A True to Time Period Masterpiece: A High Five Review of “Shōgun”

by Naomi Grace Cavaneyro
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Shōgun is a mini-series based on James Clavell’s 1975 book of the same name. Set in 1600 feudal Japan, we follow the collision of two men—John Blackthorne, an English man hired by the Danish government to establish trade and commerce between the Japanese, and Lord Yoshii Toranaga, a bushō or warlord, and one of the five Regents ruling Japan.

However, conflict arises with the various political agendas and power grabbing surrounding feudal Japan during this time. Add to that the arrival of Blackthorne and how he contributes to the plans of Lord Toranaga and his pursuit of becoming shōgun—a commander-in-chief who is effectively the ruler of the land.

This limited series is packed with action, political intrigue, romance, and mystery, leading to comparisons with Game of Thrones, but set in the Asian hemisphere and showcases the rich Japanese culture. If you haven’t watched the series, here are SEA Wave’s High Five reasons to start now. Spoilers ahead.

Storytelling Grounded in History

Shōgun may be fictional, but it’s based on historical people and events, ficitionalizing the latter part of the Sengoku period (1467–1615) in Japanese history, when the era of the shogunate began.

Jack Blackthorne, Lord Yoshii Toranaga, and Toda Mariko are just three prominent characters inspired by real-life people. Willam Adams, the first Englishman to reach the shores of Japan, is the basis for Jack Blakthorne; Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the “Great Unifiers” of Japan, is the basis for the cunning Toranaga; and Hosokawa Gracia, a noblewoman and devout Catholic convert, is the basis for Catholic translator Toda Mariko.

Aside from ficionalizing historical figures, the series also dramatizes fictional events. The invasion attempt by the Portuguese, the dispute between them and the British over Japan, and the Portuguese using religion as a tactic for colonization are just some of the real life occurrences that add to the authenticity and terror of watching the show—these were things that happened in real life, and it really makes you think.

 

Rigorous and Authentic Production

As part of the producer and lead actor of the show, Hiroyuki Sanada emphasized in interviews that he was there to make this series genuine to the time period despite it being shot in Vancouver due to COVID-19.

“I told them [the creative team] my conditions, saying, ‘If you accept my conditions that Japanese actors play Japanese characters and that period drama specialist staff be brought from Japan, then I’ll accept the offer,’” Sanada said in an interview. Sanada also elaborates that the script went through various historians and himself to ensure no traces of cultural appropriation were present.

The meticulous process doesn’t stop there, since cast members and Sanada himself have shared that after his scenes, while he was still wearing the armor, he would be directing others behind the camera. Sanada was a producer of the show after all.

A distinct feature of the series is the language they use, which is based on Jōdai Nihon-go (Old Japanese). Sanada shared that he was impressed by the younger actors since he taught them how to properly pronounce and intonate the words and it translated well on screen.

This just goes to show the measures that were taken to ensure authenticity and immersion, which we can greatly appreciate in the final result.

 

Intricate Costume Design

From the peasants to the nobility, the fabrics and colors of the costumes are an amalgamation of Japan’s history. As Carlos Rosario, costume designer for the series, shared in an interview: “This period in Japan was very specific because it was a period of transition. And it was actually the end of a cycle of war.”

Rosario emphasizes that the fabrics, colors, and motifs used were only possible because of the period allowing more expression, especially in clothing. The lower class had a focus on Indigo which was abundant at the time, while the wealthy had a more rich color palette that showed off their wealth.

“It was a cultural exchange,” shares Rebecca Lee, makeup designer for the series. Aside from attires, specific wigs were also created for the show, like habutai, a type of oiled paper to show the bald portion of the hair for samurais. The artists also had to play with the complexion of the actors like tanned looks for the fighters and lower class while lighter for the nobles.

All costume and makeup designs were thought out to highlight a specific person’s social class, work, habits, personality, resulting in attires and looks that express each character’s individual traits with just one look.

 

A Sonically Diverse Soundtrack

Another factor that makes the series incredible is the emotion-evoking instrumentals by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Nick Chuba, which is rich with Japanese instrumentation, mysterious droning, and eerie vocal chants. The unsettling result strikes a nervous chord among listeners and builds tension in crucial scenes.

The best and first example of this is the “Main Title” song, used in the title sequence of the series. It starts slow and soft, having a mystical and serene feel to it. By the 33-second mark, it switches gears with a dissonant note that is further driven home a building cacophony of strings, followed by percussion reminiscent of war drums. The song continues to build up into a crescendo which abruptly drops off and ends with only a humming or buzzing noise. This song is paired with the image of a calming karesansui or zen garden and lush greens of Japan. A ship with Toranaga’s emblem sailing away from the Osaka Castle is the turning point where the music turns more aggressive, with the visuals slowly burning with the flames of war. The ending of the title card shows a rockface crumbling violently to finally reveal the face of the shōgun.

This title sequence creates a strong first impression, showing the unity and impact of the show’s musical score and the imagery it uses, and setting a precedent for the series to come.

 

The Stunning Imagery

We have touched on it in some of the previous entries, but the series’ visual language does a lot to set it apart from contemporaries. From the first episode, the visual of a man being boiled in a pot while surrounded by nature evokes a strong sense of dissonance. The show does not shy away from graphic depictions of violence, from acts of seppuku to the beheading of prisoners, depicting the grim reality of life at the time.

In a more subtle way, the show also expertly choreographs and blocks out each scene to create its desired effect. An example is the way Toranaga’s people sit around him—the blocking as they are spaced out evenly beneath him is just one of the subtle ways that the show communicates Toranaga’s status and the reverence the people hold for him. This consideration for visual communication is present across all scenes in the series, and in an era where shot-reverse-shot is the most overused way to depict scenes, Shōgun is a breath of fresh air with its approach to visual language.

All of these elements combined make Shōgun a must watch historical drama. SEA Wave rates it a 4.5/5 for all the aspects of its production coming together and producing a one-of-a-kind series.

Catch Shogun now on Disney+ in Southeast Asian countries.

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