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Tadanobu Asano, center, as Yabushige in a scene from the FX show ‘Shogun’ Tadanobu Asano, center, as Yabushige in ‘Shogun’ (photo: FX)

James Clavell’s Shogun has a storied history. When the original novel came out in 1975, it flew off bookshelves, selling over six million copies by 1980. Its popularity only grew when, that same year, NBC produced a five-episode miniseries that generated banner ratings. While the series was warmly received in the United States, it received a mixed reception in Japan, where critics argued it did not offer an authentic portrayal of the country. Now, in 2024, FX has released a second re-adaptation of Clavell’s seminal work, with an aim toward greater cultural sensitivity while also playing up the bombast and spectacle. Does it succeed?

Set in 1600, “Shogun” follows John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an English Protestant who pilots a ship against the Catholic colonial powers of Spain and Portugal. At this point in history, both countries were at war with England, and a great source of contention was their secret trade relations with “the Japans,” which helped enrich them in their fight against the Protestants. As Blackthorne attempts to sway the Japanese to England’s side, he finds himself getting caught up in their internal politics and far more often is manipulated by them rather than the other way around.

“Shogun” is historical fiction, though it is based on real people and real events. Much of Blackthorne’s character echoes the story of William Adams, a real-life English sailor who became an advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose military victories brought about the Tokugawa shogunate. The equivalent figure in the show is the cunning Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), one of five regents who are jockeying to unite a divided Japan. Toranaga and Blackthorne eventually forge a connection, especially when they realize how alike they are—and how useful they can be to one another.

Sanada leads a bevy of Japanese actors, many of whom have had long careers in that country’s film industry. There are two standouts: Tadanobu Asano as the lovably duplicitous Yabushige and Anna Sawai as Lady Mariko, Toranaga’s Catholic translator. Asano’s Yabushige is fantastic, managing to toe the line between someone utterly despicable (he boils men alive to try and understand the nature of death) and someone we oddly root for (his need to constantly scheme is oddly charming). Sawai’s Mariko is the heart of the show. Because her character is Catholic, she is well-positioned to embody the contrast in European and Japanese attitudes. She represents a myriad of contradictions: Her Catholic faith is often at odds with the much more alien (at least to Blackthorne) culture of the Japanese.

The differences in culture are a massive gulf to cross. The Japanese and European characters tend to see the other as barbarians. The Europeans’ initial dismissive attitude toward the Japanese turns out to be ill-founded as their society proves every bit as complex and structured as Europe is (in many ways more so). The Japanese, meanwhile, seem serene and composed on the surface but can be just as brutal and savage as the Europeans. The series carries this tension throughout. It never romanticizes either side, and it is quick to showcase how both the European and Japanese characters are far more than they appear on the surface. No one individual fully agrees with the dictates of their respective cultures.

Religion plays a major role in the conflict in “Shogun.” It is set some 50 years after Francis Xavier first brought Catholicism to the country, when the Society of Jesus has turned into an arm of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism and has become highly influential in the country’s internal affairs. Two of Japan’s five regents are Catholic, though mostly because of the profitable trade the Spanish and the Portuguese bring in from Europe. Still, we see many ordinary Japanese people as Catholics; this is before the era of oppression against Christians portrayed in works like Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.”

In many ways, the Society of Jesus is one of the story’s villains, with Blackthorne’s Protestant faith leading him to be wary and suspicious of the Catholics in Japan. He is certainly not unjustified in this; the very first Catholic priest he runs into calls him a “heretic” and attempts to get him executed. The Jesuits in the story, led by Father Carlo Dell’Acqua (Paulino Nunes), are a politicking and conniving bunch, mercenary in their ambition to convert the Japanese and establish a firm base for further expansion in East Asia. On charters from Spain and Portugal, their infiltration of Japanese leadership has as much to do with furthering trade interests in the region as it does evangelization.

At one point, Blackthorne encounters a former Catholic priest who has now turned Protestant. He opines to Blackthorne, “I came here in 1572, clutching my rosary, visions of the souls I would save. Then I learned the true tenets of the cloth: silk, gold and guns. These Jesuits care nothing for their souls.”

“Shogun” is a dire portrait of the Catholic Church’s role in colonial history, but the Japanese are not mere victims in this story. This is ultimately a tale of Japan; the Europeans are, for the most part, viewpoint characters for a Western audience. The Europeans are there as guests of the Japanese and events ultimately reveal how tenuous their presence there really is.

The series is a master class in epic storytelling. It is a story of war and religion and culture, but it never forgets to let its quiet moments breathe and always ensures that the focus is on individuals. Like “Game of Thrones,” the characters in “Shogun” are pieces in a game of chess being played across an entire country. Like the best parts of that show, “Shogun” allows its characters to take center stage—to embody cultures and countries and religions, yes, but also to simply be human. That is the real strength of “Shogun.”

More: TV / Asia / Jesuits

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