Sunday, April 28, 2024

How Shogun became an unlikely streaming success

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How Shogun became an unlikely streaming success

History might always be seen through the prism of current sensibilities, but with the rise of shows such as Bridgerton on television or Hamilton onstage, costume drama is increasingly self-conscious and playful in dealing with anachronism.

The remake of James Clavell’s Shogun, which finishes this week (Disney+), bucks that trend almost entirely, and it’s worth asking why this swashbuckling tale of feudal Japan – which keeps the brutality and misogyny and bald racial prejudice of the era intact – has become the most streamed show in North America this year, according to, and elsewhere.

Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige in Shogun.CREDIT: KATIE YU / FX
Interestingly, Shogun reminded me more of epic fantasy than early modern period drama. It’s less Wolf Hallmore Game of Thrones in feel and tone, with its bloodthirsty dynastic intrigue, elaborate battle scenes, its titillating side-serve of sex and gore and (the most blatant concession to anachronism) casual swearing that has characters growling, “f--- this!” during naval escapes, or dissing Osaka as a “shithole”.
Even the title sequence has a Thrones-like quality, and it doesn’t feel remotely out of place. Perhaps that’s because most fantasy is, in fact, period fiction. Its governing paradigm is the medieval imagination and if you leave aside the dragons and ice zombies, many of the set-pieces in George R.R. Martin’s work – including the infamous “Red Wedding” scene – have real historical precedents.
All of which makes Shogun a more natural successor to Game of Thrones than it might appear, and it happens to be loosely based on fact, too.
The marooned English pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) and the shrewd warlord he comes to serve, Lord Taranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), were inspired by the English navigator William Adams and future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who reunited Japan under his rule at the beginning of the Edo period.
It’s a fascinating part of Japanese history, and Shogun’s lavish (and largely historically accurate) visual detail, from suits of samurai armour to long shots of Osaka Castle, almost spares you a trip to Japan to see the period’s treasures.
And, for all the derring-do of the show’s English adventurer, Europeans do not get the upper hand. The Japanese resisted interference from traders and missionaries, adopting the isolationist policy of sakoku(“locked country”) soon after the action in Shogun, sealing itself off from the West for centuries.
That might partly explain why Shogun hasn’t attracted criticism for reflecting the values of the past. Avoiding colonisation gets you out of some very bleak and traumatic history, and a show with a majority Japanese cast, performing in Japanese, is a solid defence to Eurocentrism, even though a nimbus of orientalism sometimes hangs over the portrayal of women or the foregrounding of exotic torture. (A random sailor gets boiled alive in a cauldron in the first episode, in one brazen example, his executioner ordering a poem to be composed about his dying moments.)
And yet the world of the samurai has long been a staple of Japan’s rise to cultural superpower. It’s a touchstone at the highest level of Japanese screen arts, such as the Kurosawa films The Seven Samurai and Ran, and at the more modest level of enjoyable trash.
Shogun’s lavish visual detail … almost spares you a trip to Japan to see the period’s treasures.
Shogun is enjoyable trash, and if you object to that term, you’re in good company. I once ran into Charles Dance in a theatre foyer and made the mistake of telling him, amiably enough, that I thought Game of Thrones was “trash”. He immediately transformed into Tywin Lannister: “Trash?” he declared in mock outrage. “It’s a global phenomenon!”
Shogun represents the upside of a truly globalised streaming market.
Audiences in the Anglosphere are flocking to the best foreign language television, and it’s not a coincidence that films such as Parasite or Everything Everywhere All At Once are winning Oscars at the same time.
Subtitled fare is thoroughly mainstream these days, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be a purist about it – if for no other reason than to dodge the cheesiness that can compromise English dubbing on streaming services.
Anna Sawai as Mariko, who becomes the translator for John Blackthorne in Shogun.
Anna Sawai as Mariko, who becomes the translator for John Blackthorne in Shogun.CREDIT: KATIE YU/FX
Don’t believe me? Try watching Babylon Berlin in English – the atmosphere is totally undermined by voice acting that parodies hard-boiled American noir – or the Korean social influencer thriller Celebrity, where the characters sound like vacuous valley girls.
I don’t know whether there’s any English dubbing for Shogun. It seemed like a crime against the series even to look, given that the importance and difficulty of translation, a task assigned to the formidable Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), is intricately portrayed and becomes a major motif in this epic of political and cultural collision.
Still, despite its success in bringing Japanese history and language to the English-speaking world, does Shogunrepresent a retreat, in a way, from Bridgerton and the vogue for costume drama as a progressive playground?
No, not really. Walter Benjamin famously described history as an angel, its wings caught in a storm, back turned forever against the future, the debris pile of the past ascending skyward before it. The debris is what we call progress, Benjamin wrote. And it’s a creative trash pile big enough for almost any kind of artistic engagement.
There’s space in the streaming world for a range of approaches to history, and any fair assessment should admit they all have advantages and drawbacks.
The postmodern, devil-may-care anachronism in Bridgerton does allow a more diverse pool of actors to perform in period works that typically would’ve excluded them or limited their roles, but it can risk whitewashing historical oppression.
Shōgun strives for more historically realistic world-building, though the perspective is subtly skewed by its author’s outsider status – James Clavell was an Englishman writing in 1975, after all – and it probably has as many elements of escapist fantasy as Bridgerton. They’re just better disguised.
Of course, if we’re educated about history and can think critically about the past, there’s no risk of mistaking Bridgerton for anything but the progressive fantasia it is, or confusing Shogun with the more complex historical picture under the fiction. Ultimately, the way we consume historical drama is as vital as what the artists put into making it.