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FX’s Shōgun turns a clash-of-culture genre classic into a deep-dive on human nature

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Hiroyuki Sanada effortlessly portays Lord Yoshii Toranaga as the thoughtful leader. Screenshot: Youtube/FX Networks
Hiroyuki Sanada effortlessly portays Lord Yoshii Toranaga as the thoughtful leader. Screenshot: Youtube/FX Networks

With audiences exhausted from Hollywood’s long string of bloated CGI epics, a resurgence of passionate filmmakers is leading a return to thought-provoking stories with depth and substance.

Following the example and success of the recent Dune films, FX’s new miniseries Shōgun is a compelling, insightful and soul-stirring drama.

It respectfully adapts James Clavell’s 1975 classic novel of the same name while using cinema-quality visuals to delve deeper into its core themes with great nuance.

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When the Dutch ship Erasmus runs aground an unknown land in the east, its English navy officer John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) believes it to be the rumoured island nation of Japan for which they have been searching.

The Portuguese discovered Japan in the mid-16th century but kept its location secret, so as to attain a monopoly over trade and religious influence.

After Portugal fell to Spanish rule in 1580, the nation’s extensive trade was used to help fund Spain’s war against England and its allies.

Washing up on Japanese shores in the midst of this conflict proves at first misfortunate for those aboard the Erasmus who find themselves in the custody of Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a local ruler with ties to the Portuguese and Spanish.

The presence of Dutch and English Protestants threaten Spain’s uncontested claim to the region.

In response, the Portuguese and Spanish military, merchant and religious leaders collude to compel Toranaga to execute their enemies, with compassionate yet compliant Fr Martin Alvito (Tommy Bastow), the Daimyo’s Portuguese translator, as middle-man.

But Toranaga plans to gain from the Erasmus’ disruptive arrival at a tense moment in his nation’s own history.

As in Clavell’s 1975 novel, the Shōgun miniseries addresses the themes of statesmanship, diplomacy, war and politics through the conflict in 16th century Japan.

The actions of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers to acquire a monopoly over trade with Japan and keep the island nation a secret from their Protestant neighbours also play as a commentary on the evils of colonialism, the mistreatment of those colonised and the questionable manner in which the Christian empires spread the Gospel to the unbaptised world.

Creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks were thankfully not tempted to reduce the show to a critique of colonialism and religion, instead juxtaposing these themes against Japan’s seemingly polite but deadly political landscape.

It allows the show to unpack deeper questions surrounding corruption, deceit and dishonour within humanity as a whole.

We find this not only with regards to politics and power but with personalities, more notably between Blackthorne and Japanese translator Toda Marika (Anna Sawai) who spend the majority of their screen time together.

Both are being exposed to new yet opposing perspectives with every heartfelt conversation, striving to question away the others’ customs but ultimately being changed in the process.

Cultural understanding makes space for a romantic subplot that is insightful, real and well-earned.

Shōgun showcases some of the most stunning visuals and compelling compositions seen on streaming, rivalling most epics on the big screen.

And although the series has flawlessly created the vast world of feudal Japan, with all the grandeur and groundedness that one finds in the epic blockbusters, Shōgun’s designers never allow it to overshadow or stand in for compelling storytelling.

While breathtaking CGI-rendered panoramas of Osaka’s sprawling cityscape and Anjiro’s enchanting coastline villages draw you into this world, it’s the more intimate close-quarter scenes behind the paper walls or on the ship’s decks that will keep you there.

Here the set and costume designers build upon what the digital artists have established, with tangible yet historically accurate environments, textiles and sets that feel lived in.

The show’s tight focus on small-scale sets was also a matter of budget, but the creators and producers put every cent up on the screen, propelling the character-driven plot forward.

Working alongside well-scripted story arcs and sharp dialogue, the cinematography expertly communicates the subtle character nuances that make the clash-of-worlds plot work, like a Daimyo’s intention to deceive or a foreigner’s perspective of an unfamiliar culture.

Cosmo Jarvis’s portrayal of Blackthorne finds the balance between the calculated captain and the inquisitive foreigner, allowing his character to feel grounded and relatable.

Anna Sawai stars as Toda Mariko.Screenshot: Youtube/FX Networks
Anna Sawai stars as Toda Mariko.Screenshot: Youtube/FX Networks

The englishman isn’t a “white saviour” type with little to learn and all to gain. He is confident when faced with a fight, yet vulnerable to the foreign experiences unfolding before him.

These raw reactions provide moments of levity amidst the heavy drama, giving Jarvis’ performance authenticity and charm as he moves between awe and anger at this new culture and its strange conventions.

Hiroyuki Sanada and Anna Sawai’s passionate performances as Toranaga and Mariko, respectively, are by far the standouts of the entire series.

Sanada effortlessly shows the many sides to Toranaga’s personality, moving from thoughtful leader with stoicism and gravitas to troubled father with vulnerability and emotion.

The Japanese star, known to Western audiences for his performances in John Wick: Chapter 4 and Mortal Kombat, is at his career-best with a performance that truly feels grounded in history.

Anna Sawai’s Toda Mariko is a highlight in every scene that she is in, with an honesty and poise that makes her Shōgun’s most compelling characters.

Mariko is a strong woman who seeks to find purpose while remaining devoted to her faith, family and her Lord’s fiefdom.

As she spends more time in Blackthorne’s company and learns more about his world and outlook, she begins to find meaning and joy where there was none before.

Sawai plays Mariko’s growth to perfection, often showing a moment of newfound realisation with a subtle smile or glaring look that is as expressive as it is endearing.

Shōgun’s breathtaking visuals, well-developed scripts and intricate world-building combine to produce a lush and believable world. But the outstanding performances by the lead and supporting cast are what keeps the audience invested.

Shōgun is rated MA 15+ and it’s first four episodes can be streamed from Hulu and Disney+ with new episodes dropping every week.

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