I watched the first two episodes of Shogun on YouTube. Someone has crammed this into an HD aspect ratio. Basically that means they cut off some of the top and the bottom of the picture. And it shows.
But other than buying the discs somewhere, I can’t find Shogun available for streaming. So needs must, and all that. This is, of course, another series based on a James Clavell novel. Any other resemblance to the mediocre “Noble House” is coincidental.
I don’t know if the “Noble House” novel is as good as the “Shogun” one, but after seeing the TV series made from the “Noble House” novel, I have no desire to read it. The opposite is true of the “Shogun” miniseries.
Where Pierce Brosnan had no idea who his character was or what to do with it, Richard Chamberlain as pilot of a Dutch-build English ship shows no desire to play it like a soap opera.
This is also due to the quality of production (and no doubt the money spent). What “Noble House” fails at (and one can easily sees this in contrast to “Shogun”) is in evoking the exotic. Although “Noble House” has the perfunctory beauty-shots of Hongkong interspersed here and there, you never get much of a feel for the place. It could have been (probably was) mostly shot on an LA studio backlot.
“Shogun” clearly has major segments shot in Japan. The costumes and characters are believable and do not look as if they walked out of either a soap opera or comic book. Interestingly, John Rhys-Davies has another central role. He’s plays Portuguese pilot Vasco Rodrigues on a trading vessel. Portugal and England (often allies) are currently enemies. His character is a good one so far.
The contrast between antagonist/protagonist Ben Masters and the great Toshirô Mifune (as Lord Yoshi Toranaga, leader of one of the two warring factions aiming to control all of Japan) is all you need to know in terms of the quality-intent of this production as opposed to “Noble House.” NBC was attempting to raise its game and upscale TV’s prestige to compete with theatrical productions. Given what I’ve seen in the first two episodes, they succeeded. (And, frankly, this is better than 99% of the junk shown on Netflix.)
Anjin-san (Chamberlain….his Japanese-given name being his profession…”pilot”) is aboard a vessel that wrecks upon the Japanese coast in the early 16th century. The opening seemed a little sketchy as to what they were doing. They came around the then “secret” Cape Horn route to the Pacific and then had been forced by Spanish ships to escape to the west. Or something like that.
I suspect the final two installments will lag a bit as they simply spin their wheels, repeating the same events in new scenery. But we’ll see. It’s a fairly long series. The DVD release is 547 minutes total. (A Blu Ray release has it at 526.) That’s an average of over 2 hours each which jibes with what I’m seeing on YouTube. The IMDB listing marks the episodes at only 90 minutes, so I’m wondering whether the DVD release includes extra footage.
As good as Chamberlain is in this, he does have a few sketchy moments when he’s caught between playing a common pilot who can’t hold his temper and the man who is obviously much smarter and saver than he appears. But we make this rough transition and he comes under the influence of the Japanese . . . like it or not. To live, he must obey. And it’s clear that Toranaga wants him to live in order to glean all the information from him that he can.
First question: Have the Jesuits, Portuguese, or Spanish ever been a force for good in the world? My guess is only in rare cases or completely by accident. None of these entities come off well in this so far. Toranaga obviously trusts them all about as far as he can throw them. But they are useful to him. And he is in a position where his lack of information puts him at a severe disadvantage. He just doesn’t know much about the world outside of Japanese coastal waters.
But Anjin-san is filling him in on a few details. And as he does, it’s clear that Toranaga becomes more distrustful of the Jesuits and Spanish. But we’ll see how this plays out. There is again and again a warning Anjin-san by Vasco that the Japanese have three faces and six hearts….or something like that. His point being that there’s a depth to the games being played that are not going to be easy for an outsider to read.
In fact, in one scene following a failed attempt on Anjin-san’s life by (likely) the Jesuits, Toranaga invites his #2 man to view a sunset with him. The #2 man figures his time is up and he’ll be executed. But Toranaga just tells him about how beautiful the sunset looks. And the narrator (who comes in a time or two) basically translates that this is “message receive” by his #2. He’ll live, but he’d better do better next time.
It’s almost certain this series could not be produced today as it was in 1980. One is immersed in strange Japanese culture just as Anjin-san is. There are no subtitles. There is no translation of what the Japanese are saying to him. There is Vasco, the Jesuits, and a fine Japanese lady who speak English (and thus often act as translator), but that’s it. You’ll likely learn a word or two of Japanese by watching this. The immersion technique is effective. But it would be too much for today’s adult-children with short attention spans.
One bone I have to pick is with Clavall’s continued exposition of his obviously college-indoctrinated views on sexuality. There’s one scene where the married Japanese lady that Anjin-san has the hots for comes into the small sauna room where Anji-san is taking a bath. She disrobes (but this is TV…but even then, a little racy even for that) and spouts a bunch of gibberish about how it’s no big deal. Only you Westerners are so hung up on nudity and sex. We Japanese, because of over-crowding and our more relaxed views, can all bathe together as natural and easy as birds in a birdbath.
Fine. Some of that might even be true. But in huge contrast to this “easy” and “relaxed” view on sex is that the penalty for adultery is death. And one gets the idea this is not just a technical option for the husband but actually happens frequently.
So, anyway, it felt more like Clavall’s college views being espoused than actual Japanese beliefs. In essence, those who think we in the West are all hung up on sex are all hung up on their own stilted ideas. We Westerners are so hung up on sex that the penalty for adultery today is basically not only non-existent but the woman tends to be rewarded in any divorce settlements. I guess that’s progress. But why this continued churlish and rather juvenile college-based views of sex? Because he was indoctrinate in this junk and just can’t leave it alone. He’s hung up.
The overall impression of the Japanese at his time is of well-ordered and well-dressed barbarians. These are a primitive and violent people of a backward feudal system. Still, it must be said that they infuse their most uncivilized culture with intricate bits of quite civilized art, tradition, and ritual. But it all seems a tripwire culture: All smiles and manners on the outside but with rules that can come down on your head at any time for the smallest things or perceived offenses. It reminds me of that Star Trek: Next Generation episode where Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death on an alien planet for stepping on a patch of lawn while retrieving a ball that the kids were playing with. Rules are rules. Not knowing them is no excuse.
Thus the Japanese culture at the time seems arbitrary and bereft of what we Westerners would consider rationality or objective ethics. That all this and more comes through is a testament to what I can assume is a desire to be authentic. Whereas I could never get it out of my head in “Noble House” that it was simply Remington Steele in Hong Kong, this series gives you a sense of time and place.
Yôko Shimada as Lady Toda Buntaro is wonderful as the woman we first come into contact with as a translator between Toranaga and Anjin-san. Later she is tasked by Toranaga with teaching Anjin-san to speak fluent Japanese. There’s a love triangle (she is already married) there that you know is going to explode at some point.
There series (so far) does a nice job of blending action with sitting around in a room talking. And even when they are sitting around in a room talking, it’s usually a quite dramatic situation or one in which you learn some of the minute details of Japanese culture.