New rendition of ‘Shogun’ hits all the right cultural notes

SHOGUN — “Broken to the Fist” — Episode 5 (Aired March 19). Pictured (L-R): Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. photo by Katie Yu/FX, Courtesy of FX Networks. Copyright 2024, FX. All Rights Reserved.

On Feb. 27, FX/Hulu began streaming “Shogun,” a 10-part limited series that’s based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel and is a much-improved take on the historical era that the story brings to life, from a 1980 five-part miniseries that was groundbreaking for its time. The new version is resonating with the current generation of television viewers, because it has a 99% rating with reviewers and 93% score from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s received raves from critics, and is enjoying a wave of media attention. It’s having a moment. A big moment.

More than four decades ago, when the original small-screen version of “Shogun” aired on ABC in the fall of 1980, it was a huge cultural moment too. Almost one-third of U.S. households watched the drama about the warring samurai period of the 1600s in Japan. The series starred Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne, a British navigator whose ship lands in a fishing village and ends up becoming an advisor to the daimyo, or feudal lord, who eventually becomes the shogun — ruler — of all Japan.

If you’re old enough, you may have read the novel and watched the series on TV. The book is still available, of course (spoiler alert: it’s long but engrossing, or at least, it was in the context of the 1970s).

The series isn’t available to be streamed anywhere, although it would behoove Paramount to get it on a platform (like their own Paramount+). It is still available as a DVD boxed set.

But if you saw the 1980 version, you don’t need to see the OG “Shogun” again, unless you’re a nerd for comparing how a generation of pop culture and technology can change perspectives.

The original has a lot to commend it. It was the highest rated show on the network that year, and broke some surprising conventions: It showed a beheading, a samurai committing seppuku ritual suicide, had Blackthorne urinated on, and also showed some nudity. It was also revolutionary for a Hollywood production, in that it was filmed by a Hollywood crew entirely on location in Japan, an incredible expense for the time.

The story arc followed Clavell’s book, which was a fictionalized telling of the Sengoku period of daimyo who had been appointed a council of regents fighting to rule over all of Japan as shogun.

The factual history was that Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the regents, did resign from the council and took on the others and eventually won out and became the shogun whose dynasty ruled Japan for more than 200 years from his castle in Edo (now Tokyo) until the West forced the country to open up from centuries of isolation in 1860s. In the book and series, Tokugawa is named Toranaga Yoshii.

The book and the miniseries was centered on the Blackthorne character, who was also based on a real-life historical figure, William Adams, who was a pilot of a ship that landed in Japan. Like Blackthorne, he was taken in by Tokugawa and was eventually a trusted advisor samurai in the shogun’s castle.

Beyond that, the novel threw in a romance between the pilot (he’s called “Anjin-san” or pilot) and his translator/tutor, Toda Mariko. The acting was strong — besides Chamberlain, Mariko was played by Yoko Shimada and Toranaga was played by legendary actor Toshiro Mifune.

The new “Shogun” features British actor Cosmo Jarvis as Blackthorne, New Zealand-born Anna Sawai as Mariko and Hiroyuki Sanada, who Americans may know from recent roles in “Bullet Train” and “John Wick 4.” Sanada is also the producer of this “Shogun,” and spent every day on the set managing the details of this telling.

This “Shōgun” resets the triumvirate of leads. This is no “white savior” story about the foreigner who arrives in Japan and magically helps the exotic and mysterious locals to win their battles. (Ahem Tom Cruise in

“The Last Samurai,” in which Sanada was cast in his first Hollywood film and learned some things to avoid). The 2024 model has Blackthorne as almost a minor character, the foreigner who is mystified by the language, culture and society he finds himself stranded in. But while the 1980 version fetishized and minimized the female characters, Sawai’s Mariko comes across as strong and in many ways more important than Blackthorne. But the indisputable star of the story is Toranaga. Sanada is magnetic as the shogun-to-be, which is saying something since he’s remaking Mifune’s role.

Every character in “Shogun” 2024 serves Sanada’s Toranaga, who seems to always be playing a 3D game of chess (or perhaps go?) in his mind, strategically five or more moves ahead of every other character.

The original was laudable for its commitment to authenticity (filming in Japan was a colossal challenge), but the new version is amazing for its attention to detail, especially since it wasn’t filmed in Japan, but in Vancouver, British Columbia. All the sets and scenes from interiors to entire villages were constructed from scratch. Clothing, décor and each passing nuance were carefully managed. The producers brought in cultural experts to teach cast and crew about Japanese culture and traditions including gestures and rituals. Even the calligraphy shown as messages were written down were created by historians and experts. Toranaga’s mon, or family crest, was even changed from the 1980 kanji which translated to “Tiger with long life” to “Tiger with eternal life.”

Much of this commitment to historical accuracy may not mean much to most viewers, but it’s important to Sanada and the Japanese cast and crew, and to Japanese viewers, many of whom were disappointed in the 1980 “Shogun.”

This year’s model isn’t your parent’s “Shōgun.” It hopefully will spark renewed interest in the historical dramas that have been a part of Japanese films for decades, and we can be introduced to more of these stories from the Japanese perspective, not the Western eye.

5 responses to “New rendition of ‘Shogun’ hits all the right cultural notes”

  1. Carol Takahashi Avatar
    Carol Takahashi

    Not sure why you’re not recommending this new Shogun to today’s generation when it’s a cut above the old one. The mostly Japanese actors with the Japanese language being used is much better and realistic.

  2. Carol Takahashi Avatar
    Carol Takahashi

    Please disregard my first comments. I misread your meaning.

  3. Rickie Dean Avatar
    Rickie Dean

    Great read. Thank you.

  4. Raidahfool Avatar

    Have shed many a tear on this remarkable story from my first reading in the 70’s, thru the 80’s mini series, to episode 9 currently! This final rendition took some time to power me but episode 9 reminded me of the real power of the culture: The will of a people, that find magnificence in the gleam of light beaming off the mist seated on a leaf, is insuperable!

  5. Phyllis Nakagawa Avatar
    Phyllis Nakagawa

    Just finished watching the series and it was spellbinding. I agree they worked hard to get every detail correct, to the serving and drinking of tea, bowing properly, sitting, walking and speaking which made the story rich with culture. It was exciting to see Japanese History come alive in such an authentic way. Thank you Gill for such a knowledgeable and meaningful review. I am one of the “Means a lot to me” viewers and am appreciative of your perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *