REVIEW: Shogun

There were high hopes for Shogun as the limited series landed on Disney+. Based on James Clavell’s novels set in 17th Century Japan, people were already comparing it to Game of Thrones with the promise of political intrigue, sex, and violence. If anything, such a comparison doesn’t do it justice. The dynastical and religious rivalries may evoke memories of Game of Thrones but Shogun has earned the right to stand on its own with a stunning season that is a near flawless adaptation of the excellent source material.

ShogunShogun starts with British sailor John Blackthorne finding himself as one of the very few foreigners to arrive in the very secretive Japan just as there is a vacuum of power and a struggle for leadership including the incredible Lord Yoshii Toranaga (played to perfection by the always amazing Hiroyuki Sanada). Blackthorne is played between the various sides and finds himself growing close to his translator Mariko (Anna Sawai – Monarch: Legacy of Monsters) who is struggling with the shame of her family’s past and a desire to die. Their growing relationship is the heart of the story as Blackthorne tries to understand this strange new world he is in and do his best to get back home at a time when enemies appear to be everywhere. Both Sawai and Sanada play their parts with an overwhelming melancholy in their scenes. There is a sense of dread that permeates Shogun as Toranaga attempts to keep his plans (and plans within plans within plans…) hidden whilst opposing the ruling council and Mariko attempts to find slithers of joy as a woman caught between two worlds, her Japanese world with husband Buntaro and that of her new Christian faith that is growing in Japan. The acting across the board is top notch and ensures that the audience is invested, even where there is a lot of heavy lifting to do with the story in the early stages.

The strength of Shogun is in its writing. The characters are well-written with nuance and the story has time to breathe across the season. Shogun also benefits from being one season with no further series planned. The writers knew the ending to begin with and they knew the time they had to tell the story without having to leave any dangling threads of intrigue. The world is drawn as a grim one and many of the characters aren’t black and white but realistic shades of grey as they do what they can to survive. Sacrifices are made, earthquakes hit, and those who act with dishonour lose their head: this is a dark show but a beautiful one. Like Game of Thrones at its best, you find yourself changing your opinions on characters as more sides to them are revealed and layers of the story peeled away to reveal more depth. Characters that I disliked in the beginning act with surprising heroism and bravery whilst others that I liked treat their peers with disrespect and twisted my opinions of them. There is a real sadness when characters die as the audience is given clarity about the struggles of living in a world with such strict structures around honour during a time of war. It’s brilliant stuff and the best thing is, the show most certainly sticks the landing with a restrained but stunning finale. The showrunners didn’t try to flip the script with the last episode and throw everything at it for a huge finale. Instead, they stuck to what the show did best, focused on the characters and revealed more to the audience about the depths of planning, betrayal, and cunning that they had missed. This is how to finish a great series and other showrunners need to take note.

Shogun is a masterpiece historical series that you won’t want to miss. With great writing and an incredible cast including Cosmo Jarvis, Anna Sawai, and the always brilliant Hiroyuki Sanada and Tadanobu Asano, Shogun is a near perfect limited series with a moving finale delivered in a way that would make Kurosawa proud. Fans of history have been blessed recently with great series such as Last Kingdom but Shogun could be the best one yet. Short but most certainly sweet, it’s sad to say sayonara to Shogun but my God it was incredible while it lasted. Ten episodes of brilliance.

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Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones

Aaron S. Jones is the author of Memories of Blood and Shadow, and The Broken Gods trilogy. He is Head of School at a school in Kent, UK and when he is not tearing his hair out at students struggling with their, they're and there, he is tearing his hair out as he dies for the thousandth time on Elden Ring. You can find him on Twitter @HereticASjones where he is most likely procrastinating for hours at a time instead of focusing on his Orc murder mystery.