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Shogun review: This masterclass in storytelling is a visual delight, made even better by a flawless Hiroyuki Sanada

Shogun, FX and Hulu's new period drama, is a lesson in masterful storytelling elevated by exemplary performances. It streams in India on Disney+ Hotstar.

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Shogun review: This masterclass in storytelling is a visual delight, made even better by a flawless Hiroyuki Sanada
Hiroyuki Sanada in Shogun
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Creators: Rachel Kondo, Justin Marks

Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Cosmo Jarvis, Anna Sawai, Tadanobu Asano, Takehiro Hira, Tommy Bastow, Fumi Nikaido

Where to watch: Disney+ Hotstar

Rating: 4.5 stars

That there isn’t a single flaw in FX’s new series Shogun is not hyperbole. The historical fiction, set in pre-feudal Japan, is culturally sensitive, visually spectacular, thematically engaging, and filled with some spellbinding performances. Add to it a great narrative, solid writing, and what you have on your plate is one of the best shows in recent times, and that is no exaggeration either. Shogun may already have catapulted itself as an Emmy frontrunner.

Shogun is based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell (also called Shogun), which fictionalises the time spent by English navigator William Adams in Japan and how he saw Japanese regent Tokugawa Ieyasu become a powerful shogun (a military dictator). The show is centred on the British anjin (pilot) John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), who is captive in Japan and allies himself with the beleaguered feudal lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). How the two navigate internal politics, Portuguese colonisers, and enemies from all corners is the crux of Shogun.

Why Shogun is such an engaging watch is that like all best stories on politics, this one also relies on a heavy focus on the people and their motivations, instead of battles and large-scale shot. Granted, there are several thrilling moments where men collide on battlefields (on both land and sea), but those are just embellishments. The soul of Shogun lies in its characters and their emotion. Each and every character, however minor, is etched out beautifully, complete with real-life motivations if not a complete back story. This makes the real-world setting all too believable and the stakes all too real.

The language of dialogue in Shogun is mostly Japanese, with some English and a little Portuguese also present. That, and an almost historically-accurate setting of 16th century Japan makes the show a new world for most viewers outside. This is where Blackthorne serves as a substitute for us viewers. This world is as strange to him as it is to us, and he is just as awed and amused by it as we are. But the show’s writers and creators – most of whom are not Japanese – do a commendable job in recreating that time period and that culture with sensitivity and respect.

Visually, Shogun is a treat, so beautifully creating the claustrophobia felt by Blackthorne and Toranaga despite the setting being some grand castles and open countryside. Both men feel imprisoned and the show captures that feeling of being trapped, using to highlight the characters’ anxiety and restlessness. How the cinematography, dialogue, and score come together to translate that to the viewer is the true victory of Shogun.

If the setting, writing, and direction were already not top-notch, the performances push Shogun to the modern classic category. At the centre of it all is the masterful Hiroyuki Sanada. The actor has been known for his acting chops in Japan for years now and with Shogun, he brings that talent to a global platform. Sanada has worked in Hollywood films in the past but in Shogun, the West has finally done his immense talent justice for the first time. Serving as the perfect foil to him is Cosmo Jarvis, who brings a unique mixture of machismo and vulnerability to Blackthorne. He is the life of the show. Anna Sawai shines as Mariko, a noblewoman who acts as the bridge between the two protagonists, while Tadanobu Asano serves up a delicious performance as the unpredictable, scheming Yabushige.

Shogun is one of the best political dramas made in recent times and certainly the best set in the medieval times. That it manages to hold your attention despite an unfamiliar setting and the language barrier speaks volumes of its finesse. To put it bluntly, it is the best show depicting the merry-go-round in the upper echelons of power since the first few seasons of Game of Thrones a decade ago. And Shogun achieves all it does minus the help of fire-breathing dragons.

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