FX Miniseries ‘Shōgun’ Is the Most Transportive TV Epic Since ‘Game of Thrones’: TV Review

Of all the shows that have sought or earned comparisons to “Game of Thrones,” most have emulated its genre conventions. From “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” to “Foundation,” fantasy and science fiction series have thrived in recent years, riding on the momentum of a blockbuster hit that proved lore and maps weren’t just for fan conventions. But in writing “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the source material for the HBO drama, author George R.R. Martin was inspired as much by the Wars of the Roses, the real-life conflicts that wracked 15th-century England, as by Middle-earth. Before dragons and ice zombies entered the picture, “Game of Thrones” was built on the stuff of actual history: political alliances, fractured families and massive armies marching on foot.

“Shōgun,” the nearly 1,200-page tome published by James Clavell in 1975, is a work of fiction, but one faithful to the context and circumstances of Japan circa 1600. The protagonist, English sailor John Blackthorne, is based on William Adams, the rare Westerner to successfully enmesh himself within the cloistered society. Blackthorne’s patron and ally, the warlord Toranaga, is modeled after Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose namesake shogunate would last for two and a half centuries.

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“Shōgun” has already inspired a hit adaptation, a 1980 miniseries starring Kurosawa muse Toshiro Mifune and narrated by Orson Welles. But in reviving the concept for 2024, a process that took more than a decade, creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo have tapped into the true secret sauce of epic television: a balance between sweeping grandeur and intimate psychology. The FX series suggests that, instead of inventing other worlds for its big swings, Hollywood should perhaps look more closely at our own.

In just 10 episodes, “Shōgun” has to situate the viewer within a complex network of tensions and loyalties, earn their investment and tell a complete story with a satisfying conclusion. It’s a daunting task, though the exposition is well handled. Without reliable coordinates, Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) blindly navigates his way to the island archipelago, seeking to break the trade monopoly of the Portuguese, who keep its location a closely guarded secret. But the tug-of-war between two colonial powers quickly takes a back seat to the brewing intrigue Blackthorne — dubbed “Anjin,” or pilot, by his hosts — finds himself drawn into.

At the turn of the 17th century, Japan is in a power vacuum. The reigning shōgun, or military ruler, has died, leaving only an underage heir and a council of five regents, including Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), to govern the realm in an uneasy truce. Surrounding Toranaga is an ensemble of dizzying breadth and opposing incentives: chief rival Ishido (Takehiro Hira), who seeks to manipulate the instability for his own gain; feudal deputy Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), who keeps a careful eye on which way the wind is blowing; and ex-royal consort Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), who bears a grudge against Toranaga due to her own family history. The Christianity imported by the Portuguese brings an extra ideological dimension to the playing field. Toranaga’s loyal subject Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), the last surviving member of a once-prestigious, now-disgraced clan of samurai, is a convert. Her knowledge of Portuguese allows her to translate for Blackthorne; in an amusing concession to TV logic, dialogue that canonically takes place in Portuguese is delivered in English.

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Yet “Shōgun” otherwise avoids catering too much to a presumably Western audience or leaning on Blackthorne as its surrogate. “Shōgun” is a story about cultural exchange at a time when the world was far less connected than it is today. Marks and Kondo neither soften their depiction of customs unavoidably extreme to the modern gaze, like the shocking frequency of ritual suicide, nor treat Blackthorne as a privileged source of judgment or insight. Their vision of Japan is sumptuously rendered by pilot director Jonathan van Tulleken, production designer Helen Jarvis and costume designer Carlos Rosario; sprawling cityscapes of medieval Osaka are an ideal use of CGI, and the textiles alone are a more tangible use of budget than found in most box office tentpoles. The effect is immersive rather than ogling, down to the standardized use of subtitled Japanese.

“Shōgun” features many of the hallmarks of modern-day prestige that were off the table in 1980, sex and violence chief among them. (Of the many forms of death portrayed on-screen, boiling alive and close-range cannon fire are two of the most indelible.) But the reboot is primarily distinguished by its characters, who share the ambiguity and lack of clear-cut righteousness that’s defined TV breakouts since the turn of the millennium. Played by Sanada, an established star and “Shōgun” producer who “The Last Samurai” director Ed Zwick has called “the Tom Cruise of Japan,” Toranaga is a relatively conventional hero — a decorated warrior skilled in strategy and deserving of loyalty. Still, “Shōgun” declines to take at face value the leader’s insistence that he doesn’t desire more power. Asano makes Yabushige intensely likable because, not in spite of, his blustering opportunism; Mariko may act as a vessel for others’ words, but her unhappy marriage and deeply held convictions come across.

As the plot ramps up, “Shōgun” delivers the well-rendered action one would expect from a martial story. In lieu of pitched battles, however, the scope is smaller: two boats racing to get out of a harbor, or a lone fighter facing off against a group of assailants. The tighter focus could be a matter of economy, though it also reflects the show’s interest in the interpersonal moments that can get drowned out in the cacophony of war. There are superficial similarities to “Game of Thrones” — five contenders for an empty throne, a storyline about two girlhood friends on opposite sides of a power struggle. But it’s this focus on people that truly unites the two series, and qualifies “Shōgun” to take up the mantle of thrillingly transportive event TV.

The first two episodes of “Shōgun” premiere on Hulu at midnight ET on Feb. 27 and 10 p.m. ET on FX’s linear channel. The remaining episodes will stream on Hulu and premiere on FX on subsequent Tuesdays.

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