What makes the first half of “Shogun” so special?

By Ben Konuch

“Why is it that only those who have never fought in a battle are so eager to be in one?”

When the first adaptation of James Clavell’s influential 1975 novel “Shogun” premiered as a miniseries in 1980, it took the television world by storm. “Shogun” not only aimed to capitalize on Clavell’s highly successful story of death, deceit and culture set in feudal Japan, but to bring the story to the small screen in a way audiences had never seen before. The crafting of its story over five episodes filled with a level of grounded violence and realism had never been done before on television and laid the groundwork for what we now have today with multi-episode storytelling. 

Yet despite its triumphs and its critical success, including a Primetime Emmy, Clavell’s original novel and this adaptation were riddled with inaccuracies and the failings of the now-condemned “white savior trope.” Now in 2024, a new team helmed by the oversight of Japanese film icon Hiroyuki Sanada is bringing a new vision of “Shogun” to television: the one that should have been written.

FX’s 2024 take on “Shogun” is currently midway through airing on Hulu, and epic, grand-scale television has never looked better. As someone with very little context of what “Shogun” was about before the series started, I found myself drawn to it for the allure of its depiction of Japanese culture and the promise of huge, epic samurai battles. That’s what roped me in, but what caused me to stay was the outrageously intricate and respectful depiction of Japanese culture and its nuances, a fascinating glimpse into the real history of Catholic exploitation of cultures and some of the most realistic and captivating characters set in a modern television show. 

Make no mistake, “Shogun” has had its share of epic moments so far, but the bulk of the series is a political thriller within the backdrop of a culture shrouded in a samurai honor code. While that might sound off-putting, I found myself enraptured by the intrigue and slow-burn tension that makes “Shogun” a show in a category of its own.

Lord Toranaga stages a daring escape

“Shogun” is a vast story with multiple players and pawns, but the greatest of these is in the saga of Lord Toranaga, the most powerful and cunning of a council of five daimyos who serve as a Council of Regents to rule the kingdom until the taiko’s heir comes of age. Despised by his political opponents for his strength and power, despite his honorable intentions and stewarding of his rule as regent, Toranaga finds himself facing an impeachment and execution from his peers. 

But when an English privateer and his ship wash ashore, the arrival of the political and religious rivals of the Catholic Jesuits who control trade from Japan, as well as the faith of two regents, threatens to change everything in the struggle that’s to come. The Englishman is forced by Toranaga’s capture into a world of intrigue, deception and death that he must frantically learn to understand in order to ensure his survival – and perhaps the survival of Lord Toranaga – in the process.

The showrunners of “Shogun” don’t shy away from violence, action or the sheer brutality of when Western warfare met feudal Japan, but it doesn’t use them cheaply either. There are scenes of violence and action across the first two episodes, but it also takes the time to patiently educate viewers on the culture of Japan and its clashing with Western ideals, as well as the major players and their stakes in the power struggle for control. This makes the build-up to a spectacular and tense escape dripping with violence and danger in episode three so much more impactful. When an event happens as a result of double agents manipulating both sides into an explosive and brutal declaration of war, the viewers understand just how much the landscape of Japan will radically change. We know who to root for and who to hate, but most importantly, we understand both.

Perhaps the greatest success of “Shogun” is in its characters. Hiroyuki Sanada plays the imposing Lord Toranaga with such regality and honor that you can perfectly understand and respect the character’s honor while the writing demonstrates the aspects of his cunning and his potential for brutality. 

John Blackthorne, the Englishman, starts the series as an unlikable piece of trash, but we slowly see the impact of Japan on him as he learns the culture and its way of life not just as a method to survive, but to learn and to improve himself as well. Cosmo Jarvis plays this character with such earnest confusion in almost every scene that it can often be comedic to see Blackthorne as a fish out of water, but that comedy is stripped away in moments of earnest character growth and growth in his understanding of both the harshness and the beauty of this new way of life.

Blackthorne finds himself thrust into a world that he doesn’t understand, hated both by Japanese and Portuguese Catholics alike

Yet, this careful character writing and phenomenal acting would ring hollow if it weren’t for “Shogun’s” dedication to an honest characterization of history and tradition. This book was adapted before and despite the impact it had on television, its historical inaccuracies, cultural stereotyping and potentially offensive tropes – such as the overinflated importance of the white man to come in and “save” these new people – left a bitter taste in the mouths of many who held the culture and heritage of Japan in high esteem. This version of “Shogun” from showrunners Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks aimed to correct that fault, and the areas of the novel where it did fail, by delivering a version of the story amended with accuracy and historical sensitivity. Hiroyuki Sanada not only stars in the series but serves as the executive producer and an overseer of the details and nuances of bringing the history of his culture to a Western audience. 

No detail was too small, as the production team hired cultural advisors and historians for every aspect of filming, whether it be about the details of a piece of samurai armor or historians who ensured the actors’ movements corresponded to the social standing and honor of the characters they portrayed. Most of the supporting cast, in fact, was hired from actors of Japanese film and television who have never acted outside their home country in order to allow the culture and story of a nation to be truly told by those who are from it, not from outsiders who might intend well while still painting with broad strokes.

So what makes the first half of “Shogun” so special? In short, everything. It has an admirable attention to historical detail and accuracy. It serves as a carefully crafted, intricate slow-burn political thriller. It constantly raises the stakes towards an inevitable war, using moments of brutality for a historical and emotional impact. And beyond all that, “Shogun” is simply captivating. The writing, the tension, the acting and the filmography all work together to create a piece of television history that grabs your attention and won’t let go.

I give the first five episodes of “Shogun”  a 9.5/10

“Shogun” is currently streaming on FX through Hulu, with new episodes every Tuesday

Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and one of the A&E editors for Cedars as well as the social media lead. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and swing dancing in the rain.

Images courtesy of FX

2 Replies to "What makes the first half of "Shogun" so special?"

  • comment-avatar
    Julianna April 18, 2024 (10:04 pm)

    This sounds very intriguing! I will have to give it a watch this summer

  • comment-avatar
    Al Golub May 6, 2024 (9:36 pm)

    Just started watching shogun and I’m quite impressed with the movie.

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