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17th Century Japan and when a European ship is marooned, Lord Yoshii Toranaga uncovers secrets to tip the scales of power and save his life.

Shōgun has history. Not just the rich vein of 16th century Japanese history in which political chess led to shifts in power, but the intellectual property itself.

First as a novel (released in 1975 and written by James Clavell) and then as a well received 1980 TV miniseries. With this high budget version, Disney is betting big.

Snapshot Of Shogun

After his ship finally drifts onto the coast of the near fabled Japan, coarse and loud John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is taken prisoner in a land he knows next to nothing about.

He has landed at a volatile time. The death of the national Taikō has led to a delicate power sharing balance, where five regents rule in the name of a young heir until he comes of age.

The arrival of Blackthorne causes problems. He knows about the Portuguese looting of the country.

With two of the regents Catholics and their Portuguese ‘allies’ demanding Blackthorne’s death, power is further upended when a curious and calculating regent named Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) seeks to protect Blackthorne and learn what he knows.

Disney have clearly spent big on Shōgun. The show is stuffed with sumptuous sets and costumes from palace grounds and castles, to ships with billowing sails.

The lavish production is a feast for the eyes. Sanada, who also acts as producer, reportedly wouldn’t sign on unless the attention to detail was of high quality.

Official Trailer

How Good Is It?

The three key characters are the measured Toranaga, bullish but scheming Blackthorne, and stoic catholic-convert Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), who also acts as translator.

Whilst the Japanese language is extensively used, when we hear English it is actually Portuguese being spoken for plot reasons. By this intermediary speech Blackthorne can communicate with his unexpected protectors.

Sanada’s intelligence shines out through small tells in his face, as he weighs up his chances of survival in the face of a closing net around him.

Contrasted with Jarvis’ boisterous booming voice the pair are compelling when they connect. Mariko is introduced more slowly. Her balance between duty and honour hangs over her thoughtful responses, and as such forms the essential third point in the central trio.

Shōgun does feature some strange cinematographic choices. Frequently there is hard use of focus, so that the background is barely perceptible.

Similarly, the edges of the screen are periodically out of focus regardless of what is happening.

Although perhaps used as a narrative device to show Blackthorn’s ‘fish out of water’ position, it’s the kind of thing that can make you quite queasy once you notice it. Thankfully come episode 3 it starts to wear off.

Visual strangeness aside, Shōgun has all the hallmarks of a Game of Thrones style power fight, and has the benefit of being loosely based on true history.

Honour, duty, war, survival, and the land of the rising sun: don your mental samurai armour and settle in.

Words by Mike Record


  • Stunning Sets And Costumes
  • Great Central Performances
  • Compelling Power Plays


  • Odd Out Of Focus Style Choices
  • Mariko's Character Is Slow To Get Given Her Dues


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