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Shōgun (2024)–Game of Thrones meets Last Kingdom

In this ten-episode Hulu mini-series, Shōgun, based upon James Clavell’s titular 1975 novel, we are introduced to the feudal society of Japan in the year 1600.   When conflicts between ruling aristocratic clans have made the emperor impotent in maintaining control, chaos and coups threaten the very existence of peace and harmony among wealthy and powerful overlords.  “Shōgun” means “commander-in-chief”, but more accurately, signifies the true power behind the throne.   Becoming shogun is the end-game for a number of powerful warlords (daimyō –comparable to the noble class of lords with great estates and fiefdoms in Europe, during this same historical period).

The drama opens with Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), a British captain of a Dutch “black ship” (the name for the foreign or “barbarian” intruders’).   Captured with his crew after sailing uninvited near  the shores of Lord Toranaga’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) sovereign lands, Blackthorne is at Toranaga’s mercy.  Completely ignorant of Japanese culture and politics, Blackthorne’s main mission is to negotiate trade directly with Japanese lords on behalf of the  Dutch, at the expense of Portuguese who dominate commerce and proselytize Catholicism.    The Portuguese priests are threatened by Blackthorne’s presence as a Protestant.

Enter Lord Toranaga, a brilliant strategist and tactician who is quickly losing allies as the equally powerful Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira) rallies other warlords  to impeach and eventually assassinate Toranaga.  Blackthorne forces himself to set aside his British customs and anti-Catholic sentiments, in order to survive. Eventually allying with Toranaga, their shared  mission is  to maintain the current– albeit unstable– peace, and avoid a long and painful war with Ishido.  The instructor and communicator who gently yet forcefully leads Blackthorne–now named Anjin (“pilot”)–to understand samurai values is the exquisite Lady Mariko (Catholic name: Maria, played by Anna Sawai), who steels herself not to submit to the mutual attraction shared with Anjin.

Lords and their allies, double spies like Yabushige and estranged childhood friends like Lady Ochiba, may challenge  the viewer to focus on character names, titles, and family trees.  Much like “Game of Thrones” or “The Last Kingdom”, family trees are important.  When a lord is referred to by his title, it is helpful if the vocabulary and a bit of Japanese history is familiar to the viewer.  With dialogue in both Japanese and English, including by Anjin and the Portuguese priests, each character arc requires understanding relationships with all the other major players.   Shōguns finale as well as the penultimate episode have startling twists.  Torunaga has a masterful plan–Crimson Sky–that is difficult to follow from one episode’s tactics to the next. And will he ultimately abandon his grandiose plan?  In addition, there are conceptual ideas and clues presented as poems that are culturally Japanese with a high value placed on poetic acumen by the nobility.  Poems are repeated and altered to underscore what comes next, so attention must be paid.

A superb cast with a standout performance by Anna Sawai as Lady Mariko.  Veteran actor Hiroyuki Sanada (also producer of Shōgun) is commanding as always (see “John Wick”, “Bullet Train” “The Last Samurai”  and Westworld”) as the quietly brilliant tactician  who will unify Japan against seemingly insurmountable odds.  Cosmo Jarvis, a relative newcomer, exudes appropriate cultural clumsiness.  He hesitates to act on his sexual attraction and desires, and increasingly is at  ease with speaking Japanese and dealing with culture shock. Cinematography is stunning, many scenes evoking woodblock prints.  The finale and final scenes are open for interpretation. 

Entirely worth watching and perhaps watching a second time!

Availability:  Hulu

Note 1:  For a bit of historical background on a few of the main characters, read the following two articles only AFTER watching the series.  These two articles contain major Spoiler Alerts!   “Shōgun: The True Story of Akechi Tama, the Woman Behind Mariko.” and “He Used The Same Word”: Shogun Episode 10’s Big Toranaga & Yabushige Confrontation Explained”

Note 2: The historical shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, unified Japan after winning a civil war.   His Shogunate ruled the country in relative peace for over 260 years.

Note 3: Several million dollars was allocated for the costume budget. Kimonos and other clothing were made by hand. Traditional clothes from Japan were imported for authenticity, with filming on location in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Note 4: Compared with “Game of Thrones”, also an epic medieval saga about fiefdoms vying for dominance and unification under one house and leader, Shogun is not a fantasy but loosely based upon the feudal period of the Tokunaga shogunate.

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