to the hit Japanese samurai epic as its finale cuts deep

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By Alex Taylor,BBC News Culture reporter

FX Networks Hiroyuki Sanada stars as Yoshi ToranagaFX Networks

Hiroyuki Sanada stars as Yoshi Toranaga – an isolated but legendary samurai in pursuit of power

Shogun – the razor-sharp, critically-acclaimed samurai epic that’s transported viewers back to feudal, war-torn Japan since February, reached its finale on Tuesday.

Here’s everything you need to know about the hit show on Disney+ (in the UK), including what the future may hold now the final episode has been released.

What’s Shogun about?

Set against the throes of civil war in early 17th century Japan, the show is based on James Clavell’s classic 1975 novel of the same name. It also reimagines the hugely successful 1980 TV series, starring Richard Chamberlain.

In condensing over 1,000 pages into 10 episodes, creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks have faithfully replicated life under a feudal system – a world ruled by lords, known as daimyō, and their loyal samurai – adding much-needed cultural authenticity to the original book and small screen run.

We follow supposed shipwrecked English navigator John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) as he gets drawn into the political power games of Lord Yoshi Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), an isolated but legendary samurai fighting to assert lasting dominance as a Shogun – the Japanese word for a military dictator.

Its increasingly complex powerplays have seen it likened to Game of Thrones and Succession minus the dragons and glass-doored boardroom squabbles.

What if history isn’t my thing?

That’s fine. Being thrown headfirst into Japanese history can understandably feel a little daunting (and confusing!). We’re here to help!

Here are the basics of what you need to get by:

The show opens with the death of Japan’s former ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, paving the way for Shogun’s power struggle.

Alongside this lies the influence of tensions in Europe, which is why priests and missionaries pop up throughout the series.

England had separated from the Catholic church to become Protestant, sparking a war with Catholic Spain.

Their King, Phillip II, still wanting to colonise Japan, joined forces with Portugal to strengthen his plans (eventually also becoming their monarch).

“They would try to convert people [to Christianity],” Thomas Donald Conlan, a professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University told Esquire, “and a big part of their strategy included [targeting] powerful lords.”

What have the critics said?

The show has received near-universal praise for its ambition, high production standards and authentic representation of Japanese history and culture.

Variety’s Allison Herman called the series “thrillingly transportive event TV”. Other critics agreed, with the series holding a 99% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson described it as “peacocking, mesmerising television” in her four-star review, but did warn the show was “demanding drama, to be approached with care and focus”.

FX Networks FX NetworksFX Networks

Cosmo Jarvis shines as John Blackthorne, say critics

“It is largely in Japanese, partly in English, which stands in for Portuguese, at times – this is not as hard to follow as you might think – but it is not the kind of series you can watch in the background as you scroll on a second screen,” she added.

Political intrigue is, understandably central, but critics complimented the blend of gore, deceit and – no spoilers – romance, within this.

The Telegraph’s Anita Singh wrote that the strength of Shogun “is the way it immerses us in a world that, with its rituals and violence, feels as foreign to us as it does to Blackthorne.

“I wasn’t going to review it: too remote, too boy’s own,” she said. “But Cosmo Jarvis… is so boomingly mad in it, I kept watching. He sounds like five Richard Burtons.”

Jarvis aside, the cast is majority Japanese. Writing for The Ringer, Daniel Chin said the new series’ three-pronged structure, with Toranaga and Mariko holding similar focus to Blackthorne, whilst speaking in their mother tongue, helps the show escape the “white saviour narrative” of the source material – a trope heavily prevalent on screen in 2003’s The Last Samurai, for instance.

“[By exploring] their distinct roles in the central conflict, Shogun can effectively explore themes such as honour, duty, loyalty, and class through different lenses and experiences,” Chin added.

“A lot of our characters don’t have agency in the classic sense, and so how do you use limitations?” co-creator Kondo told him. “How do you use strictures? How do you use those things to become your empowerment, and become how you make a statement about what you believe in and what your life is?”

The Independent’s Nick Hilton awarded four stars, praising this authenticity: “It is a brave retelling of a complex, intricate tale, drawn from a combination of Japanese history and Clavell’s encyclopaedic interest in the country.”

FX Networks Anna Sawai plays Lady MarikoFX Networks

Anna Sawai plays Lady Mariko

“Every review you read of this series will compare it to Game of Thrones… indeed, I imagine it was an essential part of the pitch that sold the show,” he wrote.

But. he ultimately concluded, “….subtlety and cleverness can be exciting too”.

Is the finale better than Game of Thrones?

The Telegraph’s Ed Power, giving it four stars, explained: “… there are lessons here for other showrunners. Game of Thrones, for instance, pumped up the spectacle in its final episodes – with results that, if visually impressive, were emotionally hollowed out. Shogun has followed a very different trajectory”.

“I admit, that for perhaps the first time in Shogun’s limited run, I walked away with mixed feelings,” he wrote, lamenting the lack of climactic battle sequences.

Will there be another series?

If there is, it won’t be drawn from original material.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Especially as its premiere drew nine million views globally across Hulu, Disney+ and Star+, putting it ahead of The Kardashians and season two of The Bear on Disney’s platform.

In the age of the streaming wars where multiverses reign in the fight for eyeballs, the temptation to do a White Lotus may be too strong. Mind you, making TV this sumptuous definitely isn’t cheap (not that budgets have been revealed) and Disney have been going through a destabilising rough patch. Swords at the ready.

Shogun is available to stream on Disney+ in the UK and Hulu/FX in the US.

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