‘Shogun’ Is High-Stakes Event TV at Its Finest

‘Shogun’ Is High-Stakes Event TV at Its Finest

There have been several shows aspiring to be the “next Game of Thrones,” including HBO’s own prequel series about the fall of House Targaryen. What unites many of these would-be successors is that they’re works of fantasy: If Thrones proved that audiences had an appetite for a series featuring dragons and ice zombies, the thinking goes, viewers will hunger for something similar. But while the fantasy elements were an essential ingredient for Thrones, the secret sauce was something a bit more grounded: the high-stakes politicking. HBO might’ve spent an ungodly amount of money to bring Westeros to life, but to paraphrase Tyrion Lannister, the show never felt more assured than when it boiled down to great conversations in elegant rooms. (A passive-aggressive argument between Varys and Littlefinger honestly felt more charged than some of Thrones’ battle scenes.) Throw in the painstakingly detailed history of Westeros, and Thrones was one of the most immersive experiences the medium has ever seen.

The television landscape has evolved quite a bit since Thrones was at the height of its popularity: The influx of streaming services means that consumers’ viewing habits are increasingly fractured, while Peak TV is finally starting to plateau after years of extravagant spending. In essence, the conditions aren’t right for any show to become the “next Game of Thrones,” no matter how compelling a program may be. But if any series deserves to cut through the noise, the new FX limited series Shogun is a worthy contender for the crown: a sweeping historical epic oozing with political intrigue.

Based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel of the same name, which was previously adapted into a miniseries for NBC in 1980, Shogun is set in 17th-century Japan with the nation on the precipice of a civil war. It’s been a year since the taiko, the supreme leader of a unified Japan, died. The taiko’s heir is too young to lay claim to the throne, so a five-person Council of Regents has been established in his place. While each member of the council has their own agenda—two of the men have converted to Catholicism after the Portuguese established trade with the island nation—the most enigmatic of the bunch is Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a renowned warrior who hails from a dynastic family. The other members of the council have united against Toranaga, fearing he plans to anoint himself shogun and rule Japan in a de facto military dictatorship.

Led by the scheming Lord Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), the council is readying a vote to impeach Toranaga, which would double as a death sentence. But when a battered Dutch vessel arrives on the shores of Japan, piloted by the English sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), Toranaga sees an opportunity. As a Protestant, Blackthorne is an enemy of the Portuguese-allied members of the council and could be a useful bargaining chip against them. But more importantly, Blackthorne has knowledge of Western warfare, and his “barbarian” ship is loaded with cannons and muskets: weapons that could turn the tide in Toranaga’s favor if war were to break out.

It’s a dense setup, and one of the thrills of Shogun is trying to keep track of the shifting allegiances between the major political players. The situation is especially fraught because of the strict set of rituals and decorums unique to Japanese culture. In the premiere, for instance, one of Toranaga’s samurai speaks out of turn when Ishido insults his lord—as punishment, the samurai is ordered to commit seppuku and end his bloodline. In moments like this, Blackthorne is an effective audience proxy, reacting in disbelief as the people around him seem to treat life and death so callously. (Blackthorne’s culture shock is also where Shogun embraces some levity: He can’t fathom why people in this country choose to bathe more than once a week. Blackthorne, I know it smells crazy in your kimono.)

Of course, Blackthorne doesn’t speak Japanese, so Toranaga enlists Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a noblewoman from a disgraced family, to serve as Blackthorne’s translator. (As a converted Catholic, Mariko speaks Portuguese, which is how she and Blackthorne communicate, although all of their dialogue in the series is in English.) With time, Mariko and Blackthorne bond over the bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves: two pawns in a tense political chess game in which one false move could lead to an all-out war that tears Japan apart.

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