To save face, Judge Roman Martel must learn Japanese in six months, or be forced to watch the collected works of Uwe Boll.
How do you turn a 1152 page novel set in feudal Japan into a compelling and award winning television miniseries? You start by hiring Toshiro Mifune.
In 1980 the age of the television miniseries was in full bloom. Television studios went all out; using lavish locations and sets, hiring big name actors, and bringing in known film composers to create sprawling epics. NBC threw their chips in with Shogun, a book that offered everything: exotic locales, adventure, intrigue, forbidden love and a chance to show off Richard Chamberlain's awesome hair.
Facts of the Case
In the year 1600, John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain, The Thorn Birds) is the English pilot aboard the Dutch ship the Erasmus. Blackthorne and his men travel across the Atlantic, through the Straits of Magellan in South America and north across the Pacific. Their goal is the Japans, a set of mysterious islands fabled to house enormous wealth.
A horrific storm sends the ship crashing into the small village of Anjiro. Blackthorne learns very quickly that the Japans are not the fabled land he dreamed of. The culture is completely alien and ruthless, punishing the slightest mistake with death. He and his men are captured, but with a mixture of luck and streetsmarts, Blackthorne becomes a prize of sorts.
One of the most powerful lords in Japan, a man named Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune) sees Blackthorne's knowledge and courage as a valuable tool. Toronaga enlists the help of the beautiful Mariko (Yoko Shimada) to act as a teacher and translator for Blackthorne.
Unfortunately, the Portuguese and their Jesuit order hold powerful sway in Japan already. Blackthorne, his crew and the ship are a very real threat to their political and finical power. The rough and tumble pilot Vasco Rodrigues (John Rhys-Davies) and the wily Father Alvito (Damien Thomas) must decide the best way to remove Blackthorn from Toronaga's grasp, and still maintain their positions in Japanese society.
Intrigue and forbidden romance play against this backdrop, as civil war begins brewing. The the ultimate prize is clear. For Blackthorne it's his freedom and untold riches. For Toranaga it's the position of Shogun.
Until you watch something like this you forget how grand the old TV miniseries could be. These days you don't see anything like Shogun on any network. The closest you come is on cable, with something like John Adams. But even that series is missing the grandeur, the scope and the cheesiness of these classic miniseries.
Shogun is big and bold. From its brash opening credits, to its final monologue (delivered by Orson Welles, no less), this miniseries pulls out all the stops. The result is something impressive and yet a bit over the top all at the same time. It's a dynamic that makes it difficult to review objectively.
From a production standpoint everything is visually stunning. Filmed entirely in Japan, with a mix of location and studio sets, the result is astonishing. Series director Jerry London makes sure that the beauty of Hakkone castle, the forests, beaches and mountains are fully exploited. Costumes are ornate and colorful. Even the full sized ships used for the Erasmus and the Japanese galley are impressive.
For the most part the acting is uniformly good. Stand-outs include Shimada as Mariko. She brings so much to the part, and really creates a dynamic character, even in scenes where the dialogue is more than a little silly. Amazingly, she spoke very little English and learned nearly all her lines phonetically—on top of being a last minute replacement. John Rhys-Davis is obviously enjoying himself as Rodrigues. He's boisterous and bold, torn between his loyalty to his country and his friendship with Blackthorne. It's a juicy part and he lights up the screen whenever he's around. Vladek Sheybal is a villain you love to hate as Captain Ferriera. With his pompous attitude, ruffed collar and obnoxious voice, you can't wait for him to get his just deserts. Finally there is Toshiro Mifune who does what he does best—use his stage presence and authority to make Lord Toranaga a formidable character. Even when he isn't on the screen, the character's power looms large over the rest of the cast because of Mifune's performance.
The weakest link was Chamberlain. He's not bad, but he's not British and he's not terribly compelling. He seems to do best in scenes with the English speaking cast, but when he's playing against the Japanese speakers he is pretty flat. All things considered, it must have been tough playing a part that required you to sit around and wait for dialogue to be translated, but his role is key to the whole film and some scenes end up lacking punch because of him.
The old fashioned musical score by Maurice Jarre is a mixed blessing. Most of the time Jarre uses ethnic instruments and lovely themes to match the images. But when he gets bombastic it can go way over the top. Seriously, actually having the brass section play bum Bum BUM usually end ups making the audience laugh.
The story itself has plenty of twists and turns to keep you interested. The love story between Mariko and Blackthorne has a lot of potential. I also enjoyed the many fish out of water scenes that were inflicted on Blackthorne. What makes these work is that not all of them are played for laughs. The dark side of samurai culture is made very clear to Blackthorne and us early on, but it continues to pop up in unexpected ways—sometimes comically and sometimes tragically.
It was a bold move to make a film that has so much foreign language in it for network television. It's pretty much crazy to leave so much of it untranslated. but that is exactly what happens here. And it actually works. The idea is to have the audience as confused as Blackthorne, and so we only understand what is happening when it is translated for us. This helps us identify with Blackthorne, understanding his frustration at the language barrier. When key items need to be translated, Orson Welles lends his voice to the proceedings. Sometimes the script for this voiceover strays into the cheesy realm, and provides some unintentional laughs.
Paramount has given the miniseries an interesting release. The entire five episode series is strung together like one giant nine hour movie. You get one set of opening credits in disc one and one set of end credits in disc four. The picture looks very good for a television series from 1980. The colors pop, and while there is a bit of a softness to the image at times, it's obviously from the source material. The audio fares about the same, sounding very good, with a clear mix between music and dialogue, but retaining a bit of archival sound especially when ADR is put to use.
Disc five is packed with extras including a 13 part documentary on the making of the miniseries. This was produced in 2003 and actually managed to get most of the major cast and crew back to talk about the film. It covers everything from adapting Clavell's book into the screenplay, to the impact the miniseries had on television audiences. You get three featurettes focussing on aspects of Samurai culture, featuring interviews with professors well versed in Japanese history. Finally there is a selected scene commentary by director Jerry London.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The pacing is the real issue here. Maybe it's because of all the beautiful sets and location shooting they wanted to show off. Maybe it was difficult to get the pacing right while writing the screenplay. Maybe it was just the idea that a sprawling epic needs to take its time. I think it was a combination of the three. There are times when the series slows to a crawl, with long dialogue scenes that don't advance the plot much or give us more character insight. This is especially the case with the many of the romance scenes. It would be a different story if the dialogue wasn't so similar in all these scenes, but disc three in particular felt like it was packed with lots of Mariko and Blackthorne making googly eyes at each other and saying "I love thee" over and over again.
Other times scenes seem a bit truncated, or end abruptly. There are strange transitions for a few moments. This is just a side effect of turning such a large book into a film. It makes for some odd disconnect, but luckily is never confusing. You'll just wonder why the scene seemed to just end suddenly.
The ending is going to feel anti-climactic for some viewers. I can see how it may have worked in the book, but in the visual form it leaves you wanting. Yes things are wrapped up for the most part, but it feels like the story stops at an arbitrary spot in the narrative and then uses voice over to cover the loose ends. But thematically the story should end in that spot. So it kind of works and yet it left me wanting more.
Even with these issues, I still enjoyed Shogun. But I think potential viewers need to understand this is very much a show of its time. Some elements that were standard in 1980 are going to come across cheesy now. On the flip side this series does so many innovative things and tells an interesting story to boot, I feel comfortable recommending it.
I dare not call a Mifune-san holding a sword guilty.
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