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‘Shogun’ Review: FX/Hulu’s James Clavell Adaptation Is Big and Beautiful, but Its Romance Fails to Ignite

The unlikely hero of FX/Hulu’s new adaptation of Shōgun is… James Clavell’s 1975 novel.

The pervasive perception of the epic tome, nearly 50 years after its publication and nearly as long after its wildly popular NBC television adaptation, is that it’s dated — a colonialist Dances With Samurai that would never be made today, leaving aside how much Shōgun DNA is visible in offerings like Max’s Tokyo Vice and Netflix’s spectacular Blue Eye Samurai.

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In truth, read through a modern lens, Clavell’s novel is both a spectacular yarn and as thoroughly well-intentioned and well-researched a story as a popular-skewing book could be in 1975. This is evident in Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo’s fresh take, which is less a reinvention and more a carefully considered excavation of the Clavell text. Although there are very clear shifts in focus and adjustments that reflect an evolved cultural understanding, almost everything in this Shōgun hews closely to the novel, including the pieces modern viewers will interpret as most overtly progressive.

The resulting series is big, bold and beautiful, but maybe just a bit bloodless. On the page and surely in the 1980 Richard Chamberlain miniseries, Shōgun put history and romance on generally equal footing, but this Shōgun finds much more traction as an ambitious game of political chess. The balance of Machiavellian machinations and well-executed action is consistently gripping, while the central love story is too truncated to make much of an emotional dent.

The tale begins in 1600 with a ghost ship slinking into a small Japanese harbor town. The Erasmus was once part of a five-vessel Dutch fleet with 500 sailors, but after years of skirmishes with the Spanish and Portuguese, plus rampant vitamin deficiencies, only a dozen men remain.

The senior officer is John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), a British ship’s pilot who almost immediately finds himself thrust into an escalating local conflict. The taiko, Japan’s supreme ruler, is dead. His heir is a child, so a tenuous Council of Regents has been put in charge. The clear leader is Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a brilliant warrior and member of a dynastic family. Although he denies that he has any interest in consolidating power and making himself all-powerful shōgun, suspicions abound — especially from scheming Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira), who presumably hopes to usurp the heir himself.

When Toranaga hears about the arrival of a “barbarian” ship, he sees Blackthorne as a potential asset, both for the pilot’s knowledge of nautical warfare and for the irritation his presence causes the Portuguese — the country dominating trade in Japan — and their proxies on the council. Toranaga’s vassals, Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) and Yabushige’s young nephew Omi (Hiroto Kanai), think they might be able to use Blackthorne for their own ends and shifting allegiances.

Perhaps the only person who isn’t hoping to take advantage of Blackthorne is Mariko (Anna Sawai), a Catholic from a notorious family assigned by Toranaga to serve as Blackthorne’s Japanese-to-Portuguese translator. We hear the Portuguese as English, which is less confusing than it sounds. Most of the rest of the series is in Japanese.

The book uses Blackthorne, quickly called “Anjin,” as its point-of-entry character. There are hundreds of pages of Mariko simply explaining things to Anjin, which double as opportunities for romance to bloom, all while slowly revealing Toranaga as the text’s true protagonist.

The series, not unreasonably, makes Toronaga a topline partner from the beginning, though the characters are mostly separated. Ditching Anjin as the introductory eyes-of-the-audience removes notes of condescension from the story, but at the same time it jettisons a fluid expositional device. If Japanese characters explain things to Anjin like he’s an idiot, it’s OK, because he is, at least when it comes to the culture and rules of his new home. If they have to speak to each other like they don’t understand rudimentary concepts? That’s just clumsy exposition.

The audience learns a similar amount with this approach, perhaps, but Anjin learns less and has less agency, and the book’s two key relationships — the evolving romance between Anjin and Mariko and the odd, testing friendship between Anjin and Toranaga — are left thin. I wondered several times if 10 episodes of nearly an hour apiece was sufficient to tell this overall story properly.

“Simmering exasperation” is the thing Jarvis plays best, even giving the show some of its few moments of humor. But however amazed this outsider might feel in a land that was the stuff of rumor and legend, Shōgun doesn’t fetishize Japanese “otherness.” Every time Anjin is horrified by what he’s experiencing or witnessing, however flummoxed he gets by the foreignness of his surroundings, there are just as many times Japanese characters get to be perplexed or just plain grossed-out by his eating habits or hygiene.

The series’ directors, staring with Jonathan van Tulleken and Charlotte Brändström, infuse every ritual with a mixture of sensitive detail and utilitarian appreciation. The costumes are beautiful, the tonsorial choices period-specific, but everything feels lived-in and not just eye-catching for ogling’s sake (though some of the drone-captured vistas — shot in British Columbia, augmented by CG — are astonishing).

It’s a show in which every character is defined through some personal experience of otherness and every character has an unrealized ambition, whether it’s the region’s most gifted sex worker (Yuka Kouri’s Kiku), the heir’s calculating mother (Fumi Nikaido’s Ochiba) or Mariko’s spiritual mentor, Father Alvito (Tommy Bastow). Some want status, like Kiku’s madame Gin (Yuko Miyamoto), whose dream of franchising a “geisha house” concept plays much more significantly in the book. Some want death, like Moeka Hoshi’s Fuji, directionless after a family disgrace. The most interesting characters hide behind masks of loyalty, while the least interesting characters needed a three-season arc.

I’m sure there will be a tendency to compare Shōgun to Game of Thrones with ninjas in the place of dragons. My more frequent parallel was to House of Cards; most of the action — occasional beheadings in lieu of subway pushing — takes the form of talk. I think this adaptation plays for 21st century American audiences a bit the way House of Cards would play for a 17th century Japanese audience, once that audience got over its confusion about the streaming TV business model and irritation at having to root for a character played by Kevin Spacey. Even if you don’t understand what a given character is doing, you understand the stakes.

The fun in Shōgun — and it’s more rich, respectful and interestingly twisty than “fun” — comes from trying to keep up with the individual power plays and figuring out how they fit within this feudal context; understanding the hierarchies and potential for upward mobility, fathoming the freedom of self-determination compared to the gravitational pull of fate.

The international casting is tremendous, topped by Sanada, who serves as a producer in addition to his capacity as a source of instant authority and enigmatic, underplayed intelligence. Sawai has been tip-toeing around full-fledged stardom for several years, with supporting roles in Giri/Haji, Pachinko and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, but this feels like her arrival. The actress inhabits Mariko so fully as a fragile, wavering soul and a stealthy badass that I wish the series has been able to give her and Jarvis a chance to sell the book’s lustier moments.

The Shōgun model of femininity, according to which the women are ostensibly subservient but capable of triggering pivotal upheavals, offers juicy material for Hoshi, heartbreaking and unreadable, and Nikaido, who makes her character manipulative and fiercely maternal.

As the volatile and death-obsessed Yabushige, Asano has the most developed of the various vassal and liege lord roles, though Shinnosuke Abe, as Mariko’s jealous warrior husband, and Tokuma Nishioka, as Toranaga’s devoted right-hand, are standouts in a cast with no real weak links.

Marks and Kondo and their fine writing team have, by necessity, excluded some of the best scenes from Clavell’s novel, but they’ve also smartly trimmed most of its more dated and just plain silly bits. Even if the relationship at the story’s heart isn’t brought to full life here, the passion and, more than that, respect for the material is evident. Shōgun honors what helped make this work resonate for earlier generations while bringing its more modern sensibilities to the surface for a 21st century audience.

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