Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

"Shogun" Expected to be Best High-Stakes Event Television in 2024

The new FX limited series Shogun, a sprawling historical epic brimming with political intrigue, is a strong contender for the title of series that should rise above the rest.

A number of television programs have made claims to be the “next Game of Thrones,” such as HBO’s own prequel series concerning the demise of the House Targaryen. The fact that many of these potential heirs are fantasy pieces is what ties them together: The argument is that if Thrones demonstrated that viewers were interested in a show with ice zombies and dragons, they will beg for something akin. Thrones’ mythical components were undoubtedly important, but the high-stakes politicking—a more grounded component—was its secret ingredient.




HBO may have lavished an enormous amount of money on creating Westeros, but in Tyrion Lannister’s words, the show never felt more confident than when it came down to intelligent discussions in tasteful settings. Thrones was one of the most immersive media experiences ever witnessed, especially when you take into account the meticulously detailed history of Westeros.


Since Thrones peaked, the television landscape has changed significantly: the rise of streaming services has caused viewers’ viewing habits to become more fragmented, and Peak TV is finally beginning to level down after years of lavish spending. In short, regardless of how good a show is, the circumstances aren’t there for it to become the “next Game of Thrones.”


Based on the best-selling book of the same name by James Clavell, which was previously turned into an NBC miniseries in 1980, Shogun takes place in 17th-century Japan, just as the country is about to enter a civil war. The taiko, the supreme leader of a united Japan, passed away a year ago. Since the successor to the taiko is too young to be crowned, the position has been filled by a five-person Council of Regents.


The most mysterious of the group is Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a legendary warrior from a dynastic family. Each member of the council has their own goals, and two of the men became Catholics after the Portuguese began trading with the island nation. Because they believe Toranaga intends to declare himself shogun and establish a de facto military dictatorship in Japan, the other council members have banded together to oppose him.


The council is preparing a vote to impeach Toranaga, which would be equivalent to putting him to death, under the direction of the cunning Lord Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira). However, Toranaga recognizes an opening when a shattered Dutch vessel, commanded by English sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), arrives on the shores of Japan.


Blackthorne might be a good negotiating chip against the Portuguese-allied council members because he is a Protestant and their opponent. More essential, though, is that Blackthorne is familiar with Western tactics, and his “barbarian” ship is stocked with muskets and cannons—weapons that, in the event of a conflict, may tip the scales in Toranaga’s favor.


It’s a complex structure, and part of the fun in Shogun is following the big political figures’ shifting allegiances. Because Japanese society is characterized by a rigid set of rules and decorum, the issue is particularly delicate. When Ishido criticizes his lord in the first episode, for example, one of Toranaga’s samurai speaks out of turn; as retaliation, the samurai is told to commit seppuku and break his bloodline. At these moments, Blackthorne serves as a good stand-in for the audience, responding with shock at how callously many around him seem to be treating life and death.


Since Blackthorne cannot speak Japanese, Toranaga assigns the noblewoman Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), who comes from a tarnished family, to translate for Blackthorne. Over time, Mariko and Blackthorne get close due to their peculiar situation: they are pawns in a tight political chess game where a single mistake could spark a full-scale conflict that destroys Japan.


But the series’ masterful use of restraint sets Shogun apart from other historical epics. Undoubtedly, there are gory moments of character decapitation, disembowelment, and blowing into nasty chunks of flesh by cannon fire. However, Shogun mostly concentrates on the cautious actions that characters—Toranaga foremost among them—take to avoid going down the path of disaster.


When Toranaga was at his best as a warrior, his greatest strength was allowing his opponent to attack first. Fighting was never something to be welcomed; it was always a last resort. Toranaga brings this same mentality to the political sphere, waiting to show his hand until his opponents have had a chance to act.


Shogun is a more subdued presentation than audiences may anticipate from such an opulent production because of these features. This strategy, however, is in line with a Japanese saying that is often mentioned in the series: “A man has a secret heart known only to himself, another in his breast to show friends and family, and a false heart for the world to see.”

Appropriately, Toranaga plays it so close to the vest that not even his closest advisors appear to be aware of whether he’s genuinely trying to become shogun. Shogun can be challenging to emotionally connect with at first since the characters absorb so much of what drives them. However, there’s a lot to be enjoyed from reading between the lines and figuring out how much the characters in pivotal scenes choose not to say if you get on Shogun’s wavelength.

Blackthorne, who starts the series as a foul-mouthed monster not afraid to voice his opinions, is, of course, the lone exception to the rule. A character similar to Blackthorne would be portrayed as a hero in a lesser series, a la Dances With Wolves or The Last Samurai, the white outsider with a new viewpoint who steps in to rescue the day. But the fact that Blackthorne isn’t there to save anyone—if anything, Japan saves him—raises Shogun above similar films.


Later on in the show, Blackthorne barely recognizes the guy he once was when he reunites with an aggressive former shipmate who has been drinking sake nonstop. He only perceives dishonor and rudeness in his former colleague, which is a humiliating experience for a person who eventually learns to value what Japan has to offer.


I am grateful that Shogun was even created in the first place. Large-scale event series like this seem to be becoming more and harder to come by as networks and streamers cut back on their spending after years of extravagant production. Naturally, it’s also not shocking that FX, of all networks, has made such a significant turn around; the network has long been associated with high-end television.

Moreover, FX is renowned for its miniseries, such as Feud, American Crime Story, and Fargo, that develop into full-fledged anthology shows. Could Shogun do the same? While each book in the series stands alone, Clavell went on to write six novels that together make up his Asian Saga, which is historical fiction about Europeans in Asia and the mingling of two cultures.

Shogun, in any event, is deserving of standing alone. Every stunning frame in the series demonstrates the exquisite artistry that went into it, as does the dedication to presenting the story from a Japanese viewpoint rather than just one that is Western.


All things considered, Shogun is the best new show of the year, a contemplative epic that consistently manages to strike deep even in the smallest of moments. It will not only satisfy fans of Game of Thrones.