Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in "Shōgun." 

Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in "Shōgun."  Credit: FX /Colin Bentley


WHEN|WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX; streams on Hulu

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the year 1600, English sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is shipwrecked off the coast of Japan, where he promptly becomes a pawn in a power struggle between Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, most recently “John Wick: Chapter 4") and his chief, rival Ishido Kazunari, (Takehiro Hira). Toranaga instructs Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a noblewoman who has converted to Catholicism, to serve as his translator and guide.

Like the 1980 NBC miniseries, this is an adaptation of James Clavell's 1975 bestseller.

MY SAY Possibly even more than “Roots" (1977), “Shōgun" was responsible for the mass infusion of that TV spectacle known as the “miniseries"' back in the '80s. A smash hit, more smashes were to follow, and by the end of the decade our nights had been filled with the winds of war, and cowboys as lonesome as a dove.

But obviously none of this explains why “Shōgun" is back after 44 years.

Perhaps the (obvious) answer is that “Shōgun" isn't. The NBC mini (which you can still stream on the Internet Archive) was a swashbuckling adventure with a major TV star, Richard Chamberlain, at the center of the action, and lots of supporting cast around him. One of the most celebrated actors in movie history, Toshiro Mifune, was the co-star but even he took second billing to Dr. Kildare.

And so, watching the FX version, you can't help but wonder whether this is an attempt to right old wrongs, or at least correct cultural and historic missteps. The “Shōgun" of 1980 was conceived for an American audience, but 2024 is for a Japanese or at least international one. The point-of-view has not merely shifted this time around, but been reversed. A “Western" character (Blackthorne) is no longer the center of attention but off to the side, himself now in support of everyone else, most notably Toranaga. Probably 75% of this drama is spoken in Japanese, and — while I hesitate to give you a precise breakdown of the 1980 show — we can all reasonably assume it was a lot less back then.

Most (or best) of all, there's deep and nearly reverent authenticity to what's on screen. That old American TV habit of reducing other cultures to their lowest common denominator, or most superficially recognizable form (1980's “Shōgun" at times) has given way to something vastly more nuanced and elaborate here. This “Shōgun" is world-building on a grand scale, almost like “Game of Thrones," with the advantage that it's a world built on real details and actual history.

As a viewer, the best way to approach “Shōgun" is with patience. Much of the action is off-screen, or below the surface — Toranaga's three-dimensional chess moves that take place in the past, or future, or in someone else's head. Blackthorne is left to interpret both those and Mariko's elegantly imprecise translations, which strategically elide certain words or details.

Lady Mariko, meanwhile, is the true emotional core of “Shōgun," quite possibly the only one. She advises Blackthorne not to be “fooled … by our maze of rituals [because] beneath it all, we could be a great distance away, safe and alone." Soon you begin to wonder about the great distance she's put between herself and the rest of the world, then worry — justifiably so — that such a remove is a desolate place for the emotional heart of any series to be.

In fact, that's where you too will sometimes find yourself as the hours go by. Watching “Shōgun" is a you-are-there-you-are-not-there experience — both bracing and chilly, not consistently engaging yet (paradoxically) always engaging, “Shōgun" draws you in, but never quite makes you feel welcome to be there.

BOTTOM LINE Easy to admire, harder to love

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