Monday, September 27, 2010

[Movie Review] Shōgun

I recently wrote about the novel Shōgun by James Clavell. I enjoyed it immensely, and so I couldn't wait to re-watch the miniseries based on it. A miniseries that, to the best of my recollection, I hadn't seen since it originally aired in September, 1980.

Shōgun is a terrific story - of faraway lands, of cunning political strategy, of mighty warriors, cruel warlords, of duty and of love. A story of an Englishman - John Blackthorne, played by Richard Chamberlain - whose storm-blown ship arrives at the shores of feudal Japan with a handful of sick crewmen all that remain of the fleet that set out from Holland. From there it swirls into a tale of intrigue, audacity, love and learning. Blackthorn must learn the strange ways of the new land he's found, must navigate the machinations both of his people's enemies the Spanish and Portuguese (primarily in the form of their priests, the Catholic Jesuits) as well as the feudal lords who vie for power. He does so skillfully, not merely learning the language and winning the heart of a beautiful and intelligent noblewoman, but winning the trust of Toranaga, one of the most senior Daimyo, the man who wishes to outwit all other lords and rise to the ultimate power - Shōgun, the supreme military dictator of 1600's-era Japan.

And the miniseries did not disappoint. It holds up remarkably well even after 30 years. Not surprising, I suppose, considering it's meant to reflect such a historic time-period. Seeing John Rhys-Davies as the young, relatively slender Portugese captain was a treat, and the acting, costumes and sets were all outstanding.

The only disappointments for me were the parts that were cut from the novel. I don't necessarily disagree with them - it was, after all, a novel of more than 1,000 pages, and even a ten-hour miniseries can only contain so much story. Still, some of my favorite scenes from the novel - particularly some very cool battle and fight scenes - had to be cut for time. One very moving scene was especially missed  - in the novel, the Lady Toda/Mariko is determined to leave Osaka castle. Her lord's enemies are just as determined to stop her. The result is a gauntlet in which her troop of Samurai sacrifice themselves one-by-one in an impossible attempt to ritually fight their way to freedom. It was an amazing scene in the book, and I missed it intensely in the mini-series.

Still, there was plenty to like. With the exception of Buntaro, the characters in the mini-series appeared just the way my wife and I had pictured them in the novel. I mention my wife because she'd never actually seen the mini-series before, whereas it's possible that I could have been subconsciously picturing the characters from my childhood memories as I read the book.

Even without having read the novel - or perhaps before reading the novel - the mini-series of Shōgun is highly-entertaining and enjoyable fare. It takes you back both to the days of feudal Japan as well as to the days when the mini-series was king of network television, and events like Shōgun and The Thorn Birds were big-ticket programs designed to carry their networks to "sweeps" victory. Shōgun is currently available in the U.S. on Netflix Instant Watch, as well as on DVD. I liked it nearly as much as the novel, and would confidently rate it an A-.

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