Worth The Challenge: Our Review of ‘Shogun on FX’

Posted in Disney +, TV, What's Streaming? by - February 27, 2024
Worth The Challenge: Our Review of ‘Shogun on FX’

February 27th marks the beginning of an epic adaptation of the classic James Clavell novel Shogun on FX/Hulu, airing simultaneously on Disney + for us north of the border. NBC and Toho collaborated to adapt the novel back in 1980, and it was such an event that 32% of American households watched its original airing. This adaptation of Shogun looks to emulate that success with a grandiose production.

We start in the year 1600 in feudal Japan, a year after the passing of the “Taiko”, the head regent in charge of overseeing Japan in lack of a true ruler, or Shogun. In an attempt to achieve peace after his passing, until his heir is grown enough to assume the role, the Taiko divides his responsibilities amongst 5 Regents. These Regents include Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a brilliant strategist that has been a lord, or “Daiymo” since he himself was a child. But the other Regents, led by the devious and power hungry Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira), all see Toranaga as a threat and claim he seeks to be Shogun himself, despite his constant protestations to the opposite.

Into this powder keg arrives John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an Englishman and navigator determined to find Japan. Long held at bay by the Portuguese, who believe that Japan and all it has to trade belongs to them,  Blackthorne aims to secure trade for England with Japan and oust the Catholic Church of the Portuguese in favour of the Protestant Church of the English. Blackthorne is quickly taken into custody and brought to Osaka, where Toranaga is basically being held captive, more through custom and procedure than an actual cell, awaiting his impeachment and death. But Toranaga immediately sees an opportunity to sow dissension among the other members in Blackthorne, dubbed “Anjin” meaning pilot, though others have a different name for John – barbarian.

Not trusting the Portuguese clergy present in Osaka, Toranaga enlists the wife of his fiercest warrior Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), the lovely Mariko (Anna Sawai) as his advisor and translator. Mariko is a devout Catholic and has been taught to speak Portuguese by the same clergy Toranaga has grown to distrust. But her loyalty to Tornaga does not permit her to misinform, even when Blackthorne outlines the plans of the Portuguese, confirming Toranaga’s suspicions. Toranaga resigns his post as Regent, thus leaving the council, which requires a vote of 5 by law, stalemated until they can find a replacement. 

After a daring escape from Osaka, Toranga makes Blackthorne an advisor or “Hatamoto” and gives him a house in the fief of Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) and his nephew Omi (Hiroto Kanai) on the premise that he will train his men in the means of western warfare. Assigned to live in the same house and interpret for John, Mariko’s relationship develops with him to the point where it starts to become more intimate. But as the year drags on and the seasons start to change, the inevitable conflict keeps ever approaching.

That may be a lengthy description but I assure you, it’s only skimming the surface as there are many more characters and plotlines that unravel over the course of the series. In fact, at least 90% of what I’ve described happens before the end of episode 3 of this sprawling 10 episode series. This series challenges your attention and does not pander, refusing to simplify anything in the hopes of making this easily accessible. But it’s also extremely engaging and packed with great writing and performances which make you want to give it your complete and undivided attention. Put your phones away for this one.

The three pivotal roles here lie with Sanada, Jarvis and Sawai. Relative newcomer Jarvis does well as the out upon Blackthorne, with a much less flashy and pleasantly understated performance than Richard Chamberlin provided in the original adaptation. Not the main focal point this time around, Jarvis’ Blackthorne spends more time trying to come to terms with the customs and cultural differences that Japan offers. The romance side of the story is much less developed/dwelt upon this time around as well, as the focus this time around has more to do with the feudal state of Japan and the power struggle at the heart of the story. Sanada excels as the immensely institutive Toranaga. It’s an excellent performance that should be remembered around awards time. And Sawai continues her upward trajectory after turns in F9: The Fast Saga and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters with a wonderfully stoic and controlled performance as Mariko.

But they aren’t the only ones here shining as this is a massive cast and there are plenty of amazing supporting turns at play here too. Tokuma Nishioka is fantastic as Toranaga’s oldest friend and trusted lieutenant Hiromatsu. The always reliable Asano also delivers a strong performance as the untrustworthy Yabushige, a man always looking out for himself, but still will never openly contradict the oath he has made to Toranaga. There’s also two ladies I would also like to highlight here as the delightful Moeka Hoshi is utterly breathtaking as Usami Fuji, a maiden with a heartbreaking backstory that is assigned to be Blackthorne’s consort and keep his house. It’s a poetic performance and she’s memorable in every scene she appears in. As well as Fumi Nikaido as the treacherously devious Lady Ochiba, the maiden who has Ishido’s ear and can’t hide her personal hatred for Toranaga.

The epic scale of this production cannot be underrated as the series outshines many theatrical presentations. In fact, production was originally set to begin back in 2019, but the network themselves felt the scope of the original adaptation was not large enough in scale, so a new script was ordered. And that was the best decision they could have made as the sets and cinematography practically leap off the screen.Everything comes across as authentic to the time and the audience feels they are really living in this tale.

The accomplishment that is Shogun cannot be understated, as this show is bound to take its rightful place alongside the best of other acclaimed series. Series like the first season of True Detective or the OxyContin based Dopesick. Its truly stunning in accomplishment and I fully expect it to dominate the Emmys and other award shows as they come along.  Shogun is most definitely 2024’s first “don’t miss” event, as it could not be recommended any more highly.

This post was written by
"Kirk Haviland is an entertainment industry veteran of over 20 years- starting very young in the exhibition/retail sector before moving into criticism, writing with many websites through the years and ultimately into festival work dealing in programming/presenting and acquisitions. He works tirelessly in the world of Canadian Independent Genre Film - but is also a keen viewer of cinema from all corners of the globe (with a big soft spot for Asian cinema!)
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