Shogun is off to a Phenomenal Start

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Thomas Richards
| March 13, 2024
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If you were to tell at the start of the year that a historical drama set in 1600s Japan would be shaping up to be the best show of the year, I’d probably say fair enough. Shogun is the latest series taking the world by storm, and for good reason. Based on the novel of the same name by James Clavell, Shogun is stunning, engaging, and visceral. This show is damn good, and it isn’t showing signs of slowing down. I was intrigued by the double-episode premiere but waited to commit to the show until a few more episodes dropped. But now that I’ve seen the first four episodes, I can confidently say I’m along for this crazy trip to Japan.

A Story of Politics and Change

Why the glum faces? (FX)

Shogun is set in 1600 Japan when sea exploration was all the rage, and every country was trying to expand their reach—especially the British and the Portuguese, which is where Japan comes into play. John Blackthorne washes ashore on the island nation after the ship he was on fell into disrepair. He and his crew were searching for the island nation the Portuguese used to further expand their trade routes and power. Speaking of people grasping for power, the other main plotline revolves around a Japanese political power struggle. Lord Yoshii Toranaga’s life is on the line due to political infighting from other high-ranking Lords. Throw in the Englishman, some Portuguese, and a dash of religion, and you have a thrilling story that has kept me on the edge of my seat.

I’m loving this story so far, with its drama, twists, and plotlines that will keep me coming back week after week. The political drama between Toranaga and the other Regents is both polite and intense, with a scene of them just talking in a large room having unbearable levels of tension. Then there’s the fish out of water story with John and his attempts to forge a relationship with the people of Japan. There’s also the Portuguese presence both Toranaga and John have to deal with, and it seems they may have already made their way into the ruling systems of Japan. Then, there are also all the other sub-plots that will undoubtedly be explored throughout the season, such as the history surrounding the translator Toda Mariko. This series is shaping up to have one of the best stories I’ve experienced in a hot minute, but a story is only as good as its characters, and these characters are excellent.

Authentic Characters

That floor does look comfortable. (FX)

While the story is intriguing with its drama and twists and whatnot, the characters are what have drawn me into Shogun. The three main characters, in particular, are standouts amongst an outstanding cast. The fish out of water John Blackthorne, played by Cosmo Jarvis, was hilariously delightful throughout these first few episodes. The language barrier between him and most other characters added drama and comedy (perhaps unintentionally). Toranaga, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, came across as a calculating individual who was always serious and plotting his next move. But then, at the end of episode three, he wants to have a childish race with Blackthorne. Sanada excellently showcased both of these sides of Toranaga, and I’m keen to see how the character develops over the series.

The translator for Toranaga, Toda Mariko, is the character I’m most intrigued by. She obviously has secrets from her past, and being one of the only people who can communicate with John creates some interesting dynamics. Anna Sawai has done a great job so far, and I’m eager to learn more about Mariko. Also, I need the Spanish navigator Vasco Rodrigues (Nestor Carbonell) to be in every episode going forward. He’s too much fun!

Something that I really enjoy about this series is that the characters are speaking in their native languages. For example, the Englishman John speaks English, but all the Japanese characters speak in Japanese. Yes, this does mean you’ll be reading a lot of subtitles in this series. This might turn some people away (because reading is for nerds), but I enjoyed the authenticity it brings to each character. It’s not like Chornobyl, where every Russian character was a Brit. The exception is with the Portuguese, who speak English in this series. This was most likely done so you didn’t have to read subtitles all the time, which makes sense. This attention to detail doesn’t stop at the dialogue because everything else in this series looks ripped straight from the history books.

Looking Excellent

Time to cut some fools down to size. (FX)

This show looks stunning! Everything from the set design to the costumes looks like they were ripped straight from 1600s Japan. The first thing you’ll notice when you start Shogun is the practical sets they’ve used. They all look gorgeous and help to immerse you into the world and story. Osaka Castle, in particular, looks great, and the attention to detail for the castle and surrounding areas impressed me. I also appreciated the use of these sets instead of relying on green screens (a refreshing change). The costumes are also on point and look amazing. Everything from the civilian clothes of the everyday person to full-on samurai armour looks authentic, and I’m ecstatic at this attention to detail. The soundtrack is also used to further immerse you in the world, with the instrumental tracks knowing when to come in for maximum effect.

Aside from just looking pretty, the series is also expertly shot. The sweeping shots of Osaka, the dimly lit forest ambush, and even the early morning meetings all feel like they belong in a feature film. My favourite scene so far was the forest ambush because of how they used fire arrows to light the action. You feel just as much in the dark as the main characters, and when that first fire arrow illuminates the forest, it’s fantastic. Speaking about the action, all the action scenes in these first three episodes were stunning and violent. This series isn’t shying away from the brutality of the time period, with the swords being used to great effect. You also see someone get boiled alive at one point, which I was not expecting. I’m excited to see what other creative combat encounters will be shown in the rest of the series.

What a nice city. Surely nothing bad will happen here. (FX)

Shogun has quickly become one of my favourite shows of the year. The story is intriguing, the characters are engaging, and everything looks fantastic. And the fact that I’m this invested after only four episodes bodes well for me enjoying the remaining six as they release weekly on Disney+ and Hulu. If you’re on the fence about this series, I would wholeheartedly recommend giving it a shot. You won’t regret it. Keep it locked to Couch Soup for all the latest TV info to feed your hungry nerd soul.

Check out the trailer below.

Have you started Shogun? What did you think? Will you be watching the rest of the series? Let us know in the comments where we can talk about why Rodrigues is the best character in the show.

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