Featured Blu-ray Review: Shogun
July 22nd, 2014
Shogun is a TV mini-series that first aired way back in 1980. I saw the theatrical cut on VHS, and remember loving the show. However, that was about 25 years ago and my tastes might have changed and / or the film might not have aged gracefully. Is it as good as I remember it? And is the Blu-ray worth picking up?
A note before I get to the plot. This is a nine-hour long mini-series, that's nine hours without commercials. Because of that, the plot summary will be... incomplete. In fact, we barely get to the end of what was the first of five episodes before we get to spoilers.
As the narrator explains, the mini-series begins in 1598 aboard the Erasmus, a Dutch trading warship that is looking to steal from the Spanish colonies in the Pacific by sailing around the Straits of Magellan to the rich trading routes in the Pacific. John Blackthorne, is the pilot and acting captain of the Erasmus, the last of the five ships that set forth, the other three were sunk by storms, and he's down to 28 crew, many of whom are sick or dying. Worse still, the Spanish fleet is chasing him, so he can't turn back. They are forced to continue to sail west into unknown waters. When the ship is hit by another storm, it looks like the skeleton crew won't be able to save the ship, but Blackthorne and a handful of his crew survive and make it to Japan, or the Japans, as he calls it. One of the first people he meets in Japan is Father Sebastio, a Jesuit priest, who accuses Blackthorne of being a pirate and a heretic. (Blackthorne, being English, is a Protestant, while the Spanish were Catholics. The Dutch and the Spanish were also fighting over trade routes, so the rivalry is understandable). Omi-san, the local Samurai leader, is in charge of Blackthorne and his men, while Omi-san is under the command of Lord Kasigi Yabu. Omi-san is also the one who needs to teach Blackthorne how to behave properly within Japanese society and uses the lives of Blackthorne's men as leverage. He also tells Blackthorne he is to be called Anjin, which means pilot, because his name is difficult to pronounce in Japanese.
Soon, Lord Yoshi Toranaga's ship arrives in Lord Kasigi Yabu village. Toranaga has heard of the captured barbarian ship and sent his most trusted general, Toda Hiromatsu, to take Anjin to his boss in Osaka. At first, Anjin refuses, because he thinks he's being sold into slavery. Fortunately, Vasco Rodrigues, a fellow pilot, is also on the ship and he's able to explain that he's not a slave and that once on board he will be treated to food and booze. He will certainly be better off going than staying there. He also gives him some tips on how to survive within the samurai culture. Act important and they will treat you like you are important. Act wrong, and they will kill you. He's the first real ally he's had since he was shipwrecked in Japan, sort of. Blackthorne is English and Rodrigues is Portuguese and the two countries are at war. He's more trusting after Blackthorne saves the ship, and Rodrigues's life, during a storm.
At this point, Rodrigues tells Blackthorne a bit of the history of Japan. For 600 years, the country was at war with local lords vying for power. About 35 years ago, one lord conquered nearly the entire country becoming Shogun. However, he was killed and another took his place, then another. It looks like the country is about to see a massive civil war with Lord Yoshi Toranaga on one side and Lord Ishido on the other. The good news for Blackthorne is that Lord Toranaga is interested in him, so other lords won't be quick to punish him, for fear of acting against Lord Toranaga. The bad news is he's not sure what that interest entails.
Worse still for Blackthorne, also in Osaka are Father Dell'Aqua and Father Alvito, more Jesuit priests who want to prove he is a pirate to have him executed. Even worse than that, Father Alvito is to act as Blackthorne's translator. When Blackthorne demands someone else to translate for him, he gets Lady Toda Mariko, and it is love at first sight. (There is a complication, however, as she's married to a powerful lord.) Before too long, Lord Ishido arrives to throw Blackthorne in prison. There he meets Friar Domingo, a Saint Franciscan monk. He informs Blackthorne about the Jesuits controlling the silk trade and how that nets them $1 million in gold every year. That's $1 million in 1600. I don't even want to guess what that would worth in today's dollars. No wonder they don't want Blackthorne or any other traders taking a cut. Friar Domingo also helps Blackthorne by teaching him Japanese.
When the jailor calls Anjin-san, Blackthorne thinks he's being called to be executed. However, this isn't the case. He has an ally in Lord Yoshi Toranaga. The Spanish and the Portuguese hate Blackthorne, but Lord Yoshi Toranaga doesn't trust the Spanish or Portuguese, so he gets Blackthrone to tell him everything he knows, so he can use this knowledge to defeat these forces. Of course, this makes these forces hate Blackthorne even more.
Shogun is an epic mini-series in every sense of the word, including its nine-hour running time. It is also epic in terms of the scale, with a large cast and a great number of sets. It also feels epic in terms of the story, as it deals with a very important part of human history. Granted, being big isn't enough, but the story is also executed extremely well.
The mini-series picked up fourteen Emmy nominations, which is fantastic. Five of those nominations were for acting, so you should know how terrific the acting was. It was also nominated for several technical categories and won an Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series. It only earned three Golden Globe noninations, but won all three, including for Best TV-Series - Drama, as well as acting wins for Richard Chamberlain and Yôko Shimada. Part of the reason the mini-series was so successful was because is was shot entirely in Japan with a mostly Japanese cast and crew. The studio making the movie didn't try and recreate feudal Japan on a Hollywood sound-stage, nor did they have an American cast speaking English with a Japanese accent. For a lot of the movie, we have no idea what the Japanese characters are saying. This really helps hammer home the culture clash that John Blackthorne must have felt. It also helped the movie have a much more authentic feel to it. Granted, most of my knowledge of the time and place is limited to playing Shogun, the board game, so maybe I was just easily fooled.
Actually, I did notice the ninja assassin was wearing black, when he should have been wearing dark blue. Dark blue blends into shadows better than black does. For that matter, ninjas rarely dressed up in what we consider ninja garb and usually hide themselves in plain sight by dressing like farmers, porters, and other peasants. Also, samurai were much more skilled with bows than with swords. However, those issues are really nit-picky.
Shogun is also a great example of VIMS, a term apparently coined by Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks. VIMS stands for Violence, Intrigue, Mystery, and Sex and this series has all four in great amounts. (In this case, sex is more doomed romance than actual sex, because it is a network mini-series from 1980.) Personally, I love political intrigue in my entertainment, so this series filled that need admirably. There is also enough action and character drama that regardless of your personal tastes, there will be something to engage you.
Shogun was released on a five-disc DVD back in 2003 with a bonus disc that was loaded with extras. This three-disc Blu-ray has all of those extras spread over the three discs. This begins with a 80-minute long making of documentary on the first disc. Disc two doesn't have as much in the way of extras. There's a six-minute look at samurais, a five-minute featurette on the tea ceremony, and finally a five-minute feaurette on the geisha. The final disc has audio commentary with the director, Jerry London, on select scenes. I can understand why they didn't have an audio commentary track on the whole series, because as I already mentioned, it is nine hours long.
The technical presentation is mixed, but there are mitigating circumstances. The mini-series is 34 years old. It is understandable if some scenes are softer than others, or if there are signs of print damage in some of the scenes. However, and this is very important, there problems were few and far between. The worst scenes still look pretty good, while the best scenes look fantastic, especially given the age. The colors are amazing, there's no sign of heavy-handed digital manipulation or compression issues. It is a step up from the DVD and the best one could expect from the circumstances. The audio is likewise good, but the 5.1 surround sound track isn't as active as TV shows from today are. This is not a surprise, as it was originally broadcast in mono.
As for the price, the three-disc Blu-ray costs $63, which is pricey, but not outrageously so.
Shogun packs a ton of entertainment in its nine-hour running time and just about every aspect of the mini-series is fantastic. The acting, the writing, the directing, the sets, etc. are all top-notch. The Blu-ray doesn't have any exclusive extras and it isn't cheap, but the technical presentation is a strong improvement over the DVD that it is worth picking up.
Submitted by: C.S.Strowbridge
Filed under: Video Review