How ‘Shōgun’ brought the feudal epic into the 21st century

How ‘Shōgun’ brought the feudal epic into the 21st century

The 1980 miniseries “Shōgun” is rightfully considered a landmark of its time, both creatively and commercially. Still, FX/Hulu’s recent retelling of James Clavell’s epic novel set in feudal Japan brings the story into the 21st century with a production that fundamentally improves upon it, while reflecting how the TV landscape has changed in that time.

While the bones of the new 10-part limited series remain the same, the perspective shifts partly away from the English character, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), and towards Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), evidence. a more global TV environment. That includes the massive production of subtitles for a US audience whose resistance to them is reduced now (see the success of programs like “Squid Game”) than it was then.

Indeed, NBC’s concern about the matter in 1980, and whether Americans would accept a project featuring mostly Japanese characters, can be seen in how much the story centers on Blackthorne. The result, of course, helped highlight Richard Chamberlain’s claim to the title of “king of the miniseries,” but it resulted in Toshiro Mifune’s role as Toranaga, and Orson Welles’ use of the narrative.

The new version also significantly expands and enhances women’s roles, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, culminating in Mariko’s act of heroism and sacrifice in the penultimate episode. While that makes sense, the skill the producers have come up with feels like a small feat given the male-dominated, feudal structure of Japanese society and the military basis of the plot.

“Shōgun” benefits again, then and now, from being a true limited series (the term “miniseries” has fallen into disuse), telling a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. Thanks to its combination of critical acclaim and popularity (albeit on a much lower scale than would have been possible in the age of three broadcast networks), there was already speculation about how to extend it, but the idea of creating some kind of prequel or sequel seems misguided and, given the planning resolution careful Toranaga, no need.

Hollywood’s appetite for remaking artifacts of the past has been one of the industry’s constants, as we head into the summer movie season that begins with “The Fall Guy,” adapted from a TV show that aired the year after “Shōgun” did. .

From that perspective, the climax of “Shōgun” cemented its status as a model and beacon for the practice, setting the kind of high bar for remakes that would be hard to lower.

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