'Shogun' review: Brilliant new spin on a time-honoured tale

'Whenever someone says "ronin", I get this really bad "Avengers: Endgame" flashback.' Photos: Handout

We have become conditioned by now, upon learning of a beloved/respected/familiar show being remade, to ask: Why?

After all, more often than not, such ventures turn out to be hollow, cynical cash grabs that don't even succeed at that last part – let alone recapturing a thimbleful of what made the original so special.

So when word arrived about this remake of the hugely popular 1980 TV event miniseries Shogun (or rather, a "re-adaptation" of James Clavell's terrific novel), there it was: WHY?

In uppercase, too, given how fresh the 44-year-old Richard Chamberlain-Toshiro Mifune epic has remained in my mind, and how it captured the attention of millions albeit at a time when there was far less competition for eyeballs, hearts and minds on the small screen.

But here's the thing: this new adaptation courtesy of FX Productions and the husband-and-wife writing team of Justin Marks (Top Gun: Maverick) and Rachel Kondo lays its own claim to the title of "event" and carves out large, gore-soaked swathes of territory in our imaginations.

'I'm just glad they haven't made me sing and dance to a sailor's ditty like they made Richard do ... so far.''I'm just glad they haven't made me sing and dance to a sailor's ditty like they made Richard do ... so far.'

The previous adaptation showed us feudal Japan mainly through the viewpoint of displaced English navigator John Blackthorne (loosely based on a real-life figure named William Adams), with the narrative conceit of omitting English subtitles for the Japanese dialogue to make the viewer feel as out of place as its protagonist.

Not so with this new effort, which clues non-Japanese speakers in on the proceedings so that we may better appreciate the struggles of its other principal characters, and observe their respective efforts to forge their own fates against the tides of destiny.

If you still need a summary, Shogun is set in 1600 and tells of a brash English navigator (or pilot, anjin in Japanese) who reaches Japan through a route jealously guarded by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Initially regarded as a pirate and threat, Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis, Persuasion) struggles to disprove the not-exactly-lies told about him by his enemies and prove his worth as an ally to ... well, to whichever local power will have him.

This "local" happens to be Lord Yoshii Toranaga (a magnificent Hiroyuki Sanada), a beleaguered feudal lord/daimyo whose chief rival Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira, Monarch: Legacy Of Monsters) wants to become Shogun, or supreme military commander, and hopes to eliminate any threat to his ambition.

Caught between them is Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai, another Monarch alumnus), seemingly an interpreter but of great significance to both men in vastly different ways.

'I am truly thankful for less green screen work in this role. And also for much less whining.''I am truly thankful for less green screen work in this role. And also for much less whining.'

This new Shogun divides its focus primarily among Blackthorne, Toranaga and Mariko, while also affording key insight into supporting characters like the scheming Lord Yabu (Tadanobu Asano) and his shrewd nephew Omi (Hiroto Kanai); Ishido and his collaboration with the scheming concubine Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), who seems to hate Toranaga with a vengeance; and fearless warrior Toda Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), Mariko's husband who despises her lineage; among numerous others.

But it's chiefly the tripartite tale of its three principal figures, and told so compellingly that you may curse the realisation there are only about 10 hours of this saga.

Jarvis, looking far more like the "barbarian" his captors regard him as than Chamberlain with his matinee idol looks ever did, succeeds in making his Blackthorne a convincingly vulnerable figure given the immense odds against him – deftly doing so much of the time with his expressive eyes which stand out like beacons to his inner thoughts from amid that scruffy bearded face.

Sawai shows here what she's capable of with a well-written role, a far cry from the whiny self-absorbed millennial/whatever she played in Monarch. Given the restraint a person in Mariko's situation is forced to exercise in every social setting, she conveys loads with just a downcast gaze and whispered words, seldom to more devastating effect than in the famous cha no yu (tea ceremony) scene with the character's (supposedly) remorseful husband.

But it's Sanada who is this show's true luminous centre, subtly and sometimes jarringly (when needed) shifting from haughty authority figure to curious and almost child-like learner; from dismissive patriarch to crestfallen and defeated victim of his enemies' machinations; all with the natural ease and subtlety of a chameleon or octopus phasing through the colours and shades of their environment.

While Mifune's Toranaga remained largely at arm's length from the viewer owing to the dictates of the script, Sanada fairly invites us into the character's personal space and dares us, with an almost mischievous twinkle in his eye, to keep up with his schemes and unending calculations.

As far as storytelling goes, there'll be little trouble keeping up with the goings-on here. There's so much to Clavell's novel that, as exhaustive as the 1980 adaptation seemed, Marks and Kondo have found no shortage of material – as well as fresh approaches to iconic scenes – to keep any sense of familiarity at bay throughout this new adaptation.

And of course, since this is a streaming show, it is less (shall we say) shackled by the rules of network TV – so expect full-on gore and naughty bits, not gratuitous but well suited to the needs of the tale.

Stunningly mounted and executed, populated by figures that seem like actual characters instead of expository devices or fodder, told with a canny understanding of and respect for its audience – Shogun makes a perfect case for turning that "why?" into "why not?"

New episodes of Shogun arrive on Disney+ Hotstar every Tuesday starting from Feb 27.

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The whys and the why nots

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