Review: Shogun (the miniseries – 1980)


You’d think that a 9+ hour miniseries would have enough time to present the entire contents of a novel, but when that novel is James Clavell’s 1100 page opus, Shogun, you’d be wrong.  There’s so much that’s problematic with the idea of bringing Clavell’s novel to the screen that I’m shocked that NBC execs gave it a green light back in 1980.  Foremost is the language barrier.  In the book, we read the characters’ thoughts.  We know what they’re saying even if the other characters can’t understand them.  Most of the characters are Japanese and most of the Japanese don’t speak any English or Portugese.  Even though the book was written in English, I don’t believe many characters speak English to one another.  They speak Dutch, Portugese, Japanese, and even Latin.  The decision was made to present the Japanese language without subtitles in the series, thereby making the audience feel much like the protagonist.  This sort of thing doesn’t usually make an executive producer’s eyes turn into dollar signs, but it got produced somehow, and it was one of the highest rated shows in NBC history!

The story is rich even though it’s a pale shadow of the complexities presented in the novel.   John Blackthorne, played here by Richard Chamberlain, lands in Japan after weathering a storm on the Dutch freighter, Erasmus in 1600.  Despite being seen as a barbarian, he is eventually declared samurai and hatamoto to leige lord, Toranaga.  There are many twists and turns to the elaborate plot, many of which are about the influx of Catholicism to Japan, but the bulk of the content concerns Blackthorne’s (and the audience’s) instruction on the ways of Japanese society.

I read the book prior to watching the series, and I’m glad I did.  There is so much in the series that’s hobbled by the constraints of a TV budget.  Scenes that were vast and open in my mind’s eye, are boxed off and practically claustrophobic here.  The basic story is intact despite some seemingly random changes (an incident where a character has his ear drums ruptured in the book has become blindness here for some reason) but the core story is intact.  In the end, though, it’s dissatisfying.

All of the performances are top-notch, especially the Japanese actors.  I’m a huge fan of Toshiro Mifune, and he’s very good as Toranaga, but he isn’t the Toranaga I imagined.  Perhaps it’s in the name’s similarity to Tokugawa, but I imagined him as quite a bit heavier.  Some have mentioned that they thought Chamberlain was miscast as well, but I think he fits the role admirably.  The only actor I disliked was Yoko Shimada as Mariko.  Her light, airy voice makes her hard to understand when she speaks English and it doesn’t work for such a headstrong character.  I can see why her confrontation with Ishido was truncated for the series.  I don’t think Shimada could have pulled it off as written in the novel.

My biggest gripe is the music.  Composed by the accomplished Maurice Jarre, it just doesn’t work, especially toward the beginning of the series.  The early music cues are brassy and loud, and they mimic every not-so-subtle emotion of the characters to such a degree that it becomes insulting.  Things get a little better when the composer veers toward Japanese instrumentation, but I still got the sense that he just didn’t get it.  The music truly plays like that of a TV series from the late 70s.  While that was probably okay back then, it really dates the material now.

Another throwback is the oddly bold titling that describes places and characters.  When these giant titles pop up, I feel like I’m watching the intro to Mannix.  Maybe there was going to be a spinoff called Blackthorne’s Angels.

Then there’s the horrendous narration by Orson Welles.  Since the director chose not to use English subtitles for spoken Japanese (which would have been fine IMHO), there are times when the audience will have no idea what’s going on unless someone explains it.  Since everyone’s speaking Japanese, we suddenly get the dulcet tones of Mr. Welles explaining what’s being said.  As if that weren’t bad enough, he occasionally starts doing character voices as well.  Insane!

The production was probably top of the heap for 70s TV production and its look still holds up pretty well.  The only overt problem is the claustrophobia-inducing framing I mentioned before.  There are some bad matte shots of Ishido’s castle but other than that, everything on camera looks good.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend seeing this unless you’ve read the novel.  Even then, it’s unnecessary.  I think it’s main significance is in the way that it opened the eyes of western audiences to the culture of Japan back in 1980.


PS – I liked the novel, but I didn’t love it.  It could use a heavy-handed editor and a better ending to make it truly great.  It’s worth reading, but it doesn’t entirely live up to its reputation.

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