Believe the hype: FX’s new Shōgun series is a triumphant historical epic

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Take a quick look at the reviews surrounding the new 10-episode FX/Hulu series Shōgun and you’ll be shocked at how over-the-top they can be. 

The Washington Post called it “riveting,” “gorgeous” and “the TV equivalent of a page-turner.” USA Today wrote that the show “is the TV epic you’ve been waiting for.” Variety called Shōgun “transportive,” while The Guardian added “mesmerizing” to “epic” and Time went so far as to describe it as “a revelation.”

Courtesy photo.

Why all the fuss? For one thing, the story has already been popular for about 50 years. Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by James Clavell, Shōgun is the historical-fiction tale of English mariner John Blackthorne who is shipwrecked amid the brutal conflicts and complex politics of 17th-century Japan and must acclimate to survive. 

Loosely based on the diaries of real-life navigator William Adams, who is regarded as the first Englishman to enter Japan, it takes in the sweep of the feudal society on the cusp of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled the island from the beginning of the 1600s until the late-1860s.

Not long after publication of the novel, a Shōgun adaptation aired as an NBC miniseries in 1980, winning a Primetime Emmy, the Golden Globe for best TV drama series and a Peabody Award. Since then, there has been a Broadway musical and a handful of both PC and board games based on the work.

The acclaim wasn’t universal, however, with some critics blasting both novel and series for lapses of historical accuracy, and the latter in particular for exoticizing and essentializing its Japanese characters in order to elevate its sole white character — call it Dances with Wolves syndrome.

That final criticism has only grown in volume with the years, which may account for why the 2024 iteration of Shōgun is being heaped with so much unreserved praise.

In the FX/Hulu series, from showrunners Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, the Blackthorne character (played with magnetic gusto by Cosmo Jarvis) is but only one star of the show. 

Rather, viewers are treated to jaw-dropping performances of subtly, ferocity and profound depth by Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga (the sly-as-a-fox leader who historically went on to found the Tokugawa Shogunate); Anna Sawai as Toda Marika (a woman with a complicated personal and political past who serves as translator); Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige (who turns in one of the most enjoyable performances as the dubiously loyal lieutenant of Toranaga) and Takehiro Hira as Ishido Kazunari (the main opponent of Toranaga and who serves as the closest thing to a “villain” in the series).

It’s difficult to overstate how well the members of this ensemble — as well as the secondary and tertiary characters — are able to inhabit their respective roles so fully to create such a dense thicket of believable relationships and stakes, which grow higher and higher and more riveting with every episode.

Not to be outshone by the performances, the cinematography, art direction and sound exceeds any recent historical epic that comes to mind, making the landscape itself perhaps the most central character and all but daring the viewer not to be immersed in the spectacle.

Rather than a well-intentioned Dances with Wolves in feudal Japan or a retread of the egregious 2003 Tom Cruise-led white savior/white salvation flick The Last Samurai, Shōgun is a historical epic drama that knows exactly what beats to hit in the service of authenticity — and hits them every time. In other words: In this case, the critics are right. This series really is that special. 

Stream new episodes Tuesdays on Hulu.

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