“Shōgun” tells a story of power and treachery

Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga in the premiere of FX’s Shōgun, a series illustrating the shifting alliances in feudal Japan during a time of European influence and civil war. Photo courtesy of FX

Based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel, FX’s “Shōgun” tells a story of power, greed, war and treachery through a season of twists and turns. The Jidaigeki series opens amidst a political division. After the late emperor’s death left an heir too young to take the throne, a Council of Regents takes power to lead Japan. As desires shift and greed grows, the council begins to separate, placing Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, “Ring”) at odds with the rest of the rulers. Unbeknownst to them, a European ship piloted by John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis, “Lady Macbeth”) crashes off the coast of an Eastern village. Blackthorne, first perceived as a useless savage, quickly becomes vital to the survival of Toranaga and the future of Japan’s rule. To bridge the gap between cultures is Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai, “F9”), a Christian noblewoman acting as translator. A budding yet forbidden attraction sparks between Mariko and Blackthorne, which is sure to bring challenges in the upcoming episodes.

Set in feudal Japan, “Shōgun” unfolds like a game of Go with ever-changing alliances and players. The key parties are Toranaga, who hopes to protect the young heir, the remaining Council of Regents, the Portuguese Jesuits and the European Protestants. These individuals are not isolated, as Portuguese influence permeates the structure of the Council of Regents and manipulates their partnership. Just as the Council begins to capture Toranaga and prepare for his execution, an opening reveals itself in the arrival of Blackthorne. Toranaga decides to align himself with Blackthorne to create a wedge using the European Protestants against the Portuguese.

Shōgun illustrates the complexities of cold war through exceptional acting. The three main characters, Toranaga, Mariko and Blackthorne are vastly different, yet all stand out for their performances. Without a word, Toranaga’s presence is enough to captivate audiences. He introduces himself in a time of personal turmoil and holds this emotional armor throughout the series. His father-like attitude towards Mariko and the young heir reveals a sliver of compassion hidden inside. Sanada is not simply an experienced actor, as exemplified by this role, but also one of the series’ producers.

The difference between Toranaga and Bleckthorne’s characters offers an interesting partnership to look forward to and an entertaining exploration of the division in both cultures. Blackthorne appears as the “lost soul” with a mostly pure heart when it comes to the innocent. Jarvis’ ability to win over viewers with the brazen yet loyal character shows real talent. There is an immediate connection between him and Mariko, and his on-screen intrigue helps build a realistic relationship rather than an overtly romantic or hasty one. 

The most striking character, though, is Mariko. Sawai is a perfect choice to bring an alluring aura to every scene through reserved movements and a hidden past burning inside her. Sawai explained her draw to “Shōgun” was “because Mariko is the most graceful, yet immensely powerful figure that I have ever come across, and I just fell in love.” Mariko embodies poise and is a vessel to explore the lesser storyline of being a woman in feudal Japan. Within these episodes, Mariko tells Toranaga, “A man may go to war for many reasons. Conquest, pride, power … but a woman is simply at war.” Many viewers, especially women, will easily connect with Mariko in the strength and resilience she effortlessly holds from her experiences within society.

The first two episodes spell success for the series. One of its shining attributes is its authenticity. From costume design to set building, each element came together in a harmonious depiction of Japan in the 1600s. Producer Eriko Miyagawa talked through the process of writing the show’s dialogue as a continuous polish ensuring historical and character truthfulness. “It’s written, and then it goes through to Frederik Cryns, who is our head researcher. Oftentimes, it goes to Hiro [Sanada], maybe myself, and then it goes to a team of translators in Tokyo. After that, it goes to a playwright, Kyoko Moriwaki, who specializes in period-style Japanese, and she polishes all the dialogue so that it would feel like the right time period. Then we do our own polish, and Anna would have her own notes, many actors did.”

Their focus was on more than just nailing the dialogue. Every element, from food and mannerisms to costume design, had to maintain the period’s essence. Producer and series actor Sanada explained the extent of practice and research that went into its creation. “We could hire the specialist for Jidaigeki, a samurai drama, including Master of the Gesture. It’s one of the hardest parts, especially for the young actors. Wearing kimono, how to walk, how to sit, how to open the shoji screen,” Sanada explained. His co-star Sawai added, “How to hold a chopstick.” 

Sanada continued, “Everything has to be the correct way. In the traditional way. For every part we had a Japanese crew.” Sawai joined in commending the show’s commitment to authenticity. “I’ve been on multiple sets where they have Japanese people, but we had people from Japan who were the best in [their fields] flying over to Vancouver. That’s where we saw authenticity. It wasn’t just on screen, but it was behind the scenes.”

Instead of Blackthorne leading the viewers through the narrative, as in the 1980 miniseries, Mariko and Toranaga are equal protagonists. A meeting of cultures appears throughout these episodes. Viewers get a peek into key aspects of Japanese and European lives through the interactions of the characters of “Shōgun.” There is no predominantly Americanized cast or a European flare to force Japanese culture to the “exotic” edge. This adaptation is truly an international experience. Spoken in Japanese, “Shōgun” includes built-in English captions outside of the streaming platform’s captions as a direct link to a global audience. 

“Shōgun” maintains the historical drama of its source while elevating its characters, storyline and motifs to the expectations of 2024. The two-episode premiere arrives on Hulu and FX on Feb. 27 and is sure to be an epic beginning to the rest of a highly-anticipated season.