‘Shōgun’ on FX is a Triumph

'Shogun' on FX

An empty throne sets off a violent struggle for power between a collection of high-born families. A foreigner with a secret history arrives in a new land armed with devastating new weapons. A powerful family is disgraced after betraying the nobility.



While these descriptions may sound familiar to fans of Game of Thrones, they’re actually plot points from the new 10-episode limited series Shōgun, which premieres Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 10pm ET on FX. But unlike HBO’s high fantasy series, Shōgun – which is based on James Clavell’s 1975 best-selling novel – is inspired by real events and people. Superficial similarities to GOT aside, FX’s new series stands tall on its own merits. Simply put, Shōgun is a triumph in every possible respect.

Set in the year 1600, the story kicks off when a European ship washes ashore in a tiny fishing village in Japan. Outside of the Portuguese Catholics who zealously attempt to keep it secret, Japan exists only in rumors to the rest of Europe, and the ship’s pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is aghast at the country’s strange customs and culture. The befuddlement cuts both ways, and the blue-eyed “barbarian” Blackthorne is soon brought to the shrewd but imperiled Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). Toranaga quickly realizes that the foreigner could play a vital role in the escalating conflict between himself and the Council of Regents, who have been put in power following the death of the previous leader. With the help of the translator Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), Blackthorne is soon providing Toranaga with valuable information and weaponry, but the threat of war and promise of betrayal make their alliance as unstable as the fault-ridden land of Japan itself.

Fitting for a show adapted from an 1,100 page paperback, Shōgun is a dense, occasionally dizzying experience that requires and rewards attentive viewing. Because the language barrier is essential to its plot, the Japanese is not dubbed into English, which forces your eyes to the subtitles (the show’s co-creator Justin Marks told Variety that they used the same font as Greedo’s subtitles in Star Wars so that the show would feel “a little more science fiction”). The familial relationships and dynamics between the characters can be confusing, which cleverly mirrors the same bewilderment that Blackthorne feels. And to western audiences who are unfamiliar with Japanese history, the mythology underpinning the plot can feel just as exotic as those in fantasy and science fiction.



The show’s creators – Marks and his wife Rachel Kondo – seem to know this, and the world-building is brilliant, as is every other element of this remarkable production. The costumes are breathtaking; the production design is exquisite; the score, from Oscar-winner Atticus Ross, his brother Leopold Ross, and Nick Chuba, is vivid and evocative; the cinematography is stunning, in both the shocking violence of the action scenes and in close-ups, where it uses a “portrait mode”-type effect to soften the edges of shots and create an uncommon sense of intimacy. Two elements of the show, however, deserve additional recognition: the writing and performances.

Beyond the aforementioned world-building and smartly-deployed exposition, the show’s writers are deft with dialogue. Characters like Toranaga speak in aphorisms that feel both wise and illuminating, while others spit insults that are strikingly novel and profane. In a world where the wrong word can and will cost you your life, Mariko’s translations to-and-from Portuguese (helpfully rendered in English) reveal the nuances and differences between the cultures. And while Shōgun is hardly a comedy, it knows how to incorporate humor when needed, and more importantly, lands the jokes.

Of course, all of this writing would be wasted were it not for the exceptional cast. Adding gravitas to his character the same way someone like Anthony Hopkins imbues his roles with an intrinsic regal flair, Hiroyuki Sanada is utterly convincing as Lord Toranaga (all the more impressive considering his dual role as one of the series’ producers). As the conflicted Mariko, Anna Sawai can swing between strength and vulnerability with the subtlest gestures and intonations. Best of all is Cosmo Jarvis as Blackthorne. A relative unknown, Jarvis is hugely charismatic in his role as the English anjin; his rakish charm feels analogous to Viggo Mortensen’s breakthrough as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings.

The process of bringing this new version of Shōgun to the screen was arduous (Richard Chamberlain starred in an Emmy-winning Shōgun miniseries that aired on NBC in 1980). It was first announced over a decade ago. Kondo and Marks poured over the scripts so thoroughly, Kondo claimed, “there would be punctuation debates.” It finished its 10-month shoot in 2022. This was clearly a labor of love, and all of the care is apparent on screen. Shōgun is a masterpiece, all we can do is bow in reverence and respect.


Watch the two-episode premiere of Shōgun Tuesday, Feb. 27 on FX.