At the time that James Clavell’s Shogun came out in 1980 the television mini-series was a hot commodity. You had Roots (1977), The National Dream (1774), The Thorn Birds (1983), Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), The Winds of War (1983), and The Jewel in the Crown (1984) all that achieved boffo ratings. American actor Richard Chamberlain was the lead in two – Shogun and The Thorn Birds – of these series and they helped to cement his heartthrob status at the time. In this one he plays a sexy sailor who is shipwrecked, tries to get back home, but falls in love with a woman in the meantime.
Japan at the beginning of the 17th century was feudal society and not especially welcoming to outsiders. I mention this because Captain John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain – The Towering Inferno, The Swarm) and his crew find themselves shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. When the British sailor awakens he finds himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between two very powerful men with little prospect of getting his ship back and his crew back home.
While healing from his injuries, Blackthorne tries to figure out a way out. Lord Yoshi Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune – Seven Samurai) is a warlord with his eye on becoming shogun. In Japan the shogun was the supreme military leader of the country. Ishido (Nobuo Kaneko) also has his eye on the prize. Whoever wins will end up with ultimate power. A complex political game ensues.
Things are rendered that much more difficult for Blackthorne when he finds himself falling for Lady Mariko (Yoko Shimada – The Hunted), a geisha who is linked to Toranaga. As time goes on Blackthorne realizes the only way he is going to get everything he wants, his ship and Mariko, is to become a samurai himself. He would be the first ever foreigner to accomplish this.
As Richard Chamberlain was largely a stage actor it should not come as a big surprise when I say that there are many instances when he goes a little too big with his character. Especially when put alongside the demure and subtle acting of his leading lady, Yoko Shimada. The result is that Shimada ends up stealing quite a few scenes out from under the over the top Chamberlain.
One facet of the mini-series that I found particularly annoying was the lack of subtitles. Plenty of the dialogue is in Japanese and there is nary a subtitle to be found. I was lost!! How many of you out there speak Japanese? Well, I’m sure most watching it do not and did not understand some important sections of the mini-series as a result. It becomes more and more annoying as Blackthorne learns to speak Japanese and even less dialogue in English ensues. During whole sections I just tuned out due to frustration.
A sweeping epic with fantastic cinematography for the time, Shogun was a winner that was rewarded with great ratings and Golden Globe and Emmy wins. As you watch it in 2014, yes, it is a little dated (even Richard Chamberlain’s acting, ladies), but still has some entertainment value if you are willing to hang in for the over 9 hour running time.
-The Making of Shogun
-Historical Perspective Featurettes: The Samurai, The Tea Ceremony, The Geisha