Review for Shogun
I have wanted to review this for years, ever since I selected the DVD release as one of my picks of the year, back when we still used to do picks of the year. That DVD release is a thing of beauty, 5 discs, ten hours of classic television in a fold out digipack that is long enough to warrant a samurai sword motif. There’s a booklet as well, all in a hefty brick of packaging, back when studios really wanted to sell this stuff. There’s hours of extra features too, worthy of that particular golden age of television when miniseries were water-cooler affairs. We’re talking shows like Roots, Centennial, The Winds of War, North and South, The Martian Chronicles and this, Shogun. There were novels too big for movies, but limited for ongoing series, brought to life in expensive affairs that would last 10 or 15 hours on television. Whole nations would stop whatever they were doing to watch them. You still get miniseries today, but the seventies and the eighties were when they ruled the airwaves.
Shogun is still a favourite in my home, and that DVD set has seen a lot of play over the years. It is still a TV sourced affair, not looking too different from the original TV broadcasts. But Shogun had a lot of money spent on it, and it was actually shot on film. It was inevitable then that it would see a Blu-ray release, and this is the perfect opportunity to finally review it, although the set has been on my to-watch pile for a couple of years now waiting for an opportune moment. Remember the lavish package that the DVD got? Well Shogun on Blu-ray comes on three discs, unceremoniously bunged into an Amaray case, and with an o-card slipcover. I can’t believe I’m getting nostalgic for the early 21st Century already!
In 1598, ship’s pilot John Blackthorne signed on with a Dutch fleet as navigator, to find a way around the New World, heading to the Japans, while under a letter of marque authorising any plunder from the Catholic enemies, Spain and Portugal. The Straits of Magellan took a heavy toll, and only one ship, the Erasmus survived to founder in a storm off Japan in 1600. The few surviving members of the crew, dreaming of riches and glory, woke up as prisoners in a country where Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests already had great influence. Blackthorne finds himself in a country where he can’t speak the language; where the only Europeans who can translate for him are his enemies, where the culture is brutal and martial and completely alien to him. His skills as navigator will have to be applied to a whole new medium if he wants to survive, especially when a local Daimyo named Toranaga sees in Blackthorne the opportunity to finally become Shogun of all Japan.
The 10 hour miniseries Shogun was originally broadcast over five nights, but on these Blu-rays it’s been re-edited to three parts across three Blu-ray discs.
Shogun gets a 4:3 pillarboxed 1080p transfer on these discs, with the original film source getting a spruce up and restoration for the HD presentation. Given that the series was created for NTSC television broadcast, it’s fair to say that it’s never been seen with this clarity in any other format. The image is clear and sharp throughout, properly filmic with excellent detail, bringing to life the period costumes, sets and locations. There is a smidge of print damage and dirt though, a couple of scenes with glare or marred frames, and grain is somewhat variable. Having said all of that, Shogun looks spectacular in HD, especially when compared to the SD DVD sourced footage in the extra features.
You have the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, a DD 2.0 Mono restored English track, and DD 2.0 German, French, and Japanese. I went with the 5.1 audio and it was fair enough, a decent representation of the TV experience that I recall with the show given a tad more space, and a bit of immersion; nothing too contrived. The dialogue is clear throughout, which is the important thing, and it should be noted that the story is told from John Blackthorne’s point of view, no subtitles for the Japanese dialogue so that the audience is just as lost as he is; although important dialogue does get voiceover alongside the narration from Orson Welles. The music after all these years does seem a little overwrought and obvious, although at the time it probably would have just sounded exotic.
As mentioned you get three discs in a BD Amaray case, with two either side of a centrally hinged panel. Disc contents are printed on the inner sleeve, and the whole thing is wrapped in an o-card slipcover. The discs boot to animated menus, and it’s worth noting that there are no chapter select menu options, and neither do the discs hold position in player memory after being ejected. You’re expected to numb your behind for the full three hours per disc. And on top of that, being re-edited into three hour chunks the discs don’t stop at logical resting points; disc 1 actually stops in the middle of a scene.
On Disc 1 you’ll find the Making of Shogun feature in 13 parts, which in this case are individually selectable. The whole thing runs to 79:51 SD, and made around 2004 for the DVD release, many of the cast and creators contribute.
On Disc 2 there are three Historical Perspective Featurettes.
The Samurai (5:37)
The Tea Ceremony (4:37)
The Geisha (4:58)
They offer an academic examination of these aspects of mediaeval Japanese culture.
Disc 3 offers commentary from director Jerry London on Select Scenes, but it’s not much to mention, 7 scenes with a total runtime of 12:14.
Time and knowledge makes a great difference. When I first saw Shogun back in the eighties, I knew nothing about Japanese culture or history, and took James Clavell’s story at face value. I loved it; this tale of an adventurer lost in a foreign land, surviving and thriving against the odds in a an alien world, faced with an alien language, and an alien culture; and that culture was so vividly displayed and recreated that it was both enthralling and educational (you can see in the end credits that Shogun was actually endorsed by an educational institution for its authenticity). Shogun was, and still is a thrilling piece of storytelling, utterly engrossing, and a singular piece of entertainment.
Today I know a fair bit more about Japan, and I learn that James Clavell based his fictional opus on genuine history. Pilot Major John Blackthorne was based on the real life William Adams, who sailed West with a fleet of five Dutch ships, one of which survived, barely to make landfall in Japan, where he encountered Tokugawa Ieyasu, who after the battle of Sekigahara would become Shogun of Japan. William Adams was even awarded samurai status. Most, if not all of the characters in Clavell’s story are based on genuine historical characters; the story is little removed from history, and it seems like an odd choice, given that after 400 years, the chance of anyone suing for libel, or seeking a chunk of the copyright and royalties would be slim.
By removing Shogun from history, it makes it stand alone as pure fiction, no matter how high the production values, the verisimilitude, the cultural and linguistic accuracy. The fact of the matter is that the key players in the warring states period of Japan are regularly depicted in fiction and drama, and Shogun could easily have existed with the original historical characters instead of having their names changed. And watching a drama about William Adams and Tokugawa Ieyasu, about Akechi Mitsuhide, Toyotomi Hideyoshii, Oda Nobunaga, and Ishida Mitsunari would have been far more rewarding as I would have been able to recognise these figures from other stories, films and TV that I have seen about them. The cross-referencing itself would have been enjoyable. As it is, Shogun’s story feels quarantined.
But it is still a hell of a story. The production values really help, bringing a historical Japan to life that looks and feels real and lived in. The casting is excellent on both sides, with the decision to film in Japan really paying dividends. Richard Chamberlain is brilliant, carrying the story as John Blackthorne a.k.a. Anjin, while John Rhys Davies had a breakthrough role; utterly memorable as Rodrigues. On the Japanese side you had such luminaries as Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga, Frankie Sakai as Yabu; no one puts a foot wrong.
And while the characters are fictional derivations of their real-life counterparts, the history itself is accurate; a snapshot of Japanese history where the centuries long, multi-faceted civil war was nearing conclusion, where the balance of power was starting to shift from the warrior class to the merchant class, where the outside world was getting its collective foot in the door, bringing Christianity and muskets to the islands. Shogun is a great starting point for anyone interested in mediaeval Japan.
Shogun looks fantastic in high definition, and it sounds great too, but the presentation on these discs leaves much to be desired. I think fondly on the love and attention lavished on the DVD boxset, and look at these three discs simply bunged into a BD Amaray case and lament. Not only do the discs not have any chapter select screens, they don’t even hold their place in a BD player when ejected. They actually expect you to sit for three hours plus to watch a disc through (not that they end at any logical points), either that or keep a note of where you stop a disc on a post-it note slapped to the front of the case. A great show could have been even better with a little more historical accuracy; a fair Blu-ray release could have actually been user friendly with a little more care.