Shogun full series review: exceptional, except for its ending

There must be something about sweeping epic series that despite touching incredible heights in terms of narrative, aesthetics and characters, they just can’t seem to stick the landing. We saw it with Game of Thrones, its dismal final season, and dreadful conclusion that was like ruining a hundred-year-old masterwork because you lied about your credentials in the interview.

Consistently compared to Game of Thrones across its 10-week episodic run was Shogun, a remake of the 1980s series based on the bestselling novel by James Clavell published in 1975. By the time the finale wrapped on Shogun, everyone was saying the limited series blew Game of Thrones out of the water.

Shogun has nothing to do with Game of Thrones. In fact, strike it from your mind. It is a narrative retelling of the actual unification of Japan in the 1600s under Tokugawa Ieyasu, who in the show is called Yoshii Toranaga. Many characters in the series are based on historical figures at the time, and the events are loosely based on real things that happened.

Shogun is its characters, the finest on TV

The series centres around three characters: Toranaga, a warlord mastermind who is always several steps ahead of his enemies, the wife of one of his vassals and Christian convert Lady Mariko, and the strange barbarian from the sea, Englishman John Blackthorne.

When Blackthorne arrives by chance, half dead in a ruined ship to the shores of “The Japans,” he is thrust into a strange land, with strange customs, where life has very little value for the average person. Here in feudal Japan, you bow to your lord or you get your head cut off. It’s that simple.

And Blackthorne spends most of the series learning the customs of the country (as does the audience) as quickly as he can, not to fit in, but to simply survive. It just so happens his gallion was carrying foreign firearms and had been confiscated by the local chieftain.

Gruff and bitterly resentful of all of the nobility’s cruel “games,” actor Cosmo Jarvis sees a Blackthorne that is a beached shark, desperately gasping for air. Bloody hook hanging from its maw.

He quickly becomes embroiled in a sweeping plot to serve Toranaga in deposing the corrupt Council of Regents that rule Japan in place of the underage heir. We learn later in the series that Toranaga keeps the barbarian sailor around because he amuses him.

The warlord assigns Lady Mariko to be Blackthorne’s interpreter as she previously learned to speak Portuguese with the help of the Catholic Church, which has inserted itself into the highest echelon of Japanese nobility.

Mariko is my favourite character. Buoyed by a tour de force performance by Anna Sawai, she is the emotional heart of the series. Initially a gentle flower caught in a chilly breeze, underneath the surface boils a raging storm and her focus episodes are the best in the show.

Especially the penultimate episode, which serves as the conclusion of her fantastic character arc. It is the height of Shogun, and probably the best thing on TV this year so far.

Meanwhile, Toranaga epitomises the divinity of Japanese rule. Because of this, he is almost alien, portrayed as being outside of the bounds of the rest of us normal humans to excellence by veteran Hiroyuki Sanada. He isn’t just ahead of his enemies, there is no hope for them to even catch up to him. He is pulling the strings, all the time, of friend and foe alike.

All three main characters are of profound depth, and masterfully brought to life by their talented actors.

They are the key to the show, and the drama between the three are consistent highlights throughout the 10 episodes. They are supported by a cast of unique beings, each easily identified and understood. You know what the wild Lord Yabushige is thinking, and when Toranaga’s headstrong son Nagatoro does something insane, you know exactly why he did it.

Shogun excels at its characters. It does so in a way that very few series have ever managed. It is a lesson on just how important strong character work is, and the importance of casting the right actors, that as a viewer your heart thunders in your chest not amid a battle scene, but during an intimate conversation between two characters.

There are no compromises when it comes to quality

Much has already been said about the obsessive way the showrunners tried to keep authenticity to the setting. Going as far as hiring coaches for the actors to learn how to walk and talk like medieval Japanese nobility, a famously ritualistic society.

Shogun doesn’t so much drip, as it showers atmosphere on the viewer, and most of that is thanks to the care the production took towards preserving that authenticity. Every frame oozes with quality and love. Every line emanates from talented screenwriters, unwavering in their adaptation of Clavell’s words.

From the thick noodles in Blackthorne’s bowl, slick with soup, to the guts of Toranaga’s vassals as they slice across their stomachs. There is no “this will do, I guess” for Shogun. Every bit of it is done with greatness in mind.

And then, when you’re caught in the fine, warm silks of the kind of show that is remembered for decades, it just ends.

The worst thing about Shogun is that it had to have an ending

The final episode unfortunately had the impossible job of being the final episode. After the roaring success of the nine episodes before it, and the painstakingly careful story that was weaved, it seemed unlikely that one more hour would be enough to close the book. And that was true.

Instead of the great final battle that was teased during most of the show, the moment where Toranaga finally dispatches the scoundrels that accused him of being a traitor, we find out that actually he had defeated them long before any blades could be drawn and any more blood could be shed.

There is no meeting of mighty armies at Sekigahara. Instead, the showrunners made the difficult choice to end the series with conversations, albeit important and emotional ones. An incredibly potent reveal is had between Toranaga and Yabushige, and it turns out the chess master was well aware of the sacrifices he was making along the way.

Along the series, moments and themes that were once considered essential to the plot were unceremoniously dropped. It was just too big, too grand and too lavish to wrap everything up in one swift slash. Because of Chekhov’s Gun, you spend the show in expectation. Really cool ideas are set up, and many don’t go anywhere. And there is disappointment in that. Blackthorne never lays siege to Osaka from the harbour, a final battle is never fought. Plotholes are left open.

What about the Christian regents? What about Toranaga’s devilishly handsome younger brother? What about the Spanish sailor or the Black Ship? We will never know.

It felt like it deserved more. There should have been more. I wanted more. More scenes with Blackthorne and Mariko. More subtle politics in Osaka Castle. More of Toranaga’s loyal vassals pledging to commit Seppukku. More samurai with rifles, more battles in eerily still, misty forests. What am I supposed to look forward to on Tuesdays after this?

A crowning achievement by showrunners Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks. Stop reading this and go watch Shogun right now. South Africans get to see it on Disney+.



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