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Shogun Has The Juice

Even if you aren’t following every inch of the intrigue, there’s at least going to be cool guys doing cool shit with swords.

A screenshot from Shogun depicting Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Toranaga sitting on his throne, looking slightly off screen
Shogun, FX

I have been waiting for a show to watch with the boys every week, and I think Shogun might be it.

Like many people who have a degree in cinema studies, I am a fan of samurai movies and I am also a fan of prolific Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada. When I heard about the new FX series Shogun I was already on board—it is a new adaptation of the James Clavell novel of the same name, produced by and starring Sanada. While it is completely dope in the ways that I expected (a random passerby has his head chopped in half in the first episode) it’s also, somehow, so much doper than I ever expected.

On places like Twitter, people have been comparing this new series to Game of Thrones, which isn’t exactly accurate. Unlike Thrones, Shogun takes place in our real world, during a very real period of history. As the first episode’s opening text tells you, the year is 1600 and while Japan has had some contact from European traders from Portugal, the Portuguese refuse to share the location of the Japanese islands with the rest of the world. Enter John Blackthorne, an English Protestant who hates the Catholics so much he is willing to chart his own course to Japan just to defeat them. There he meets Lord Yoshii Toranaga, who is desperately trying to retain his lands and his life in the midst of a succession crisis that will likely plunge Japan into civil war.

I do understand why people compare these two shows, even if they’re nothing alike. When I watched the first episode of Shogun, I got that fluttering feeling in my stomach that I felt when I first watched Thrones: this show just has the juice. It sets up a world so vast and unfamiliar, and a series of political crises so tangled, that the anticipation of how all this is going to play out is almost as exciting as watching the show. It’s salacious; it’s dramatic; it’s pretty sexy sometimes; a dude gets boiled alive. Even if you aren’t following every inch of the intrigue, there’s at least going to be cool guys doing cool shit with swords. 

For what it’s worth, Shogun already feels better than Game of Thrones in a lot of respects. In particular, the performances aren’t hampered by awful wigs. Because Shogun is a limited series and based on a book series that was completed in the 1980s (which in turn was based on real life history), I also feel a lot more confident that the end of this show is going to be satisfying. What I think people mean when they compare it to Thrones is that they feel primed to get bug fuck obsessed about this in that same way. There are so many characters with so many conflicting motivations that it’s easy to pick sides, root for your favorites, and make predictions about how the story will all play out.

What’s most Thrones-esque to me about this setting and how it's presented is the fulcrum upon which all this drama is resting. At the end of the first episode, Blackthorne is finally taken to Osaka to meet Lord Toranaga. Up until this point, both he and his Japanese captors have regarded each other as savages with no manners—both of them even using that specific word, savages, to describe each other. It’s because Blackthorne has such a low regard for the Japanese that he keeps getting his ass kicked by them. He assumes he can just openly insult them until he’s pushed into the mud and literally pissed on. Before Blackthorne came to Japan, he thought he understood everything there was to know about the world. As he sits with his hands bound together, finally seeing the beauty and sheer size of Osaka, Japan’s then-capital, he begins to understand just how little about the world he knows. Finally, only sitting in front of Lord Toranaga, does he learn how to bow with his head touching the ground.

Shogun takes place at a time when Japan was about to be thrust into a new age. These are the makings of a sweeping epic, the kind of storytelling that’s perfect for television, as Thrones demonstrated over ten years ago. There’s nothing more intoxicating than watching people live through interesting times, violently birthing a new world. My only hope is that this show gets the Game of Thrones audience it deserves.

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