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Sex, violence, 'Game of Thrones'-style power grabs — the new 'Shōgun' has it all

Anna Sawai plays translator Toda Mariko in the new FX series <em>Shōgun</em>.
Katie Yu
Anna Sawai plays translator Toda Mariko in the new FX series Shōgun.

The original Shōgun, on NBC, aired in 1980, when miniseries were the hottest things on television. ABC's Roots had broken all ratings records just three years before – and three years later, the star of Shōgun, Richard Chamberlain, would score another massive miniseries hit with ABC's The Thorn Birds.

Even then, adapting James Clavell's sprawling story of an English sea pilot's adventures in Japan in the year 1600, was quite a gamble. The original version avoided subtitles, for the most part, to reflect the confusion the newly arrived pilot, John Blackthorne, felt when encountering Japanese culture and its people.

Except for occasional narration by Orson Welles, who sometimes threw in some radio-style acting by interpreting what a warlord was saying, most viewers in 1980 were as clueless as the sailor in the story. Eventually, things became a bit clearer when one of the Japanese rulers, Lord Toranaga, appointed a trusted translator: Lady Mariko, to whom the pilot became increasingly, and dangerously, attracted.

Part of the great appeal of that miniseries was the powerful performance by Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga. Foreign film fans at the time knew him as the star of the original Seven Samurai. But the chemistry between Chamberlain as Blackthorne, and the Japanese actor Yoko Shimada as his translator Mariko, was a big part of it, too.

This new, 10-part interpretation of Shōgun, adapted for TV by the married writing team of Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, uses subtitles throughout – a choice that makes the narrative more immediately understandable. It also focuses just as strongly, and just as effectively, on the same three central figures.

Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga
Katie Yu / FX
Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga

Lord Toranaga is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who's so imposing that even his silences are powerful. The translator, Lady Mariko, is played by Anna Sawai, who brings to her character even more strength, mystery and charisma than in the 1980 version. And instead of the matinee-idol-handsome Chamberlain as pilot Blackthorne, we have Cosmo Jarvis – an actor who looks more ruggedly handsome, and sounds a lot like Richard Burton. It takes a while for the three characters, and actors, to share the screen – but when they finally do, it's entrancing.

This new Shōgun has other strong performances as well, but they're not the only things that make this 2024 version so successful. Special and visual effects have improved exponentially in the almost 45 years since the original Shōgun was televised, and it shows here: Every storm at sea, every battle scene and, especially, every earthquake is rendered with excitement and credibility.

And finally, there's the overarching story, which has Toranaga employing Blackthorne as his secret weapon in a deadly civil war. The power grabs among the five rulers are like the hostilities in The Game of Thrones – except instead of a Red Wedding, there's a Crimson Sky.

I went back and rewatched the original Shōgun to see if it holds up. It does. But the several directors who worked on Shōgun for FX deliver a new version that looks much more stunning. It's sexier, more violent, and even more thought-provoking and illuminating than the original ... all of which, in this context, are meant as compliments.

The first two episodes of Shōgun are televised on FX opening night, and streamed the next day on Hulu, with the remaining episodes presented weekly. Don't miss it: With this Shōgun, as with the original, the TV miniseries is alive and well.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.