HomeEntertainmentReview | FX’s ‘Shogun’ is what thrillers wish they were

Review | FX’s ‘Shogun’ is what thrillers wish they were

Shogun” is riveting. It’s gorgeous. It’s the TV equivalent of a page-turner. And if you consider the source text — James Clavell’s 1975 novel clocked in at 1,299 pages — that’s no small feat. Condensing a story of that length, set in 1600s Japan, into 10 hours that will be legible to American audiences? Hopeless. But FX’s new adaptation pulls it off. The limited series sets up the baroque political situation in 1600s Japan with dizzying economy and moves swiftly into what really matters: the thrilling chess matches between the principals.

The series, which premieres Tuesday on FX, begins with the death of the Taiko, whose sole heir is underage. He set up a Council of Regents made up of bitter rivals to rule in his son’s stead until he comes to maturity, and one of these, Ishido (Takehiro Hira), has recruited three others into an alliance to impeach (and kill) the fifth, Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), arguably the most powerful and influential daimyo. Characters are introduced at a breakneck pace, establishing the contours and habits of Japanese diplomacy, the way etiquette can be surgically weaponized, the various regents’ positions and animosities, the bargains their underlings strike to gain political advantage and the way the Portuguese (and the Catholic Church) have insinuated themselves into this web of interests. Add to that the ambitions of the Dutch, Protestant hostility toward Catholics and the specific temperament of an English pilot named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) who was, in the novel, the protagonist.

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I’ve put Blackthorne last because his function in this remake is brilliantly but subtly reworked. Blackthorne (who was based on a real man named Will Adams who traveled to Japan) was “Shogun’s” Western point-of-view character. While the 1980 miniseries featured Japanese luminaries such as Toshiro Mifune, it was really Richard Chamberlain’s show as the Englishman out of his element trying to navigate a sophisticated foreign society in which he was seen as the “barbarian.”

The FX version, which creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo spent 10 years crafting, resists that appealing but somewhat parochial storytelling shortcut without overcorrecting for the impulse. The new series doesn’t exactly decenter the English “anjin” (the Japanese characters’ name for him); he remains a handy and charismatic catalyst for the plot and his arrival provides an excuse for the disorientation viewers will probably feel while watching the first episode. But he shares top billing with Toranaga (who claims him as his vassal), Toranaga’s bitter and honor-bound interpreter Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai) and (arguably) his deputy Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), a fickle opportunist who enjoys boiling men alive.

The show finds balance by giving more access and screentime to the Japanese characters — rendering them less opaque — while writing Blackthorne as just a little too alien to fulfill his former function as the audience proxy. Jarvis brilliantly channels the positions and resentments of an English pilot working for the Dutch in 1600, but his passions are not ours. That distance is liberating. It also makes for better storytelling. Blackthorne’s function in this story is frequently comical; he repeatedly throws a smelly spanner into the works of polite Japanese society, and his very Western insistence that he is the protagonist, that he shapes his own fate, is repeatedly undercut. But far from condescending to him or making him a clown, the show (if anything) makes Blackthorne a quicker study than the viewer.

But he’s far from the smartest character on the show. There’s suspense and pleasure, therefore, in watching him strategically spar with Toranaga and Lady Mariko — and in watching the latter try to outmaneuver Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), the fearsome mother of the heir.

“Shogun” will inevitably be compared to “Game of Thrones” because it hits that proven combination of gorgeous set pieces, moral ambiguity, cliffhangers (literally, in one case!) and extreme, distressing violence. Also, perhaps, because it so gratifyingly marries the pleasing grandeur of an epic with juicy psychological stakes. Shogun easily outperforms the former series, however, when it comes to story, strategy, catharsis and women. The women here are almost without exception (as in “Thrones”) suffering greatly and unwilling artists at strategic but soul-deadening restraint. That’s a thankless narrative position to occupy. It’s seldom written well, and acting one’s way out of that particular social and psychic trap is rarely convincing. Lady Ochiba is a telling example: While she emerges as a villain of sorts (and could have used a little more screen time, frankly), she’s no comic-book Cersei. Without detracting from male actors such as Asana and Sanada, whose performances beautifully sell (and clarify) the ramifications of political backbiting among former allies, it’s simply true that the female performers had the tougher job, and that “Shogun” has smarter and stranger things to say about female trauma, and the need for a sense of purpose, than “Game of Thrones” ever did.

The show isn’t perfect. There are perplexing plans and plot developments that could arguably rise to the level of plot holes. For example: I frequently found myself wondering why anyone outside Toranaga’s circle (which understood Blackthorne’s value as a MacGuffin, if nothing else) would listen to the English pilot at all (particularly on one occasion, where he briefly commandeers a ship’s crew). But those feel like quibbles given the satisfactions this series delivers and all the source material it had to expunge.

Best of all, perhaps? It’s funny, and not always in ways that translate to “comic relief.” The humor in “Shogun” feels architectural, constitutive (one character reacts to virtually everything by smiling or laughing). Sometimes the comedy is dark. Sometimes it’s straightforward and even obvious — the stuff you’d expect when two cultures clash. But sometimes — in the last couple of episodes, especially — it’ll leave you gasping. Not just at the wry audacity of the jokes, but at the artistry it takes to make the punchline feel like part of the payoff.

Shogun (10 episodes) premieres Feb. 27 with two episodes on FX and Hulu. Subsequent episodes air weekly.

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