Ever since Game of Thrones ended in 2019, I’ve been itching for some massive medieval political intrigue. FX’s adaptation of Shogun, James Clavell’s 1975 novel, delivers exactly what I’ve been craving. It expands its perspective on the original story, which follows a fictionalized version of the adventures of the first Englishman to arrive in Japan, to place greater emphasis on the dangerous political world in which Man is caught. This new adaptation of Shogun follows the intrigue of feudal lords, their retainers and retainers, and their spies and confidantes, as Japan turns its attention to civil war in the 1600s.
The wider scope that creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks give the story opens up space for a wide range of characters, all trying to fulfill the demands of loyalty and duty in their quest for power or even survival. This almost turns Shogun into a political thriller, with every scene carrying the undercurrent that, despite the polite strictures of the society they find themselves in, everyone is fighting the death that inevitably comes their way. .
At the center of the story is Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, John Wick: Chapter 4), who is trying to navigate the dangerous politics of a humiliating peace. A year after the death of Taiko, the leader of a united Japan, Toranaga sits on a council of five regents who share power until the rightful heir comes of age. His main rival in the council, Ishida (Takehiro Hira, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters), is already maneuvering against him to start things off, and the other regents to vote to impeach Toranaga, which would mean his death. It coordinates.
Such is the situation of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an English Protestant sailor on a Dutch ship hoping to find a passage to Japan. Up to this point, only the Portuguese and their Catholic Church knew the country’s location and thus dominated the trade. When Blackthorne’s ship blows up on the beach, he and his men are captured, but his hope is to disrupt the Portuguese and establish diplomatic relations as part of a larger battle between European nations. Where the novel largely follows Blackthrone’s perspective as he experiences and learns about Japanese culture amid rising political tensions, the series shows how much he is just another piece in Toranaga’s larger game.
Linking Toranaga and Blackthorne is Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai, The King: Legacy of the Monsters, F9: The Fast Saga), a Portuguese-speaking Christian convert who serves as Blackthorne’s translator. Mariko is also torn between loyalties, spending time with Blackthorne, who is considered a barbarian, and bound by competing duties to Toranaga, her religion, and her family.
Sanada firmly anchors the drama, and her ability to keep everything behind her eyes keeps the audience guessing as much as the characters as to the secret behind Toranaga’s plans. Jarvis plays a foil to the lesser characters, especially Mariko Sawai, and her emotional swings bring intensity to events that often feel like a current that’s sweeping everyone out to sea. But it’s Sawai who provides the Shogun’s empathetic heart most of the time, especially in scenes where his duty and place in a patriarchal society forces him to sit through abuse—mostly verbal but sometimes physical—from others. When he turns a deliberately unemotional gaze on other people at a few key moments, it has devastating effect.
Shōgun also has a large cast of excellent supporting characters. Tadanobu Asano ( Mortal Kombat ) is the most entertaining as Yaboshige, Toranaga’s scheming henchman who is by turns sadistic, boisterous, brave and at times a little incompetent. He often brings much-needed frankness and candor to otherwise more adamant characters. It’s also worth noting that most of Shōgun is subtitled. The Japanese characters speak to each other in Japanese, and English is only spoken among foreigners and when Mariko talks to Blackthorne.
However, there’s far less mustache-twirling or plot twists here than you might expect, mostly because so much of the intrigue is tied up in the honor code of the samurai culture in which the show is set. But in a similar way to Game of Thrones, you’ll probably spend a lot of time internalizing how everyone is connected, who they’re committed to, and what their goals are. If there’s a problem, it’s that a lot of Shogun is hushed conversations between characters sitting in quiet rooms. In the first eight episodes of FX provided for this review (10 episodes in total), there are some flash action as the battle approaches, but they are fast and explosive. This isn’t a series that jumps from one battle to the next, but instead builds a constant tension that puts the characters’ worlds themselves in jeopardy—not necessarily because of unseen plots, but because of the laws that bind them all.
It also looks great most of the time. Japan is showcased with the misty beauty that runs through the filming and showing of the show, and the images don’t show continuously. Like everything else, it reinforces the ever-present sense of death out of sight.
Shogun provides the thrill of some of Game of Thrones’ best moments, when the elaborate plots of powerful people collide in unexpected ways. It’s a fascinating tale of intrigue, thanks to the great cast and stakes, the show always finds new ways to up the ante.