A Watercooler Guide to Shōgun

A sprawling, visually stunning 10-part limited series that’s more than a decade in the making, Shōgun is an immersive spectacle that demands your full undivided attention. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by James Clavell, this latest iteration is the second major TV adaptation of the epic saga.

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Given that the first one was considered groundbreaking and a cultural phenomenon for the time (1980), this latest version of Shōgun is perhaps even more ambitious as it takes a radical approach in shifting the focus from the familiar Westernized story to a more Japanese-centric point of view. Debuting its first two episodes on FX and Hulu on Feb. 27 (the remaining eight episodes will be released weekly), Shōgun promises a more authentic and faithful adaptation of the classic novel.

Get to know the show before it conquers the zeitgeist: Its 11-year journey from inception to its long-awaited debut, the challenges that the creators faced in mounting such a colossal project, its reception so far, and what to expect moving forward.

What’s it about
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Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). FX

Set in 17th-century feudal Japan amidst a brutal battle for the throne, Shōgun follows the story of Lord  Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a ruthless and calculating warlord who enlists the help of a marooned English sailor named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) — along with the enigmatic interpreter Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) — to gain advantage over his enemies on the Council of Regents who have united against him.

Names you might know

Created by Justin Marks (Top Gun: Maverick) and his wife Rachel Kondo (Girl of Few Seasons) lead Sanada serves double duty as producer.  Cosmo Jarvis (Persuasion) is convincing as the stranded English sea pilot John Blackthorne who becomes Toranaga’s unwitting pawn, and Anna Sawai (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters)  is hypnotizing as interpreter Lady Toda Mariko, the bridge between the two leads.

Why all the hype around the series?
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Richard Chamberlain in the 1980 NBC series.

A cultural tour de force that began with a bestselling 1975 novel followed by a hit 1980 TV series starring the ‘miniseries king’ Richard Chamberlain, Shōgun has been credited as a catalyst for the American obsession with Japanese culture — including and especially the rapid growth of sushi restaurants across the United States. It was such a phenomenon in 1980 that even The New York Times Magazine reported that people had become so engrossed in the novel that their jobs and marriages pale by comparison. Then came its TV adaptation, which captured the highest ratings of the year on NBC. So it goes without saying that the latest iteration of Shōgun has big shoes to fill.

A change in perspective

Showrunners Marks and Kondo knew that they had their work cut out for them when they took on this ambitious revival. Effectively adapting a classic tale that honors and innovates on the source material for modern audiences is such a high-wire act. So the creators made the radical creative decision to shift the focus of the show’s narrative. Instead of telling the story from a Western point of view, they’ve decided to shine a light on a more Japanese-centric perspective.

Best new TV show of 2024

“We got more comfortable with needing to tell it as much from the Japanese side, casting Japanese-speaking actors,” FX executive Gina Balian revealed in a Variety interview. They convened a writers’ room that was, as Marks explains, “predominantly Asian American female, and we came to it as a collective that we thought would work from a modern sensibility.”

Unlike the first adaptation, which took the radical approach of not employing English subtitles, the latest version does a complete about-face and tells the story with mostly Japanese subtitles–introducing the viewers to the meticulously recreated bygone era of 1600s feudal Japan, focusing mainly on the political intrigue and power struggle between the noble houses versus the romantic drama. Another key difference is Cosmo Jarvis’ rough-around-the-edges portrayal of John Blackthorne. Compared to Chamberlain’s somewhat sophisticated iteration, his character is more grounded and harsh — but he’s equally effective.

The backbone of the story
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Anna Sawai as Lady Mariko. FX

The latest version of Shōgun centers around Lord Toranaga, a cunning warlord engaged in a brutal war of succession with other members of the Council of Regents — a group of five lords who were anointed as shared rulers by their late overlord — until his young heir was an adult. Hiroyuki Sanada brings a commanding presence and layered performance to add gravitas and authenticity to Toranaga, while  Anna Sawai is magnificent as interpreter Lady Mariko, the diplomat between the two leads, but also — in the grander scheme of things — as the bridge between the East and West. Watching her wrestle with her complicated past, the treacherous political landscape of feudal Japan, and a forbidden partnership with a foreigner is a sight to behold.

The supporting cast is equally compelling as they breathe new life into Cavell’s characters by adding depth, complexities, and modern sensibilities to their portrayal.

A balance between authenticity and entertainment

To ground the show in authenticity, the showrunners enlisted Sanada not just as the lead but also as the series producer. “My mission was that if there is a wall between East and West, let’s break the wall and make a bridge,” Sanada disclosed to Variety. “That was my motivation and mission. But the opportunity to help vet every aspect of “Shōgun” was rewarding, especially in light of a previous version that hadn’t privileged the point of view of its Japanese characters. It was the ’80s, so it was different — more Westernized, easy to understand for the world. We have to make it authentic in every detail.”

A decade in the making
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Cosmo Jarvis as Blackthorne. FX

While it’s been nearly 50 years since the novel was published, the new series was in development for nearly a decade. Marks and Kondo took over the writing team in 2018 when FX decided to undertake a complete overhaul. COVID further complicated the filming process, but FX executive Gina Balian considered the delays as a blessing in disguise. “I’m glad it’s now,” she said. “I’m glad we didn’t make the version of 10 years ago. Because the level of thoughtfulness and responsibility toward representing another culture was at the forefront of everyone’s thought. You’d like to think that you would have gotten there 10 years ago, but I don’t think we would — and 10 years from now, there’ll be other things.

What it’s really about

Behind the visual spectacle and immense scope of Shōgun lies timeless themes that still resonate with audiences today. At its heart, the series is a cautionary tale of the dangers of xenophobia, unchecked ambition, and isolationism. As governments around the world start embracing protectionist ideologies, the sweeping epic serves as a timely reminder in the strength found in diversity, the importance of building bridges instead of walls, and the fundamental need to nurture humanity through empathy.

What are critics saying
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Earning some of the most glowing praise so far this year, the series has been described as “a masterpiece” by Time and “the next Game of Thrones” by two other critics. Brian Lowry of CNN opines, “FX’s updated, sumptuous version of James Clavell’s sweeping novel blends an intoxicating combination of action, romance, and political intrigue, majestically spread over 10 parts that, unlike most limited series, sustain that weight and then some.”

“From its sprawling monologues to its expertly crafted sets, the series stands out immediately in a landscape where content appears to be more important than art,” Kaiya Shunyata of rogerebert.com. surmises. “Throwaway dramas are nothing compared to this, and as the epic tale slowly unfolds, the series is able to stand out as a titan amongst its peers.”

The takeaway

With its fresh perspective and timely lessons, Shōgun is more than just an adaptation; it is the triumph of cultural diversity and representation. Watching this story strike a chord with critics and audiences 44 years after it debuted on a broadcast network is a testament to the enduring power of a more expansive and inclusive storytelling.

Go Deeper

The Real History Behind Shogun – from The Smithsonian

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