The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The World of Iniquus - Action Adventure Romance

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Shōgun, 1980 v. 2024 and What Writers Can Learn from Both

This article compares/contrasts the 1980 NBC production and the 2024 FX production. Spoilers are likely.

Debuting on NBC television in 1980, Shōgun was a groundbreaking miniseries and carried the torch from Roots in 1977 to a new age of television entertainment. With a budget to rival theatrical movies, Shōgun blew audiences away, including an 11-year-old in Texas who did NOT understand it. I was mesmerized, nevertheless.


How mesmerized where you?


In 1985, after almost a year on my own, I celebrated my success with a TV and VCR for my birthday. If you’ve done the math, you know that NO video store membership would give a kid my age a membership. However, the Houston Public Library (my spiritual home) had an extensive VHS collection.


The first thing I check out was Shōgun. By that point I had read Clavell’s massive book and had a slightly better understanding of the story, characters, and motivations. And, of course, the history.


See, Shōgun unlocked an entirely new culture for me to read about and explore. From the miniseries I moved to Kenji Misumi’s film, Lone Wolf and Cub. Quickly obsessed I read Kazuo Koike’s manga, (upon which Lone Wolf and Cub was based). I also devoured Ryunosuke’s Rashomon, Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, and Musashi’s Book of Five Rings.


That miniseries from 1980 was a watershed moment for me and remains treasured in my memory.


In 2024 FX debuted an updated miniseries based on James Clavell's book. Creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks delivered a beautifully filmed, lavish production that surpasses the original mini-series in detail and character development. 

If not apparent from my opening lines, the original is special to me and opened my eyes to life outside of my experience and redneck upbringing. However, the production is very much a thing of its times: Anglo-centric story with $300 Beverly Hills haircuts. 


Obviously, the miniseries was not without its problems. Upside, there are lessons to learn. Especially when contrasting the original against the FX production, released in 2024.

Guess who isn't the Shōgun

 It’s a story, not a fence


The most egregious problem with the original mini-series is the blatant whitewash. While Paramount had the good sense to avoid casting a white actor in any Japanese roles, they did cast John Rhys-Davies, (a Welshman) to play Vasco Rodrigues, a Spanish pilot. But the whitewashing I refer to as most egregious is in the story. Creator and writer, Eric Bercovici reduces James Clavell’s 1100-page historical novel of culture clashes, religious and political intrigues, as well as historical nexus events to a tragedy focused almost exclusively on English sailor, John Blackthrone, (Richard Chamberlain) and his doomed love for Toda Mariko, (Yoko Shimada) a Japanese noblewoman and interpreter. The shōgun in Shōgun, (played by the great Toshiro Mifune) is nothing more than set dressing, closer to talking furniture than vital character.


Rachel Kondo, (et al) strikes to the heart of Clavell’s book. This is about Yoshii Toranaga, the man who would be Shōgun. Toranaga is the lifeblood of this story and, as in Clavell’s book, he is forefront in this production, where he belongs. Blackthorne is our access point to the story. As he learns the mores and customs, so do we.

You thought I was joking about that $300 haircut, huh?

Not John Blackthorne

First, I must state that I have loved Richard Chamberlain since first seeing Richard Lester’s 1973 film, The Three Musketeers. He’s Richard Chamberlain, he’s witty, urbane, and charming. All of which counters his stunning looks which would be off-putting in a lessor man. Further, when cast appropriately, Chamberlain is quite good. I cannot imagine anyone else playing ruthlessly ambitious priest, Ralph de Briccasart in The Thorn Birds, (also a groundbreaking mini-series). Chamberlain was not the right actor for Blackthorne.


Get rich or die trying

Puts the "rough" in roughneck.

By contrast, Cosmo Jarvis’ Blackthorne looks like he has fleas. Where Chamberlain’s Blackthorne defaults to worry in most situations Shōgun /interactions, Jarvis’ Blackthorne is working the angles for advantage and calculating the risks without ever losing sight of his goals: trade, wealth, return home as the first Englishman to thread the Straights of Magellan. Neither lovestruck nor awestruck, this Blackthorne is hungry and he is ambitious. 

Terrible purpose

The only thing heavier than her duty is all those robes.

Anna Sawai’s Mariko is about that business. No longer a fetish on a pedestal, Mariko has agency and agenda, which she follows through upon even in the face of her husband's brutality and her son’s crushing disapproval. While her attraction to Blackthorne is visceral, Mariko has no time for love-affairs. The last of a long and once-distinguished but now disgraced line, Mariko is also in a viciously violent marriage. Her only hope of release from years of pain and humiliation lies in loyalty to her daimyo. Her only freedom is through service.


Improving on the original—and I mean the book—giving the baddies some love


This man has seen some sh—tuff...

One of the most vital characters who gets the least love, Toda Hirokatsu or “Buntaro” is Mariko’s abusive husband. The original miniseries treats him like a violent footnote. Sadly, Buntaro doesn’t fare much better in the novel. He does get more lines and more “time” but ultimately, he is two-dimensional. However Shinnosuke Abe brings a humanity to an inhumanly cruel man. His Buntaro is scared from too many battles and broken by his love for a woman he cannot control and who cannot stand him. Abe’s depiction of the thousand-yard stare is the best I have seen in any film, ever. We truly see that his brutality is his tortured psyche turned out.


There can be only one

Got the job he did NOT want. Still did it.

For all of the excellence in Shōgun, Toranaga is the star of this show and Hiroyuki Sanada makes sure we never forget it. Stealing every scene he’s in, Sanada delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Toranaga, the man cursed under the weight of history and circumstances with few choices and none of them inviable. His performance is lit with both a deep regard for the history, (all real people) and a deep understanding of human nature and toll that emotional gravity takes on leaders who stand on principle, duty, and integrity.

Both miniseries are solid, entertainment and, more importantly, broke ground in respectful depictions of other cultures. And, if the 2024 FX production has gone farther and done more to advance responsible writing, then it is because they stood on the shoulders of Paramount’s 1980 giant. 

Check them both out, you’ll find something to love about each.

I own none of the photos here. All are used for educational/instructional purposes as covered by the Fair Use Doctrine. 

No comments:

Post a Comment