Ever since Game of Thrones came to an end back in 2019, I’ve been itching for some expansive medieval political intrigue. FX’s adaptation of Shōgun, James Clavell’s 1975 novel, provides exactly what I’ve been craving. It widens its view of the original story, which follows a fictionalized version of the adventures of the first Englishman to reach Japan, to put a greater emphasis on the dangerous political world that man finds himself trapped in. This new adaptation of Shōgun is all about the machinations of feudal lords, their vassals and retainers, and their spies and confidants, as Japan careens toward civil war in 1600.
The wider scope that creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks give the story makes room for a wide array of characters, all of whom are trying to square the requirements of loyalty and duty with their own searches for power or even just survival. That almost makes Shōgun a political thriller, and every scene carries the undercurrent that, despite the polite strictures of the society they find themselves in, everyone is fighting a death that’s inexorably sweeping toward them.
At the center of the story is Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, John Wick: Chapter 4), who is trying to navigate the dangerous politics of a degrading peace. A year after the death of the Taikō, the leader of a unified Japan, Toranaga sits on a council of five regents who share power until the rightful heir comes of age. His main rival on the council, Ishida (Takehiro Hira, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters), is already maneuvering against him when things pick up, aligning the other regents to vote to impeach Toranaga, which will mean his death.
Into that situation comes John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), a Protestant English navigator on a Dutch ship hoping to discover a route to Japan. Up to this point, only the Portuguese and their Catholic church have known the nation’s location and thus dominate trade. When Blackthorne’s ship is blown ashore, he’s taken prisoner with his men, but his hope is to disrupt the Portuguese and establish diplomatic connections of his own as part of a larger battle between the European nations. Where the novel sticks mostly with Blackthrone’s viewpoint as he experiences and learns about Japanese culture amidst the rising political tensions, the series shows just how much he’s another piece in Toranaga’s grander game.
Linking Toranaga and Blackthorne is Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, F9: The Fast Saga), a Christian convert who speaks Portuguese and serves as interpreter for Blackthorne. Mariko is also torn between loyalties, stuck spending time with Blackthorne, who is considered a barbarian, and bound by competing duties to Toranaga, her religion, and her family line.
Sanada stalwartly anchors the drama, and his ability to keep everything behind his eyes leaves the audience guessing at the mystery of Toranaga’s plans as much as the characters. Jarvis plays foil to the more subdued characters, particularly Sawai’s Mariko, and his emotional swings bring an intensity to goings-on that often have the feel of a current carrying everyone out to sea. But it’s Sawai who provides Shōgun’s empathetic heart more often than not, especially in scenes when her duty and her place in patriarchal society force her to sit stony against the abuse–mostly verbal but sometimes physical–of others. When she turns that purposely emotionless gaze against other people at a few key moments, it has a devastating effect.
Shōgun also features a large cast of great supporting characters, as well. Tadanobu Asano (Mortal Kombat) is the most fun to watch as Yabushige, Toranaga’s scheming vassal who is by turns sadistic, boisterous, courageous, and sometimes a bit incompetent. He often brings a much-needed frankness to the other, stodgier characters. It’s worth noting also that most of Shōgun is subtitled; the Japanese characters speak Japanese to one another, and English only comes up among the foreigners and when Mariko speaks to Blackthorne.
There’s a lot less mustache-twirling or open plotting than you might expect here, though, often because so much of the intrigue is bound up in the honor code of the samurai culture in which the show takes place. But in similar fashion to Game of Thrones, you’ll likely spend a lot of time internalizing how everyone is related, who they’re bound to, and what their goals are. If there’s a drawback, it’s that much of Shōgun is subdued conversations between characters sitting in quiet rooms. Across the first eight episodes FX provided for this review (with 10 in total), there are a few flashes of action as war draws near, but they tend to be quick and explosive. This isn’t a series that’s going from battle to battle, but instead builds a consistent tension that the very world puts the characters in danger–not necessarily because of unseen schemes, but because of the rules hemming them all in.
It also just often looks great. Japan is presented with a foggy beauty running through the show’s cinematography and presentation, and there’s a persistent desaturated understatement to the images. Like everything else, it amplifies the ever-present feeling of death just out of view.
Shōgun provides the same thrill as some of the best moments of Game of Thrones, when the careful plots of powerful people collide in unforeseen ways. It’s a gripping story of intrigue, thanks to an excellent cast and stakes the show is always finding new ways to raise.