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Shōgun Review

While I downloaded the final episode of Shōgun last Monday when it came out, due to both of us being busy we didn’t get a chance to watch it until last night. It didn’t disappoint. Five episodes in I wrote a post about the show, Shōgun, and at that time I wrote:

It is not often I recommend a modern TV show but Shōgun is the exception. Five episodes into a ten episode miniseries and it has lived up to what I hoped it would be: well written and acted, exciting and suspenseful, beautifully shot with amazing costumes and settings that make you feel like it really is in 17th century Japan. The subtitles are a bit distracting as the dialogue is complex and you need to pay attention but that is a minor quibble. It is the first show I can remember looking forward to the next episode being released in a very long time. It is also one of the few examples of a remake of an older show/movie that isn’t a disaster.

The second half of the miniseries kept up the pace. It was one of the most visually stunning period pieces I have seen in quite some time, other than as I mentioned the CGI being clunky when trying to show large armies or big cities. After ten episodes, you still feel like John Blackthorne: baffled at the way Japan is simultaneously so polite and proper and unimaginably vicious and callous toward human life. I might have mentioned this before but my neighbor growing up, the nicest and most down to earth person you could ever imagine, was a veteran of Korea and only once did he talk about it. He told me that Asians simply don’t value human life as we do, a comment that at my young age didn’t make much sense but I see now as an adult what he was talking about.

Spoilers to follow.

The plot of Shōgun revolves around a struggle between two Japanese warlords, Toranaga and Ishido. They are vying for control of the country in the wake of the death of the ruler of Japan who left behind a young son. Ishido has the backing of the mother of the Heir and the council of regents, while Toranaga is a master of strategy and subterfuge. Into this story comes John Blackthorne, an English pilot and Protestant, who was seeking Japan as a way to make inroads into the country that was only in contact with the West through the Catholic Jesuits. Along the way Blackthorne falls in love with his married interpreter, Mariko, and become part of Toranaga’s inner circle. Blackthorne thought he was manipulating Toranaga but it turns out Blackthorne was the one being manipulated all along.

The show seemed to be setting us up for a massive battle at the climax where of course Toranaga would come out triumphant. In a typical modern U.S. production there would be a climactic CGI battle at the end between two enormous armies but in a stark contrast, Shōgun just tells us that Toranaga defeats Ishido mostly by outmaneuvering him politically and thus winning the war before the first sword is drawn. In fact the ending of the story is told by Toranaga just before executing a disloyal vassal. Toranaga won because he was more ruthless and cunning than his enemy, willing to sacrifice the lives of dear friends and loyal followers to get where we wanted to go.

There are some comparisons to Game of Thrones and there is some validity to that, although where GoT was brutal and ugly, Shōgun hides the brutality behind a veneer of beauty and careful courtesy. It is far better written and acted than GoT and the ending is better by magnitudes compared to the trainwreck final season of GoT. Hopefully no one will go for a cash grab and try to make a Shōgun prequel or something. It stands on its own and anything else would just cheapen it.

My recommendation, find a way to watch without subsidizing Hollywood and enjoy the visual spectacle and intrigue. Even though much of the show is in Japanese with subtitles, I didn’t find that very distracting and thoroughly enjoyed Shōgun.


  1. pyrrhus

    I liked the first mini-series of Shogun with James Franciscus and thought it was quite good…But this version of Shogun is truly outstanding, and extremely Japanese, apparently a very accurate depiction of medieval Japan..The cast is excellent, and the performances outstanding….But I don’t think you can call the high nobles and ruler of Japan warlords unless you also refer to the Kings of England, France, “warlords”…They acquired their status through war and diplomacy, just as the Shogun did, and Japan was more populous than countries in Europe at the time, had more soldiers, and fought larger battles….
    Clavell was a masterful chronicler of the Far East….

    • Steve S6

      Still. The West just hides it better. Abortion as an example. USG using it’s civilian population as guinea pigs for others.

  2. Bean Dip Tray

    Jesuit comrades are never good news.
    Brandon and Wilhelm Deblasio come to mind.
    War makes money and money makes war is the money quote so far.
    Enjoy what you can while you can as burn it all down summer just might go all the way.

  3. Anon

    I’ll still stick with the old one.
    Been watching it with some others along with things like a Chinese show about the Three Kingdoms in China. Also fun if you enjoy that sort of politicking and maneuvering with a few battles here and there depending on budget. The meat of the show is the character interactions.
    Fun stuff, but still don’t need the people here in the west. They have their own nations already.

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