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Newest version of ‘Shōgun’ is a small-screen masterpiece

Neal Justin – Star Tribune (TNS)

Those who believe American viewers are allergic to reading haven’t been paying attention to one of pop culture’s most rewarding trends. Subtitles, once as rare on the small screen as full-frontal nudity, are popping up in state-side favorites like “Squid Game,” “Narcos” and “Lupin.”

Language is no longer a barrier. For the latest evidence that we’ve opened up our minds, compare the 1980 miniseries “Shōgun” to the new version, premiering at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on FX and streaming on Hulu the same day.

Both are faithful to James Clavell’s novel in which English navigator John Blackthorne gets shipwrecked in 1600 Japan on the precipice of a civil war. The closest thing he has to allies are his translator, Lady Mariko, and Lord Toranaga, a feudal lord who’s an underdog in the inevitable battle to come.

In the first adaptation, NBC didn’t use any subtitles. We needed the translator to figure out what the Japanese were saying. It was a neat narrative trick — we felt just as stranded as Blackthorne did — but it wasn’t very insightful.

This time around, more than 75% of the dialogue comes with subtitles, offering the viewer more perspectives.

Cosmo Jarvis, who fills the Blackthorne role previously played by miniseries king Richard Chamberlain, is a fine actor with a clipped delivery and stiff neck that reminded me of a young Richard Burton. But he practically fades into the background over much of the 10 episodes.

The heart of the story, supervised by married couple Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, belongs to the Japanese characters, almost all of which follow the same code: Brutality is fine, as long as you bow first.

There’s not as many fight scenes as you might imagine. Much of the action focuses on Japanese customs and manners. One of the more memorable scenes involves a husband making tea for his wife with the grace of a ballerina. A brothel scene is so classy, you might think you’ve stumbled onto an old Meg Ryan rom-com.

Scenes depicting seppuku, the Japanese term for suicide, are so elegant that you might not flinch when the victims’ spotters slice their heads off.

Hawthorne’s bafflement slowly shifts to respect, especially after it sinks in that some English traditions are just as ridiculous (he initially balks at the idea of talking more than one bath a week). It also helps that he falls hard for Mariko, a perpetual victim with steely resolve. She could give Uma Thurman’s sword-buckler in “Kill Bill” a run for her money.

Anna Sawai, who plays Mariko, is terrific. So is Hiroyuki Sanada, who gives Toranaga multiple layers. You’re never sure if he’s really ready to cash it in or just plotting six moves ahead of his opponent. Both actors deserve to be remembered come awards season.

The limited series tackles serious matters, most notably just how much one is willing to sacrifice for principle. But there’s plenty of lighter moments. A sake drinking contest between Blackthorne and Mariko’s husband could have been lifted from an old episode of “Maverick.” Tadanobu Asano provides comic relief as Kashigi, a warrior who switches teams as often as you change underwear.

Of course, there will still be some holdouts that will skip this saga simply because they don’t want to bother with those subtitles. I suspect these are the same folks that won’t watch “Casablanca” because it’s in black and white.

Their loss. The 1980 “Shōgun” won lots of awards, including the Emmy for outstanding limited series. It may be hard for the new version to get the same accolades in this much richer era for dramas. But it deserves even more praise.


(Neal Justin covers the entertainment world, primarily TV and radio, for the Star Tribune.)


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