Shōgun review: This engrossing historical epic is one of the year’s best shows | Web Series

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To revisit and update one of the definitive shows of the 80s is no mean task. The new ten-episode limited series, Shōgun, based on the acclaimed novel by James Clavell, attempts that with great ambition and technique. At its centre, it is the story of a 17th century English sailor who finds himself turned into a samurai in feudal Japan. The show, created by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, chooses to tell this tale on a sweeping scale, encompassing conflicts both external and internal, while guiding viewers through trade and honour, love and faith, politics and war. (Also read: Shōgun creators on the need for adapting the book for this generation: ‘Where have we gotten it so wrong over the years’)

Hiroyuki Sanada in a still from Shogun.
Hiroyuki Sanada in a still from Shogun.

The premise

The intrigue starts when English pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), arrives washed up on the coast of Japan. Considered a hostile savage, he is quickly shown his position there, by urinating on his head. With his remaining crew taken in as prisoners, Blackthorne succumbs to the whims of the local leader, but he is quickly called in to report to Lord Toranaga (a stunning performance from Hiroyuki Sanada, who also shares credits as one of the producers of the show), where he realizes the crisis of the region. He also sees how many of the Protestant Catholics have secured a hold over the course of the council, siding in as translators.

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The bigger crisis is strung in with the passing away of Japan’s ruler Taiko, who has left behind a child-age heir, now old enough to take control away. He finds an unlikely ally in John, and together this complex element of trust and agency forms the crux of this utterly mesmeric epic that draws viewers in with exquisite attention to period detail and finely attuned performances. Watch out also for the entry of a certain Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), whose presence complicates and gives the show a dash of intrigue.

What works

With such a vast tapestry in place, Shōgun does justice in allowing room for shifting perspectives and revelations, but cleverly balancing out the shift of tone into prioritizing far more internal dynamics at hand. The subplot involving Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), who is taken in as the Anjin’s translator, pays off a little too predictably if taken into consideration, but it is still wonderfully written. Sawai brings immense control and poise to her scenes, navigating the tricky terrains of the unfolding narrative superbly. She is the true breakout star of the show. As Blackthorne, Cosmo Jarvis gives the finest performance of his career- carving out his character intricately, often conveying just through a wordless glance.

Composers Nick Chuba, Leopold Ross, and Atticus Ross’ score add texture and sizzle to the dialogue-heavy proceedings. Cinematographers Sam McCurdy and Marc Laliberté capture many scenes in close-ups while also allowing room for spectacular wide-angle sequences where one simply needs to process the canvas of the drama. The effect is compelling.

Final thoughts

The most crucial and stirring aspect of this adaptation is its widening access to perspective, where the storytelling provides an appetite for subtext and communication. Where the contrasts do not reinforce ‘othering’ but allow room for endurance of the fluidity of truth. Shōgun is a prestige drama done right, aiming at once to become one of the most genuine revelations of the year. It promises spectacle along with subtlety, grandeur along with intimacy. Shogun has all the elements to become an immediate sensation, serving up a sweeping and immersive watch.

Shōgun is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.

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