Shōgun Is a Mesmerizing Historical Drama

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

We get it: There’s an overwhelming number of television shows right now. The streaming landscape is an impractical maze, and the good stuff easily gets lost in the shuffle. But most of us can still find one show that cuts through the noise. We call this “appointment viewing” — or the time you carve out in your busy schedule to watch the show you’ll want to unpack the next day with your friends while it’s still on your mind. Tune in here each month to read what writer Michel Ghanem, a.k.a. @tvscholar, deems worthy of a group-chat deep dive.

Last year, we covered prestige miniseries like A Murder at the End of the World, Fellow Travelers, and I’m a Virgo, among others. We’re off to a strong start this year with True Detective’s renaissance in January, but we have our work cut out for us in the next few months as networks and streamers rush to premiere post-strike programming before the Emmy consideration deadline in May. This month, we turn to feudal Japan for the anticipated Shōgun reboot, a high-quality production that is as visually stunning as it is well-written and acted.

What’s this historical drama I’ve been hearing about?

Shōgun is a ten-episode FX miniseries that takes place in 1600s feudal Japan, based on the acclaimed epic novel James Clavell published in 1975. The show fictionalizes the real-life events of John Blackthorne (played by Cosmo Jarvis), an English ship pilot who barely survives scurvy on his way to Osaka, Japan. Once imprisoned in Japan, he leverages his European knowledge to become a key advisor to Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), who’s in the process of being ousted from the council of regents appointed to preside over Japan while the heir of the primary ruler (called the Taikō) comes of age. Blackthorne may be perceived as a “barbarian” with no manners or decorum from a Japanese perspective, but he becomes an important wild card in Toranaga’s sophisticated strategy game against the other regents, sparking the beginning of a civil war.

If this sounds at all complicated, it’s because it is — at first. Shōgun is not the type of show you can just leave on in the background and expect to follow. You’re thrown into a complex and tense political conflict from the jump, with Blackthorne as an unhelpful entry point (he’s as clueless as you are about what’s going on). By the second episode, clarity is offered on the state of the world’s colonization by the West and the spread of Christianity across Japan. Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai, in a standout performance) has one of the best arcs of the season as a Catholic noblewoman who is fluent in English and recruited to act as Blackthorne’s translator in many scenes with Toranaga and others.

Where can I watch it?

The first two episodes arrive on Hulu and FX on February 27, with single episodes airing weekly every Tuesday until the finale on April 23. Episodes average at just under an hour in length and are mostly in Japanese with subtitles. I don’t recommend letting episodes build up for a binge — watching weekly as it airs is the ideal way to digest the knotty, complex themes without burning out from watching a show that is denser than your usual fare. There is also a companion podcast that will be airing episodes weekly alongside the show with insights into the scale of the production, hosted by Shōgun staff writer Emily Yoshida.

Shōgun is a recreation of the 1980 Peabody- and Emmy-winning NBC miniseries, and significant strides have been made to flesh out the less successful aspects of that series, like moving away from the male gaze on Mariko’s character and offering more non-western perspectives with the help of a fantastic Japanese cast, writers, and consultants. The show is co-created by Rachel Kondo and her husband, Justin Marks (one of the writers of Top Gun: Maverick).

Marks previously created Counterpart, an ambitious and underrated science-fiction spy thriller that aired on Starz between 2017 and 2019. That high-concept series — about two parallel Earths connected by a gateway starring J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams — gives you an idea of the scope and production value Marks and his team (including Maegan Houang, who wrote on both projects) are capable of executing. Shōgun was initially slated to begin production in 2019 but was delayed after FX’s CEO John Landgraf felt it needed further development, going so far as to say they needed to “aim higher.”

So, should I expect Game of Thrones–style action sequences?

Well … not quite. Shōgun is about the inner battles as much as the outer ones. Yes, there are certainly action sequences and some gore, but these particular spectacles don’t dominate the series (for that, I recommend Blue Eye Samurai on Netflix). Don’t expect to feel bored — the show makes philosophical debates and pondering the meaning of life feel just as urgent as the decisions about how to survive the violent crosshairs of political exile, thanks to excellent performances by the central cast. My eyes were also feasting on the cinematic visuals and attention to detail. The production design was meticulously constructed — from the rock gardens to the thousands of handmade costumes made of Japan-sourced fabrics — for the screen.

The time and space between major plot developments allows viewers to actually invest in the characters and feel drawn into this world. We’ve grown accustomed to zippy shows that burn through five seasons of plot in their first few episodes to keep viewers hooked. Shōgun helped me reconnect with the rewarding, meditative aspects of “slower” storytelling (think more along the lines of My Brilliant Friend’s character-driven narrative). By the end of the season, I even found myself caring deeply for some of the supporting characters, like Usami Fuji (Moeka Hoshi), a widow trying to find her purpose. Shōgun ponders spirituality, death, honor, and the clash of eastern and western ways of being. It is an intricate tapestry of character motivations and world-building worth an attentive watch.

Correction: A previous version of this story credited Rachel Kondo as a showrunner. She is a co-creator, and Justin Marks is the showrunner.

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Shōgun Is a Mesmerizing Period Drama