James Clavell's Shogun - 30th Anniversary Edition Review

I remember it vividly – the searing flesh of a man lowered in a pot of boiling…something. The screams and the expression of his mate’s face as he watches the crewman suffer immense pain. Yes, I had seen Shogun before, even if I didn’t know. This scene appears about 30 minutes into this mammoth 9-hour miniseries, a robust historical drama shot entirely on location in Japan. Shogun is a must-see judging by scale alone, with seemingly no expense spared in bringing early 17th century Japan to vista-encompassing life. When you factor in Jerry London’s capable direction and the above-average work by a game cast of native Japanese and international actors, the miniseries is simply not to be missed.

Based on James Clavell’s equally ambitious novel, Shogun the miniseries makes a deliberate and intelligent choice to focus entirely on the experiences of one key character: Englishman John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain), the pilot (navigator) of Dutch ship “Erasmus” which is put out of commission following a storm. The men find themselves in the village of Anjira, on the coast of the “Japans”. Their captain perishing by the hour following the grueling sea voyage, Blackthorne and the crew are immediately imprisoned and when the proud navigator clashes with a samurai, crewmen begin to lose their lives. As an Englishman, Blackthorne has the poor fortune of crash-landing in a country locked in a Jesuit vice-grip – the Jesuits representing the interests of Portugal and Spain, who at the time war with Protestant England.

Shogun ‘s greatest strength can also be seen as a significant weakness – the show refuses any overt commentary on Japanese society and instead presents an as-is account of a white man treading through an unfamiliar and treacherous domain bound by elegant and deadly laws and regulations. All the Japanese dialogue is presented without subtitles, a choice that I, a non-speaker, absolutely support, primarily as a means to help us sympathize with Blackthorne’s situation – he is a gaijin , a foreigner but also a quick learner and a weathered man with a strong self-preservation instinct, earning the moniker Anjin-san (or “honorable pilot”). Whether Chamberlain is able to bring all these qualities to light consistently is a matter of debate, but he certainly does a genuinely rousing job.

Luckily, if there is a weak link in the cast, it is obscured by stronger work all around. John Rhys-Davies memorably appears as Portuguese navigator Vasco Rodrigues, referring to Blackthorne consistently as “Ingles” and visibly wavering between trusting a man who is his enemy. Yoko Shimada stars as Lady Mariko, an interpreter between Blackthorne and Lord Toronaga (the one and only Toshiro Mifune), who rescues the Englishman in time of need and takes a personal interest in the Jesuit financial practices on native land. This puts Blackthorne in direct conflict with Father Alvito (Damien Thomas), whose considerable experience with the Japanese makes him an especially devious adversary.

Shogun plays out patiently, developing characters and letting certain scenes run on for much longer than a modern miniseries would probably allow. Tension is raised as a result, and with fits of violence suddenly intruding on lovely compositions and polite talk, you can never be sure of most cast members’s longevity. Despite what seems like a relaxed running time, Shogun is exciting and very watchable, having aged particularly well and the attention paid to both visual and verbal detail elevating the miniseries among some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Video and audio are par-the-course, apparently the same as the 2003 DVD release of the series. Shogun is presented in 1.33:1, as it was originally screened on TV-sets around the globe.

DVD Bonus Features

The meat here is the 80-minute “The Making of Shogun”, which rounds up most of the cast, crew and director – people age, and legends like Mifune are long gone, but the remaining veterans talk about their experience making the film and the limitations and discovering they were witness to. Most viewers will have a soft spot for these men and women – their work is just that good and listening to them talk you get an idea of just how professional the on-set life must have been Also included are three featurettes, “The Samurai”, “The Tea Ceremony”, and “The Geisha”. Led by a Dr. Varley, these clock in at 15 minutes total and attempt to provide a more direct historical background to ceremonies and customs of the time period.

"James Clavell's Shogun - 30th Anniversary Edition" is on sale March 29, 2011 and is not rated. Action, Adventure, Drama, Foreign, Romance, Television. Directed by Jerry London. Written by James Clavell (novel), Eric Bercovici (screenplay). Starring Damien Thomas, John Rhys Davies, Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Shimada.

Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.


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