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Our review of Shogun: 30th Anniversary Edition, published January 17th, 2011, is also available.
"Listen to me, you whore-gutted, pock-marked, motherless scum…I need a favor."—Vasco Rodrigues
The 1977 television broadcast of Roots was a watershed moment in the history of network television. The ratings—the finale was seen by a staggering 71% of US households—opened the door for a new era of television, and the networks looked around for bigger and better tales to tell, tales that would demonstrate that television could stand toe-to-toe with theatrical releases. James Clavell's Shogun was one of these tales.
Facts of the Case
In the year 1600, Japan is experiencing an uneasy peace. The five-lord council of regents appointed to maintain the kingdom until the young emperor comes of age is a contentious lot, each attempting to figure out how to gain control over the others. Both Portugal and the Catholic Church have gained tenuous positions in the land; Portugal's sea power has established immensely profitable trade routes between Japan and China, while the Church's missions are beginning to gain converts, and the priests have gained some political leverage. The Dutch ship Erasmus, following a long and treacherous voyage, battered by storms, drifts into a Japanese bay. The crew is removed, along with pilot John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain, The Three Musketeers). The Netherlands and England are at war with Portugal and Spain, and it is just as much a dispute over trading routes as it is a struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Blackthorne, quickly dubbed Anjin-san (Honorable Pilot), finds himself isolated by culture and language. Determined to strike at Portugal, he attempts to convince Lord Toranaga to return the Erasmus so he can go after the biggest target on the high seas: the Black Ship, a cargo ship that makes an annual trip from Japan to Portugal, loaded with treasure and trading goods. But Toranago has his own plans, as he seeks to consolidate his power to the point where the young emperor will name him the supreme military commander of Japan, Shogun.
Shogun is sprawling epic work and massive in scope. The miniseries of the 1980s were characterized by bringing big screen production values to the small screen. To that end, Shogun was filmed entirely in Japan, even using Japanese soundstages. Of the hundreds of Japanese characters we see on screen, only three ever speak English. Which leads us to the single biggest gamble of the production: they did not use subtitles.
Think about that: a TWELVE HOUR miniseries in which almost ALL of the dialogue is in Japanese, and no subtitles. It really helps the audience appreciate Balckthorne's sense of near-complete isolation, but at the same time, it creates some massive narrative hurdles. Some are overcome with a few English-speaking characters whose lines are crafted to impart as much narrative information as possible, some are overcome with judicial use narration from Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), but most are overcome by an exceptionally strong performance from Richard Chamberlain. He had spent the bulk of the '70s trying to escape the typecasting that had resulted from his teen heartthrob days as Dr. Kildare, doing a lot of film and stage work overseas. His performance here put him back on center stage, and in 1983 he cemented his status as the lord of the miniseries with The Thorn Birds.
The story is wonderfully complex and compelling. Blackthorne is caught in a complex web of intrigue, not just of Japanese politics, but in Spanish and Catholic politics as well. He befriends Portuguese pilot Rodrigues (John Rhys-Davies, Raiders of the Lost Ark), but Rodriguez himself, pilot for the Black Ship, finds himself at odds between his friendship and his duty.
Trivia: The captain of the Black Ship is played by Vladek Sheybal, noted for his memorable performance as Kronsteen in From Russia With Love.
Apart from occasional flickering, the 1.33:1/1080p full frame high-def transfer looks excellent, far better than one would expect from a 35-year-old tele-series. Detail is uniformly excellent, particularly with the rich textures of the various fabrics. You get to choose between the original mono audio track and a remastered DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, both of which are clear. However, the surround track, as you might expect, brings little to the party.
The extras are all from the 2011 DVD release. The 13-part documentary sounds impressive, but each runs about four minutes, so it's little more than an hour in total. There are nice bits of information scattered here and there. The three featurettes on Japanese culture fare a little better. The scene commentaries with director Jerry London are fairly forgettable, as they are each just a few minutes in length.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The whole "no subtitles" thing is a double-edged sword. In the first half of the story it's incredibly effective at showing us Blackthorne's perspective. But by the back half, Blackthorne has picked up enough Japanese follow along, but we're still left in the dark. We get a little voice over translation from time to time, but it is hardly sufficient to fully capture the various power struggles; there are other areas where the story gets oversimplified to make it easier to follow, to the point that the conclusion is anticlimactic.
While it's to the producers' credit that they sprung to have accomplished composer Maurice Jarre score the film, the sad fact is that the score really does not do much to enhance the story.
The presentation of the miniseries leaves something to be desired. Shogun was originally broadcast over five nights—two three-hour episodes bookending three two-hour episodes—here it's presented as one loooooong movie spread over three discs. While there are chapter stops, there's no browse option from the disc menu, making stopping in the middle of a disc rather inconvenient.
Despite the story problems on the backend, Shogun remains an entertaining slice of television history, with its daring narrative form and stunning production values.
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