It’s rare to feel like a limited series is being inhibited by its form. One of the specific joys of the recent so-called golden era of television was in the way a flourishing TV landscape enabled rich exploration of the limited series format — shows that were particularly good because they were determined to tell a fully conceived story, with a consistent ethos from beginning to end, all in one go. It often meant better, more fully fleshed works that didn’t tarnish their own legacies.
“Shōgun,” the ambitious new FX limited series, embodies a strange space: a sweeping, thoughtfully crafted show that, as a self-contained tale of feudal Japan, spends most of its time building a tantalizing sense of anticipation, before meeting what feels like a premature end.
The show, created by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by James Clavell, which had already been adapted once into a limited series in 1980. And one can sense a rich source material undergirding the show; it’s a series that quickly stretches itself out to epic proportions, laying out a vast tangle of history and conflict across religions, empires and the commanding figures controlling their peoples’ fates.
The show begins with a mysterious ship, carrying British Protestant sailors, landing on the shores of a remote Japanese village. It’s a seemingly incidental event that ultimately sets off a ripple effect within a power struggle occurring in Japan circa 1600. A year after the Taiko, Japan’s late ruler, has died and left behind a child-age heir, the council of regents are caught in a political war, one that primarily pits Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira) against Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada).
While Ishido plots to have him impeached, Toranaga, a close friend of the late Taiko who seemingly eschews personal power and is focused instead on peace for the Realm, sees a bargaining chip in the marooned ship that has landed within his fief. The pilot of the ship, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), unwittingly finds himself to be a useful ally to Toranaga; his ship holds valuable weapons and he also carries crucial knowledge that the Portuguese Catholics, who have been trading with Japan for years, have ulterior motives behind the economic alliance.
It’s all enticing, richly entertaining stuff that the series lays out: a story whose appeal, both in its sometimes convoluted political web but also engrossing lore and world-building, quickly reminds one of “Game of Thrones.” Except “Shōgun” is only 10 episodes. Eventually, the story boils down to two sides of schemes and mind-games played out from afar between Taranaga and Ishido — and eventually, Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), the heir’s mother, whose latter-half entrance jolts the series with new momentum — with a chessboard of players considering allegiances along the way. But the narrative upswings that often dramatically close out episodes can sometimes struggle to find satisfying landings, and by series end, it feels as if much of the show’s universe has yet to be fully explored. The vast geopolitical battle it lays out early on, between Japan, England and Portugal, for instance, is left hanging, as if for another show or a future season.
These unfulfilled spots that pockmark the show still mostly don’t detract from its enjoyment. Marks and Kondo, with the help of a stable of directors across the season, have overseen a period piece of awesome scale and impeccable detail. Forgiving a couple moments of iffy visual effects, the production and costume design are wonderfully immersive, and a booming score reinforces the gravitas of the show’s large canvas.
Sanada forms the series’ captivating core as the wise and noble lord who’s tightly guarded features and character sometimes beg for more depth to be revealed. Yet, it is Sanada’s calibrated reserve that grants his character, and the show, its innate magnetism and depth. As Blackthorne, Jarvis mostly works in playing an innately decent, if bumbling counterbalance to Sanada’s Toranaga (“Shōgun” has quite a bit of fun flipping the savage trope onto a white foreigner), though the show has trouble fully establishing believability to their enduring connection across the series. The breakout star, though, is Anna Sawai as Mariko, Blackthorne’s translator and a sort of right-hand to Toranaga, a meaty and sometimes unwieldy role that Sawai embodies with grace.
Even if the payoffs aren’t always there, “Shōgun” stands to be one of the most engaging, impressive shows of the year. It’s a work of such grand ambition and confident execution that one can only hand-wring so much over its limitations; it’s hard to get too mad, in other words, at simply wanting more of a show by its shortened end.
In a streaming age hell-bent on simply finding the next big tentpole, it’s a boon to have such a problem.
“Shōgun” premieres Tuesday, Feb. 27, on FX.
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