Shōgun episode 1 & 2 review | Disney+’s new, ambitious miniseries gets to a riveting start

shogun review
Share this Article:

The first two episodes of the epic, glorious Shōgun are now streaming on Disney+ and here’s our review. 

Disney+’s new, high profile adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 historical novel Shōgun is not the first time the source material has been adapted, but it may very well be the best version of it. At least based on its first two episodes. 

At the beginning of Shōgun, Japan is facing a tumultuous future. The country’s military leader has recently died and left behind an heir too young to rule. Thus, five regents are appointed, but they’re all just as power-hungry as you’d expect. The arrival of an English pirate throws the country’s power struggle into further chaos.

The 10-part miniseries, which released its first two episodes yesterday, mostly follows John Blackthorne, played by British actor Cosmo Jarvis. The immediate concern here is, naturally, that Shōgun will adapt a troublesome white saviour narrative, but showrunners Justin Marks and Rachel Kondon smartly make this an ensemble effort. Blackthorne might be our entry point into the story, but he is not the main focus.  

hiroyuki sanada shogun
Credit: Disney+

Hiroyuki Sanada plays Lord Yoshii Toranaga, one of the five appointed regents and the most decorated out of them. In episode one, Toranaga is facing almost certain death as the four other regents are plotting to get rid of him, in fear that Toranaga might rise to power over them. 

Anna Sawai, one of the best parts of AppleTV+’s Monarch: The Legacy of Monsters, plays a mysterious character, only known as Lady Mariko. She’s Toranaga’s protege and translator, but in the first two episodes, we learn very little of her. I suspect she has her own motives going forward and could prove to be a key player in the show’s endgame. 

Religion plays a huge part in Shōgun. The Portuguese have hidden the location of Japan from other countries in order to have dominion over trading. Similarly, they are trying to preach Catholicism, something our protagonist takes offence to as a proud Protestant man of the Queen’s England. 

The majority of the dialogue is spoken in Japanese, but occasionally English is used to sub for Portuguese. It seems like a strange choice and occasionally it’s hard to tell when John is speaking English and when the conversation is happening in Portuguese. 

The series will certainly draw many comparisons with HBO’s Game Of Thrones as the two share some common themes and plenty of political plotting and intrigue. The similarities end there; Shōgun isn’t interested in dragons or icy zombies, but in a slice of real history. While Clavell’s extensive novel is ultimately fictional, his characters were based on real people and the context here is real. 

Shōgun is riveting TV. Arriving directly after True Detective: Night Country, we truly are being treated to complex, compelling narratives on the small screen. Crucially, like Night Country, Shōgun never talks down to its audience. Based on the first two episodes, this is a dense, heavy show. The first two episodes offer an almost impossible amount of information to process, but the show flows well. 

What helps is the amount of violence. Some poor bastard gets boiled alive in the first episode and there’s no shortage of blood here, so approach with care if you get queasy at that sort of stuff. Visually, Shōgun is a real treat. It’s grandiose in both its narrative scale and its storytelling style. While Denis Villeneuve may think TV has ruined cinema with its heavy reliance on dialogue, Shōgun shows you can do both. 

We’ll be back next week to review Shōgun episode 3. 

Share this Article:

More like this