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Shogun TV Series - a Project Made with Passion

Shogun has been adapted before into a TV series that was a massive success in addition to the book by James Clavell that many consider it a classic. The FX adaptation has some big shoes to fill. I remember when I was young that this series was coming up again and again my parent’s evening chats with friends and colleagues. As I kid, you are always fascinated by what your parents are discussing and even when you don’t understand much, you just want to watch their faces when they talk about something that excites them.

And this series was one of those things.

The Author

James Clavell had quite a spectacular life in itself. He was an Australian-born British screenwriter, director and novelist. He was born in October 1921 and died in September 1994, aged 73.

Son of a Royal Navy commander, he joined the Royal Artillery in 1940 at the onset of World War 2 and was sent to Singapore to fight the Japanese after the Pearl Harbor attack. His ship was sunk on his way to Singapore an he was captured in 1942 and sent to the prisoner of war camp of Java in Indonesia, which at the time was part of Japan. Later he was transferred to Changi prison in Singapore where he spent 3 years living in tough conditions where 110g of rice per day was the norm and and one egg a week was reason to celebrate.

In 1954 James moved to New York and tried his hand at screenwriting while being a carpenter to pay the bills. After a few successful screenplays turned into films he wrote his first book King Rat, published in 1962 and turned into a film in 1965. This book is based on his experience in the prisoner camp in Indonesia and was the first book in his Asian Saga, a collection of 6 books based in Japan and Iran in various times in history, from 1600s to 1900s.

The Shogun Book

Shogun, published in 1975, became an instant hit, selling over 15 million copies by 1990 and serving as a cultural gateway to Japanese history. Despite some historical inaccuracies, it vividly portrays Japanese life, customs, and societal norms of the Sengoku period through the adventures of John Blackthorne, an English navigator caught in a power struggle between influential Japanese families.

At the time, the book was considered a gateway to Japan and introduced American and worldwide audiences to the Japanese culture. The author did mention that later in his life he was approached by an Arabian sheik and offered quite a large amount of money to write an epic story set in his country, the same as he did with Japan. This is how valuable and culturally impactful the book was: it could put your country’s culture on the worldwide stage.

Shogun is loosely based on the historical exploits of William Adams, an English navigator who in 1600s was the first Englishman to reach Japan. Adams and his second mate Jan Joosten both settled in Japan and became Western samurai, recognised as the most influential foreigners in Japan during their lifetimes.

In the TV series however, we follow 2 narratives: the life of navigator John Blackthorne as his ship is blown ashore the Japanese coast landing him in the middle of a power struggle between two of the influential families in Japan. This intense power struggle between the two most powerful daimyos (which were like feudal lords in the 16th century) is the 2nd gripping narrative and provides a rich description of the political, societal and cultural norms of 1600s Japan.

Historical Context Before the Story of Shogun

The 16th Century, was a period of significant economic, political and cultural shifts worldwide. Mercantilism was the prevailing economic theory at the time which meant exporting more than importing and accumulating precious metals.

Portugal — had significant power early on by taking the lead in global exploration and setting up trading ports and colonies in Africa, Asia (in particular India, Malacca, Malaysia, and Macau, China) and Brazil. Its influence began to wane as the Dutch and English empires started growing.

Spain — was another world power, largely due to its vast colonial empire in the Americas from which it mined huge quantities of silver and gold and helped its military campaigns around Europe and the world.

The Netherlands — pioneered financial innovations such as the central bank and stock exchange and had one of the largest merchant fleet in the world dominating global trade in spices and textiles via the Dutch East and West India companies.

China — under the Qing Dynasty was a major power due to its large population, advanced agricultural techniques and manufacturing capabilities. However, due to its self-imposed isolationist policies, its influence in the global trade was limited, focusing more on internal markets instead of international.

England — an up-and-coming power at this time and was doing what Portugal did in the beginning — establishing its own overseas colonies and trading posts, competing directly with the Dutch and Spanish empires.

So, where is Japan in all of this?

Japan was in a continuous state of war during the Sengoku Period also known as the Warring States period. This era was marked by constant internal military conflict as various feudal lords battled for power, land, and influence. However, it wasn’t entirely negative. The lords supported the arts as a means of both cultural enrichment and social status enhancement. The tea ceremony, ink painting, and Noh theatre all flourished during this period.

But at the same time, Portuguese traders introduced firearms, specifically matchlock guns, which fundamentally altered the nature of warfare. As expected, the powerful lords showed great interest in this new technology, which they quickly adapted and produced on a large scale.

Another significant novelty introduced via the trading routes was Christianity. Francis Xavier, a Spanish Catholic missionary and representative of the Portuguese Empire at that time, led the first Christian mission to Japan in 1549. The exclusivist nature of Catholicism made this no easy task, but Xavier and his assistants were the sole missionaries in Asia for over 45 years. The divisive political environment of Japan at the time fuelled the adoption of Catholicism, with some of the daimyos converting and encouraging their subjects to do the same.

So, before the story of Shogun begins, we have the powers of the world vying for growth in new, exotic lands while attempting to usurp the influence of established trading posts. Within Japan, a Council of Regents, formed of 5 influential daimyos — including Lord Toranaga — ruled the country with the purpose of maintaining governance until the heir of the deceased taiko, Japan’s supreme leader, came of age.

With so many egos involved and a background of civil unrest, John Blackthorne is set to bring more twists considering his ship is not only holding trading goods, but also a new powerful weapon: cannons.

The TV Adaptation

The series introduces us to 16th century Japan through the eyes of John Blackthorne, portrayed by Cosmo Jarvis — a rendition far grittier than Richard Chamberlain’s in the 1980s series.

In this adaptation, we quickly move beyond Blackthorne to meet other key figures of the era, including the members of the Council of Regents who oversee the country. Among them is the influential Lord Toranaga, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, whose rising influence raises concerns within the council.

The care for the detail of this foreign new world is visible from the first moment when John encounters the Japanese people. The costumes, sets, and cinematography are stunning, immediately immerses you in this breathtaking world. This is always hard to achieve in productions set outside the contemporary era, be they historical, sci-fi, or fantasy.

From the onset, the series makes it clear that its focus is on the intricate political manoeuvrings, as opposed to the romantic elements emphasised in the 1980s adaptation. These political machinations reminded me of the House of Cards series with the gripping and interesting parts being the power plays more than the gore of the action sequences. There are scenes where a subtext-heavy conversation between two characters is much more powerful — and fun to watch — then a full battle sequence.

Not that the battles are not enjoyable. They are certainly gripping and realistic, hence the 18+ rating of the show. The passion and care for the historical accuracy is in full display in the battle sequences, with the mud, blood, chopped off limbs and broken bones in full display.

This approach is not a bad thing as that historical period of Japan is full of twists and backstabbings in itself, enough to justify plenty of episodes without any emotional drama. However, it is a bit disappointing that the relationship between John and Lady Mariko is not explored more. The actors inhabiting these two characters are impressive and never seem to have enough time to develop and iron out their religious and cultural differences. This doesn’t detract from the quality of the show, the writing team have done a tremendous job dropping outdated parts of the book while keeping their respect to the material.

Lord Toranaga on the other side, has plenty of screen time and deservedly so. Played with finesse by Hiroyuki Sanada, the character needs to constantly compromise to ensure the longevity of his bloodline, while countering attempts on his life, navigating religious plays and parenting a headstrong and naive son. All the emotional layers are expertly acted by Sanada making him a joy to watch in every scene. It’s like watching a Japanese version of Anthony Hopkins.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, this series is an absolute gem. It’s shines through via the focused approach of telling a story from both angles, detailing the world and Japanese traditions with finesse while still focusing on the drama. Yes, the book is extensive and it is renowned for its detailed explanation of the culture and traditions of Japan, but even with restrictions of time and budget, the show does an excellent job by deep-diving into the details of the era and presenting them as accurate as possible. With the addition of top-quality actors, music and VFX in the right dose, it is shaping up to be one of the best series of the year.

Does it do justice to the book? I think it does, based on the level of detail and enthusiasm of the creators. It is clear that they know what a monumental impact the book and the 1980s series had at the time and they don’t do anything less than improving the source material. Considering the book is over eleven hundred pages, there’s no way to fit in all the characters arcs and all details in 10 hours, so compromises had to be done, for example: less focus on John & Marikos relationship or the Christianity’s impact on Japan that we see in the books. It could have gone wrong so easily by making it a soap-opera set in this troubled time in Japan’s history, but luckily, it does not fall into that trap, instead, the drama comes from the characters struggles with the pressures of rigid societal norms, tarnished bloodlines and the gravitational pull of fate.

Again, no film adaptation will be better than the book because of the real-life constraints of producing a TV series, and no director can outdo the reader’s imagination. However, when an adaptation prompts viewers to read the original book, it has succeeded in doing justice to that work.


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