What Are You Watching? ‘Shogun’


Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“Shogun” is a streaming series on FX/Hulu. I’m a skeptic. I tend to notice the microphones in the frame, and get up and go to the refrigerator on bad writing. But this show disarmed me. Although it cuts James Clavell’s big novel to 10 episodes, the series succeeds. Its characters are nuanced. The pacing is right. Each episode weaves 1600 prewar Japan and individual fate in ways that kept me coming back — even when I watched on my phone.

The series protagonists, warlord Yoshi Toranaga, orphaned heir and translator Toda Mariko, and English ship pilot John Blackthorn, each must somehow extract themselves from tradition, lineage, or individuality. And it’s the savvy of each protagonist that builds the action and depth.

History drives everything, and is unwound with a subtlety that rarely misses. Portuguese Catholicism and colonialism, Buddhist society and temperament, and English individualism push and pull the story, impact character’s decisions, and drive events, motivation, and passion.

The first episode begins with pilot Blackthorn adrift in a storm with his starving crew. Soon captive of provincial samurai, the discerning Blackthorn plots his way between Portuguese and Japanese interests. “Who is this barbarian?” becomes “How can we use him to our advantage?” Through the Portuguese and local samurai, Blackthorn finds himself presented before Lord Toranaga, who assigns Mariko as translator. Through Mariko’s translation, Toranaga senses Blackthorn’s wit and knowledge of Portuguese colonial intent could be useful.

As a translator, Mariko not only translates the literal word-for-word meaning for Blackthorn and Toranaga. She reveals the underpinnings of a culture under stress, and in the process translates Japanese history for the audience through the tumult of her own life. Morika is in many ways the hub and crossroads of the story, Catholic pun intended.

The character tension is stripped of sentimentality, and largely rings true. There is a bit of shorthand at times. I suppose in a condensed story, that is bound to happen. But set and scene design are largely convincing. Effects don’t reveal that “this is TV” often. To a character, motive and challenge are believable, from an old gardener to a teahouse matron. That is, except for Toranaga’s son, who is a bit underwritten — a hapless hero is sometimes hard to write.

The season finale, the series likely not to be renewed, was on Tuesday, April 23. As of this writing, I have not seen it. I just cannot see how “Shogun” will be unpacked in one episode, or how I will be satisfied. My opinion of the series may be upended. I’m stifling my curiosity. Never thought I’d admit that in print. Makes for good TV, I guess, or iPhone.