‘Shōgun’ review: 2024’s first great TV epic is here

Following the runaway success of Game of Thrones, it seems like everyone in TV wants their own Big Epic Series.

Prime Video hit fantasy hard with shows like The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. AppleTV+ opted for a sci-fi approach with Foundation. Netflix keeps trying to build franchises with the likes of Shadow & Bone (gone too soon) and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Plus, who could forget HBO dipping its toes back into the Thrones pool to deliver House of the Dragon?

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How to watch the historical epic Shōgun with or without cable

The latest epic to hit our TV screens comes not from the worlds of fantasy but from historical fiction. Shōgun, based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell, is a grand-scale journey through Japan at the close of the 16th century. And with only 10 episodes in its limited series run, it proves just as effective as the big-budget bets listed above. Really, it’s even better.

What’s Shōgun about?

Cosmo Jarvis in “Shōgun.”
Credit: Kurt Iswarienko / FX

It is the year 1600 as Shōgun opens, and Japan is on the brink of crisis. Warlord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) sits on the Council of Regents who govern Japan while the heir to the throne is still too young to govern. However, his fellow council members, including rival Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira), have turned against him. If they expel him from the Council, he and his family face certain death. If he fights back, it could mean all-out war for Japan.

A strange complication presents itself in the arrival of an English ship, the first from the nation to reach Japanese shores. At this point in time, Portugal is the only European country to have established itself in Japan, bringing trade and Catholicism along with it. The presence of a ship of English Protestants is enough to set off alarm bells for the Portuguese living in Japan — and for their Catholic Japanese allies.

Toranaga recognizes ship pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) as a possible advantage in his conflict with Ishido, and for whatever future he may have. He’ll bring Blackthorne into his forces — not that Blackthorne has much of a choice — and begin to plot his way out of what might be an impossible battle.

Shōgun is a series that is at once epic and intimate.

A man in samurai armor on a horse.

Hiroyuki Sanada in “Shōgun.”
Credit: Katie Yu / FX

Jumping into Shōgun is like jumping into a chess match mid-game. There is a dizzying number of pieces and players to keep track of, but co-creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo manage to lay out the show’s many political and religious alliances with ease. It helps that the world of Shōgun is so beautifully realized, flush with sweeping landscape shots that give you a sense of the scale Marks and Kondo are working with, as well as painstakingly detailed costumes — including samurai armor — and set pieces.

That detail extends to Shōgun‘s treatment of Japanese culture. Marks, Kondo, and Sanada have all spoken about their intense focus on authenticity, and that effort comes through in the changes this series makes from Clavell’s novel (as well as the 1980 adaptation starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune). This take on Shōgun centers Toranaga’s perspective right from the beginning, along with the perspective of Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a noble who serves as a translator for Blackthorne. The grand majority of it is also in Japanese with English subtitles, unlike the 1980 mini-series.

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As an outsider, Blackthorne doesn’t get any kind of white savior treatment from Shōgun. Instead, it is deliberate in its portrayal of his confusion as he attempts to navigate a brand-new country. On the flip side, many of the Japanese characters he meets are often disgusted by his own Western habits, like his lack of hygiene or the ways in which he prepares food.

These moments make for some of Shōgun‘s few light-hearted moments. Otherwise, the show is dark, thoughtful, and very personal, even as it gets bigger and bigger. For every army clash or naval confrontation we see, and the global geopolitical disputes growing in the background, there are so many more instances of deep character work. Early on, Shōgun makes reference to the idea that people have three hearts: one for the world to see, one for their close family and friends, and one for just themselves. Thanks to intricate plotting and careful focus on characters’ relationships — or even just how they spend time alone — we’re able to clearly understand each character’s three hearts, deepest desires included.

Hiroyuki Sanada, Cosmo Jarvis, and Anna Sawai shine in Shōgun.

A woman in a white kimono kneels in front of a large crowd.

Anna Sawai in “Shōgun.”
Credit: Katie Yu / FX

Shōgun owes as much to the power of its three leads as it does to its phenomenal writing and direction. Sanada’s acting prowess is on full display here, as his Toranaga commands respect and fear from those around him with just the simplest of gestures. His cunning and strategy is deeply fun to watch, but it’s his more somber pauses of reflection or worry in the face of Ishido’s forces that really lend Shōgun its main gravitas.

As Blackthorne, Jarvis particularly excels in moments of bumbling confusion, gamely playing up translation issues even as his character faces mortal peril. And Sawai cements herself as a major star to watch in her role as Mariko, a part which requires her to balance years’ worth of inner turmoil with the need to remain poised for the outside world. She delivers on every count.

Each combination of these three creates a delightful new dynamic, whether we’re watching Mariko balancing her service to Toranaga with her Catholic faith, Toranaga and Blackthorne gaining a deeper respect for one another, or Blackthorne and Mariko developing a tentative romance. Together, they form a strong core for Shōgun, made even stronger by a sprawling ensemble cast.

Juggling that ensemble and Shōgun‘s myriad political moves is no small feat, but Marks and Kondo pull it off with style and substance to spare. The result is not just one of the greatest TV epics to grace our screens in ages: It’s also already one of the greatest new TV shows of the year.

The first two episodes of Shōgun premiere Feb. 27 on Hulu, with new episodes weekly.