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The Arrival of a New Epic

In the wake of the massive success of Game of Thrones, streaming services are vying to create their own grand-scale TV epics. Prime Video has ventured into fantasy with shows like The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. AppleTV+ opted for a sci-fi approach with Foundation. Netflix has tried to build franchises with Shadow & Bone and Avatar: The Last Airbender. And HBO returned to the world of Westeros with House of the Dragon.

Now, a new epic series has emerged, not from the realm of fantasy but from historical fiction. Shōgun, based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, takes us on a captivating journey through Japan at the end of the 16th century. With only 10 episodes in its limited series run, Shōgun proves to be just as compelling as the big-budget shows mentioned above. In fact, it’s even better.

A Complicated Political Landscape

The year is 1600, and Japan is on the brink of crisis. Warlord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) sits on the Council of Regents, governing Japan while the heir to the throne is still too young to rule. However, his fellow council members, including rival Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), have turned against him. If they expel him from the Council, he and his family face certain death. If he fights back, it could mean all-out war for Japan.

The Arrival of an English Ship

A strange complication arises with the arrival of an English ship, the first from that nation to reach Japanese shores. At this time, Portugal is the only European country established in Japan, bringing trade and Catholicism with it. The presence of a ship of English Protestants alarms the Portuguese living in Japan and their Catholic Japanese allies.

Toranaga’s Plan

Toranaga sees the ship’s pilot, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), as a potential advantage in his conflict with Ishido and for his future plans. He brings Blackthorne into his forces, and together, they plot a way out of a seemingly impossible battle.

An Epic and Intimate Series

Shōgun is both an epic and an intimate series. It’s like jumping into a chess match mid-game, with a dizzying number of pieces and players to keep track of. However, co-creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo skillfully lay out the show’s political and religious alliances with ease.

The world of Shōgun is beautifully realized, with sweeping landscape shots, detailed costumes, and elaborate set pieces. The series also places a strong emphasis on authenticity, with much of the dialogue in Japanese with English subtitles.

A Fresh Perspective

As an outsider, Blackthorne doesn’t receive any kind of white savior treatment. Instead, the show deliberately portrays his confusion as he navigates a new country. On the other hand, many of the Japanese characters he meets are disgusted by his Western habits.

These moments provide some of Shōgun’s few light-hearted moments. Otherwise, the show is dark, thoughtful, and very personal, even as it expands in scope.

Stellar Performances

Shōgun owes its success not only to its phenomenal writing and direction but also to the power of its three leads. Hiroyuki Sanada delivers a commanding performance as Toranaga, while Cosmo Jarvis excels in moments of bumbling confusion as Blackthorne. Anna Sawai shines as Mariko, a noblewoman who serves as a translator for Blackthorne.

A Must-Watch TV Epic

Shōgun is a must-watch TV epic that combines intricate plotting, careful character development, and stunning visuals. It’s not just one of the best TV epics in recent years; it’s also one of the best new TV shows of the year.

The first two episodes of Shōgun premiere on Hulu on February 27, with new episodes released weekly.