‘Shōgun’ Feels Like The Next Big Thing

Thor Benander
Thor Benander is the Editor-in-Chief of The Antagonist and a father of four. He’s a lover of ancient history, Greek food, and sports. He loves to travel and thinks that if libraries were the center of American society, many things would improve overnight. You can hit him up at hilordcastleton@gmail.com.

I was trying to figure out a way to properly and respectfully capture my feelings after the first two episodes of Shōgun when Dustin Waters shared this, which, frankly, does most of the heavy lifting.

To say that Shōgun feels like the next big thing is to understand that there isn’t, currently, any big thing, and there hasn’t really been since season two of The Bear ended last year.   Before asshats dropped the only part of the HBOMAX moniker with value, you might expect to have found this level of prestige television on HBO.  Now, it’s increasingly Apple and Hulu.  Did I write about this alllllll the way back in 2021?  Oh yah, you betcha, yah!  

Before I pressed publish on that piece, I double checked my take with some very entrenched television journalists and they all thought that I was a little crazy.  They couldn’t imagine a world where HBO wasn’t the top of the prestige-television food chain.  A few years later and it feels like it would have been nuts NOT to have that take, but it was risky AF in 2021.

Shōgun is beautiful, let’s start there. It looks great, especially considering that unlike the previous adaptation of James Clavell’s almost 1200 page Japanese opus, none of it is shot in Japan.  What you’re seeing that isn’t soundstages is the coast of British Columbia north of Vancouver.  Still, if you don’t know, you’d never know, which is a both a testament to the research and hard work put in by production designer Helen Jarvis, who herself has never been to Japan.

Nevertheless, her sets are designed to be relatively temperature neutral in an effort to highlight the breathtaking costuming by Carlos Rosario.  In that, the show hits a home run, and both in size and scope, it feels like a huge undertaking.  This is largely the reason why viewers have been swept away by the two available episodes.  It feels epic.  It feels like a big deal.  It’s also why you get all of the AI-generated blog bullshit that infers quality and impact from internet markers like IMDB ratings and Tomatometers.  

Here’s the thing: I’m not going to say that Shōgun isn’t very compelling.  I’m not going to say that it doesn’t have the literary spine to live up to its current hype, but I remain skeptical of the what feels a moderately uneven adaptation.  Husband and wife team Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks have clearly poured their respective hearts and souls into this adaptation and you can feel that with every scene, but among the many excellent choices, there are a few questions that could sink what is otherwise an impressive two episodes.

THE OPENING

Warning: minor spoilers about the show opening below.

Let’s assume that we can just rubber stamp the story, in that it has Clavell’s backbone and has been a crowd-pleaser for decades.  Now we look at how that story is conveyed.

We begin the series in a manner that blew my mind.  It’s the type of opening that looks amazing on the page and is meant to seize the attention of whatever overworked assistant / junior executive who’s tasked to read seventeen scripts that weekend, but it’s the type of thing that never makes it through post production.

It starts with text over black.  This is common and expected.  No problem here.

The year is 1600.  

For decades, Portuguese Catholics have richly profited from trade in Japan.

They have kept its whereabouts hidden from their sworn enemies – the European Protestants.

Wait!  Religions fighting each other?  That’s nuts!  Wait a second, different sects of the same religion fighting each other?  That’s unthinkable!  Okay fine, it’s what it was.  Thank god we don’t still have misguided theocracies trying to suffocate everyone in the modern day!

Now, much more interestingly, we get an update on Japan.

In Osaka, the reigning Taikō has died, leaving behind an heir too young to rule.

Nature abhors a vacuum!

Five warrior lords are now trapped in a bitter struggle.

All of them seek the title that would make their power absolute…

SHŌGUN.

Fuck yeah!  Let’s meet these lords!  Show me the money, Shōgun!  

Okay so this is basically an exercise for the writers to set the scene as quickly and concisely as possible, especially in this day and age where a very addictive video is a TikTok swipe away.

But that’s not where we open.  We open on the Europeans.

We open tight on a shot of a metal sounder/bob at the end of a wooden line.  It’s hauled upward by a single figure leaning over the edge of a wooden tall ship.  We don’t see his face until after he digs something frantically out of the hollowed-out end of the device.

When we do see his face, it’s ghastly pale and filthy.  

Then, this man, the ship’s pilot, makes a case to the ship’s captain, an emaciated ghoul in a blanket.

Pilot:  Captain.  I was unable to take any celestial destinations due to…

Captain: The clouds.

Pilot: Yes, the clouds. However, white sand by the mark ten. Ten fathoms. White sand in the tallow.

This is conveying something, but for those of us not handy with a sextant, we’re confused.  At this point, we have to assume that this is a change of sorts for the cursed ship, and just think, okay? 

Captain: You see what you want to see.

The captain is just plain awful to look at.  Yes, we should yearn for accuracy but I was amazed that this is the visage of authority we start with.  It’s a lot.

Pilot: Well, the son of a bitch Spaniard’s rutter was right about Magellan’s Pass, was it not?

Uh…what’s a rutter again?  I’m a little rusty on my Horatio Hornblower.  (All I can think of is staff writer Orly Minazad watching this and wondering what the hell they’re talking about.)

Captain: Oh, give it here. The cursed bastard thing is to be the death of us all.

The captain grabs a book off his table and stuffs it into a drawer.  Sooooo, a rutter is a book of some kind?  Gotcha.

Captain: The time has come for you to start making plans. You have no food. As of tonight, no water.

Pilot: We’ll make land.

[captain laughs]

Pilot: We’ll make land.

Captain: Goddamn English pilots. You never know when to give up.

Pilot: We’ll reach the Japans.

YEAH!  LET’S GIT TO THE MOTHERFUCKIN JAPANS, Y’ALLS!  ALL OF EM!

Captain: Japans. Listen to yourself. That is the scurvy talking.

Pilot: We’ll lay claim to that dark land.

Uh…okay?  Little aggro for a guy who’s never even seen any of what must be the MANY Japans, but okay…

Pilot: Then it’s back to Holland, rich, having gone round the world.

Captain: Eh. No. No, Pilot. Not me. Five ships when we began. A crew of over 500. We are now barely a single vessel. At my age, you draw your line.

The captain gestures to the flintlock on the pilot’s hip.  I guess captains aren’t issued firearms of their own? 

Pilot: That would be a coward’s way out. The Erasmus remains home to a dozen men still looking to you.

Captain: Looking to me for what? We cannot fulfill our mission. Don’t you see, there is nothing!

The pilot gives him the weapon.

Pilot: All right, there you have it.

Captain: Pilot. Pilot, it’s nothing to fear. It’s a blessed release. It’s like only a soft wind in your face. Can you feel it? That is the breath of the Almighty. He’s calling us. Listen. He is calling us home.

Blech.  Okay, whatever, Boomer.  You do you.  We stay with the Pilot who leaves the captain’s quarters to head up top to the main deck.  

Once there, we stay on him as we hear a single gunshot break the silence.

[gunshot]

Okay, so what did we learn?  The ship is called the Erasmus.  It set out from Holland with an English pilot but not an English captain.  Four other ships were lost on the voyage to find the way to the Japans, and only twelve men remain on the final ship.  But hark! There’s white sand at the tallow!  White sand in the mark ten.  So, all hope is not lost. It also, presumably, sailed a way no one has before, which, if successful, would have them circumnavigating the globe.

We’ll also later learn that the Goonies-never-say-die pilot is John Blackthorne.

That’s a decent amount of exposition to cram into a small scene, but like a novel often sets the tone with its opening line, so does a show with its opening scene…aaaaaand I’m not initially sold.

One of the most telling indicators about a film or show is whether or not you’re in good hands.  I hadn’t seen anything in Rachel Kondo’s body of work, but I did enjoy the Starz show Counterpart, which was created by Justin Marks.  Still, one of the lasting memories of that show, which was canceled too early, ostensibly because it wasn’t drawing enough female eyeballs, was whether or not it was narcotic TV – a label I give to shows like Lost that draw you in with a high-concept premise but cannot deliver a suitable conclusion.  That was the worry with Counterpart.  Though I found it smart and enjoyable, I had a lurking fear that Marks secretly didn’t know how to bring it into port.  Unfortunately, it was canceled before he could prove my worries unfounded.

With Shōgun, much of that uncertainty is mitigated by the excellence of a literary spine and the fact that once we’re in Japan, everything gets more interesting.  It also gets more uneven.  

As Western viewers, we’re theoretically meant to relate to the story of the European, but man oh man, I’m having a brutal time thinking that the John Blackthorne character played by Cosmo Jarvis is anything but a xenophobic boor.  

Taking over the vaunted Richard Chamberlain role is a potential career-making move for Jarvis, but mostly Blackthorne’s idiotic, over-the-top reactions have been offset by the quiet nobility of the Japanese cast.

Hiroyuki Sanada, to begin with. 

Holy shit is this guy unreal.  I could stare at the depth in his eyes for a week.  He plays Lord Yoshii Toranaga, a contemplative leader who is being outmaneuvered by his rivals.  The oceanic experience, cultural specificity of his physical movements, and reticence to show his political hand plays contrary to the size and lack of polish on any of the Europeans, specifically Blackthorne.  

But the Japanese are not all one thing, thankfully.  The nuance and individuality of each character is a huge feather in the cap of this production.  It’s so easy to lump everyone into one category of “other” for a Western audience, but Sanada is as reserved as Tadanobu Asano’s mid-ranking warlord Kashigi Yabushige is more of a cowboy. 

Further down the food chain, Kashigi Omi‘s aspiring local ruler played by Hiroto Kanai is so disgusted by the filth and behavior of the ‘barbarians’ led by Blackthorne that he has the rude Brit held down as he urinates on his head.  The Japanese characters all adhere to a code of conduct that is deeply lacking in any of their European counterparts, with the exception of some Portuguese monks who have grown accustomed to Japanese culture at the time.  

The code they live by is as decisive as it is brutal, where the katana handles business in an instant.  For this reason, it has drawn favorable comparisons to Game of Thrones.  I think it’s far too early to speak of the two in the same breath, but hyperbole is what the internet is built on.

By the end of the second episode, we have a sense that the rude, uncouth, Blackthorne is primed to finally realize the severity of his predicament, and potentially become the love interest of the stunning Toda Mariko, played by Anna Sawai, but he’s going to have to undertake a retrofitting of his entire persona to even remotely be worthy of her.  

Shōgun is going to be a very good show.  Marks and Kondo know what they’re doing and they’re saved from the potential disaster of an unsatisfying ending by an outline written in stone.  The choice to play the Japanese scenes in Japanese with English subtitles is the right one, but it also means there’s a ton of reading and thus your attention can’t wander.  

I expect that the release schedule, wisely a week apart on Tuesdays beginning March 5th, will add to the water cooler effect, lifting the show to the level of cultural phenomenon.  I’m a little suspicious about why they chose two episodes instead of three to bait the hook, but I suppose we’ll find out after the next episode.  

Ultimately, as long as the remarkable Hiroyuki Sanada is on screen, this show is going to be excellent.  Cosmo Jarvis remains the wild card, and the ultimate success of the show will depend on whether or not we can be party and partner to his eventual – and necessary – transformation. 

Related Posts
Moon Knight loveable

10 Reasons Moon Knight is Incredible

I don’t read comics, it’s just not my thing. So I’m one of those people who don’t care at all when MCU properties deviate from the source material. I have no expectations, I just appreciate the ride, and all Marvel’s stuff is so perfectly cast that it’s usually a great ride. I suspect this might be why I’m so in…
Read More

Why Does Brian Cox Keep Doing These Things?

Shakespeare: “If money go before, all ways do lie open.” Logan Roy: “Would you like to hear my favorite passage from Shakespeare? Take the fucking money.” Two years after debuting his iconic role as Succession patriarch Logan Roy, classically trained actor Brian Cox took on a somewhat surprising gig. Yes, in 2020 Cox began his stint as the voice of…
Read More