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The Shogun rises from the dust

In the world of streaming, it’s true that TV needs shows that feel like events. Is the time for epic series like Game of Thrones really over? Those were the days when series could last more than 10 episodes. Fortunately, there are still writers and directors who try to make epic TV shows, with varying degrees of success. We report that The Shogun seems to have succeeded!

Based on James Clavell’s novel of the same name, Shogun seems more like a re-creation of the underlying text than an adaptation. The creators, Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, strip down Clavell’s text to create something that is not only great, but also completely original. The basics of the story are there, of course – the series follows English sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) after he lands on the shores of feudal Japan – but it has the added bonus of having the book we loved but hadn’t managed to adapt to TV before, in the 1980 miniseries. The new remake adapts Clavell’s classic 1975 novel with ambition and an obvious respect for the source material, and given that the “paperback” is 1,299 pages long, it’s extraordinary that it still manages to condense the story into 10 episodes. The result is sumptuous, engrossing television!

John Blackthorne, the British chief officer of the ship Erasmus, who runs aground off the coast of Japan, despite the fact that the crew don’t really believe that this infamous island nation exists. They arrive in the midst of a conflict with the Portuguese, who have kept Japan’s whereabouts a secret from European nations in order to gain a trading monopoly. The few survivors of Erasmus land at a tense moment in Japanese history: the Taiko has recently died, leaving an heir too young to rule. Five warrior lords make up the Council of Regents, acting as temporary rulers, but tensions between them threaten all-out war. It is Lord Toranaga, a war hero and a great strategist, who has the greatest potential to take over total supremacy and is therefore naturally the least popular among the warlords.

The new Shogun, made by the husband-and-wife team of Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, is clearly reminiscent of the finest heyday of 90s epic cinema, and puts a huge effort into the details of period dress and behaviour, among other things. So to a certain extent everything is accurate – both historically and culturally – but there is also an undeniable Western romanticism of Japan at the time. And ultimately there is nothing wrong with that: the Shogun is trying to capture the Westerner’s fascination with Japanese culture. Although worlds apart in terms of setting and approach, they are strangely compatible and complementary. It was a wise decision not to shy away from a bilingual story. Of course, in the world of globalised television, they could have made the modern version entirely in English, but that would surely have diminished the intellect and power of the story.

The new Shogun is captivating and beautiful. And when you consider the source text, that is no mean feat. To condense such a long story set in 1600s Japan into 10 hours for an American audience to enjoy? It’s hopeless. But FX’s new adaptation succeeds. The series “economically” introduces the baroque political situation in 1600s Japan and quickly gets down to what really matters: the exciting chess games between the main characters.