In 1600, English fortune seeker John Blackthorne and his fleet blow into “the Japans”. Among the first lessons Blackthorne learns is that the land in which he has arrived is Japan, in the singular. There are many more tutorials in store for the sailor as well as the Japanese who, when they first meet the Europeans, wonder out loud, “What are they?”

Blackthorne finds himself amidst a brewing civil war, led by the feudal lord Toranaga against other members of a council set up to govern Japan until the heir apparent comes of age. Toranaga uses Blackthorne’s potential as a strategist for his own ambition to become the shogun, or the realm’s military leader. The linguistic chasm between the aristocrat and the foreigner is bridged by Mariko, who acts as a translator as well as a key player in the game for supremacy.

The Disney+ Hotstar series Shogun is driven by differences – in language, culture, religion and worldview. The show is mainly in Japanese, with English as a secondary language. Shogun demands careful viewing, not just to its sumptuous sets but also to the cultural specificities encountered by Blackthorne, whether in comportment or the simple act of drinking sake.

Cosmo Jarvis in Shogun (2024).

The 10-episode limited series, created by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, is based on James Clavell’s 1975 bestseller of the same name. Clavell’s novel, which was inspired by actual events, yielded a hugely popular television series in 1980, starring Japanese star Toshiro Mifune. The new adaptation stars Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranaga, Cosmo Jarvis as Blackthrone and Anna Sawai as Mariko. Tadanobu Asano plays the wily Yabushige, who must choose between Toranaga’s rebellion and his loyalty to the council.

Multiple directors and writers take on the challenging task of distilling the essence of Clavell’s densely plotted, 1,152-page novel. The early episodes of Shogun include the role of Portuguese Catholics in manipulating the power struggle from behind the scenes. Blackthorne, a Protestant, earns Toranaga’s approval when he declares his opposition to the Catholic Church.

Later episodes examine Blackthorne’s edification under Mariko’s watchful eye. Variously called “Anjin”, or pilot, for his seafaring skills and “Barbarian” for his bull-in-the-tea-room ways, Blackthorne begins to better understand the alien ways of a culture he had set out to loot.

Anna Sawai in Shogun (2024).

For all the action on display – including attempted assassinations, a grisly skirmish conducted by cannonball, and a daring escapade on the seas – Shogun is the liveliest in its observation of two polar opposite cultures trying to find a middle ground for the sake of survival. There is polite politicking and exquisitely dished-out treachery as Toranaga tries out outwit the other council members. Etiquette, whether in the court or on the battlefield, is of utmost importance, leading to a scene too many of characters sitting around in dimly lit rooms, feeling their way past divergences and misunderstandings.

The slow-burning narrative pays close attention to the relationships between characters. In this regard, Shogun benefits from a cast of Japanese actors who are freed from speaking halting English and allowed to express themselves naturally.

Blackthrone’s transformation from fortune hunter to vassal draws him to Marika. Her role has been substantially altered from the novel, giving the actor Anna Sawai many compelling scenes. Along with Hiroyuki Sanada, Sawai is among the show’s key performers. Tadanobu Asano – who would have made a magnificent Toranaga too – is superb as the slippery Yabushige.

Shogun (2024).