Star Rating:


Streaming On: Watch Shogun on Disney+

Season: 1

Episode: 10

Actors: Hiroyuki Sanada, Anna Sawai, Cosmo Jarvis

Release Date: Tuesday 27th February 2024

Genre(s): Drama, History

Running time: 600 minutes

Over the course of the eight episodes screened for press, 'Shogun' slowly but surely builds layers upon layers of what's likely to be one of Disney+'s most engaging shows since the streamer began.

It's telling that a number of reviews are comparing it with 'Game of Thrones', as there's a lot of common links. For one, it's gory and sexy in equal measure. It's about an epic power struggle between warring factions, fighting with swords, spies and sex. It has a terrific opening credits sequence, and beyond all of that, it's coming from a literary source that has had taken a few attempts to crack. The novel of 'Shogun' is one of those reliable paperbacks that's never been out of print, the kind of which makes it way into secondhand bookshops and is heavily thumbed through. The 1980 adaptation, starring Toshiro Mifune and Richard Chamberlain, won a number of awards on its release, including a Peabody Award.

This adaptation of 'Shogun', however, feels much more accurate. For one, much of the dialogue is in Japanese. Because of this, actors like Hiroyuki Sanada and Takehiro Hira, who play sworn enemies Toranaga and Ishido respectively, are able to perform with a natural grace and subtlety that isn't swept away when they have to perform and translate into English. Given how foreign language movies and television has exploded in the past few years, 'Shogun' arrives at the most opportune moment. It doesn't have to translate or reduce anything in order to make it fit. Likewise, the complexities and the intricacies of life in Japan at this point are perfectly realised.

Cosmo Jarvis, who plays the hapless English navigator John Blackthorne, is somewhat supplanted in this adaptation. Although he serves as the way in, it's not before long that we're spending more time at where the actual action is - the diabolical subterfuge and political power plays happening between the various factions trying to gain power. Yes, there are huge battles between warring samurai, but there's just as much violence and bloodshed in quieter moments. Much like 'Game of Thrones' in its early seasons, 'Shogun' isn't a show that can be watched passively. Not only are there intersecting motivations for different characters, but so much is said with a glance or a gesture than straight dialogue. As many of the non-Japanese characters often remark, it's a place where a lot is said, but the meaning is often opposite.

Hiroyuki Sanada is perhaps best known to Western audiences from his roles in the likes of 'John Wick: Chapter 4', the TV series 'Lost', or various supporting roles in lesser works. Here in 'Shogun', Sanada has the lead of the series and commands the screen at every point. Like so much of what makes 'Shogun' brilliant television, it's in his ability to communicate so much with so little effort. By comparison, Cosmo Jarvis is all bluster and bravura for much of the early episodes, literally thumping his chest like a caveman in some scenes to get his point across. Nestor Carbonell, another 'Lost' alum, turns up as a scheming Portuguese corsair and lends some style to the non-Japanese characters that is often distinctly lacking. Anna Sawai, who plays Lady Mariko, gives a textured performance and is far more developed as a character than in either the novel or the previous TV adaptation.

This is no doubt thanks to the fact that one of the two showrunners is an Asian-American woman by the name of Rachel Kondo, the other being Justin Marks. Not unlike 'Dune: Part Two', 'Shogun' realises that soft power is often the kind that has the most lasting impact and that soft power is often portrayed as feminine power. The women of 'Shogun' have just as much agency and understanding in the world, in this case literally, as Anna Sawai's character acts as a translator. Yet, like so many times in the world, it's the fear of miscommunication that leads to tension and danger, and 'Shogun' operates in a world of extreme and constant tension. The whole story teeters on the edge of a blade, with all-out war only a matter of time.

Stylish yet accessible, dense yet entertaining, 'Shogun' is some of the finest television you'll see this year.

'Shogun' is available now with two episodes on Disney+ and runs week-to-week until April 23rd.