Shōgun basks in the bleakness of war in "A Stick of Time"

A betrayal, a business proposal, and more shocking deaths await in this week's grim episode of FX's Shōgun.
“SHOGUN” -- "A Stick of Time" -- Episode 7 (Airs April 2) Pictured (L-R): Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Yuki Kura as Yoshii Nagakado. CR: Katie Yu/FX
“SHOGUN” -- "A Stick of Time" -- Episode 7 (Airs April 2) Pictured (L-R): Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Yuki Kura as Yoshii Nagakado. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun Episode 7 is a dark, brooding affair that introduces new characters while bidding farewell to an important one. FX's spectacular limited series set in feudal Japan has never minced words or ideas when it comes to weighty topics like life, death and the burden of leadership. But in "A Stick of Time" that comes home to roost in a brutal way that seems sure to shake things up.

All that said, this also might have been some of the least fun I've had with Shōgun so far this season. Things are most certainly darkest before the dawn this week. As always, SPOILERS ahead in this review.

“SHOGUN” -- "A Stick of Time" -- Episode 7 (Airs April 2) Pictured (C): Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun Episode 7 review: "A Stick of Time"

If Shōgun's last episode, "Ladies of the Willow World," was all about the women involved in the political struggle for the future of Japan, "A Stick of Time" shifts the focus firmly back to Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). In many ways, the episode is about contrasting the legend of Toranaga as a warlord with the realities of his life. This is driven home with the cold open, where we see samurai celebrating Toranaga's first win on the battlefield at the young age of 12. "The boy warlord" then serves as the "second" to the lord he'd defeated, Lord Mizoguchi, which means that after Mizoguchi has committed seppuku Toranaga has the responsibility of cutting off his head to ensure he's good and properly dead.

We first see this as a flashback. Then Toranaga's half-brother Saeki (Eita Okuno) recounts the tale at a tension-laden dinner where he boasts about how the 12-year-old Toranaga beheaded Mizoguchi with a single stroke of his sword. Then, finally, at the end of the episode, Toranaga discusses the truth with his advisor Toda Hiromatsu (Tokuma Nishioka): it took nine bloody sword strikes to sever Mizoguchi's head, and was an absolute "mess."

There's the image of war and warriors as perceived by those writing history, and the brutal reality. "A Stick of Time" drives that home beautifully, horrifically, and effectively.

“SHOGUN” -- "A Stick of Time" -- Episode 7 (Airs April 2) Pictured: Eita Okuno as Saeki Nobutatsu. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Following the utter destruction caused by the earthquake in Ajiro village a few episodes back, Toranaga is forced to propose an alliance with his half-brother, Lord Saeki Nobutatsu. And look, from the minute this dude rolled up to Ajiro in his absurd hat, I had a feeling things were going to go sideways. I know a duplicitous hat when I see one.

Saeki is charasmatic and fun, cracking jokes with Toranaga as he asks for details about the hot springs and the village. On any other show, that'd probably make me excited to get to know the character better. But at this point in its run, Shōgun is grim. People are dying left and right, the fate of Toranaga's uprising is bleak and Anjin John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is trapped in a cycle of broken promises that keep him tied to the war effort. If someone shows up cracking jokes left and right, the chances are very good they're hiding something.

That turns out to be exactly the case with Saeki, who reveals at an excellent dinner scene that he's actually been named as the next Regent in Osaka, and has come to deliver a formal command to Toranaga to show up for his own execution — as well as to his son, Yoshii Nagakado (Yuki Kura), to commit seppuku as penance for murdering the Regents' envoy a few episodes back.

Toranaga agrees that he will deliver his formal answer to his half-brother the following day, but he stops his son from accepting the seppuku order.

“SHOGUN” -- "A Stick of Time" -- Episode 7 (Airs April 2) Pictured: Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, Shinnosuke Abe as Buntaro. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

This leads into a day of bitter contemplation for everyone in Ajiro village. Will Toranaga come up with some sort of plan? Will Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe) allow this war to crumble without first claiming Blackthorne's life over the affront of his and Mariko's (Anna Sawai) obvious shared feelings? Will Toranaga's son simply let his father surrender? And what of Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), whose messenger to Lord Ishido returned as a severed head this episode, proof that Yabushige has no more friends in Osaka?

The stakes are very high, and the episode does a great job of exploring the very complex web its woven for itself. Shōgun has committed itself to a level of excellence that's honestly somewhat hard to critique. The production values, writing, acting, music...pretty much everything about this show is excellent all the time. It's had one of the most flawless runs that I can recall in recent genre television.

At the same time, I do have to admit that this is perhaps the least fun I've had with an episode of Shōgun so far. It's still grimly compelling, but at this point we've had a run of around three episodes where things are sliding from bad to worse, and many of our integral cast members like Mariko, Toranaga and Blackthorne are at odds. There's been a lot of important development that's occurred in that time, but I am ready for the story to move forward into its endgame.

“SHOGUN” -- "A Stick of Time" -- Episode 7 (Airs April 2) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Fortunately, it does seem like a big shift is about to happen. The episode ends with a pair of shocking events. First, Toranaga formally tells Saeki that he will indeed surrender and go to Osaka to face his fate, essentially ending the war. This causes Blackthorne to throw up his hands in frustration and tell all of Toranaga's generals that he's led them to their death before storming off. The fact that Blackthorne makes this proclamation in Japanese is a cool touch; I like how the show has handled him gradually picking up bits of the language.

However, not all of Toranaga's followers will accept this surrender lying down. As Saeki has sex with the courtesan Kiku, an assassination attempt by Toranaga's son Nagakado gets underway. All episode, Nagakado has waxed philosophical about how beautiful his death will be when the time comes, and how he can't wait to experience his first battle. All of the more seasoned warriors essentially tell him he's an idiot.

That lands in a tragic way during the assassination attempt. Nagakado stands over his uncle Saeki in a rain-soaked courtyard, raising his sword for the killing stroke...only to slip on a rock and crack his skull open, bleeding out. It's a great, brutal twist and a shocker of a death. Whatever decisions Toranaga had made, I have a feeling the death of Nagakado is about to upend them.

Shōgun Bullet Points

  • One of the more interesting developments of the episode is that Gin (Yûko Miyamoto) uses this moment of turmoil to pitch Toranaga on the idea of establishing a courtesan quarter and guild in his new city at Edo. She's assuming he'll survive and has some plan to pull a fast one on the Regents. Toranaga refuses her.
  • But, a few scenes later, there's a quick line where Toranaga is dictating his will to a scribe, and he decrees for two parcels of land in Edo to be set aside for Gin. So even though he told her no, he actually decided to back her.
  • That raises the question: was Gin right about Toranaga's plans? The episode leaves it somewhat ambiguous.
  • Omi (Hiroto Kanai) is making me nervous. Last episode his favorite courtesan Kiku had to entertain John Blackthorne, and in this one she spends time with Lord Saeki at Toranaga's request. Gin dropped a hint to Omi that Blackthorne spends his time at the brothel thinking of someone other than Kiku, and Omi is clever enough put two and two together about Blackthorne's feelings for Mariko. He's a dangerous wildcard.
  • I loved the scene of Hiromatsu dropping in unexpectedly on Fuji (Moeka Hoshi). There's a warmth to those two characters and I really enjoyed seeing them act opposite each other, brief though their interaction was.
  • Yabushige's training duel with Blackthorne was also a lot of fun. This was a pretty dark episode, so that little bit of levity with Yabushige went a long way. He's another favorite of mine in this series.
  • I'm also very curious to see where things go with Mariko and Blackthorne. In this episode, Mariko's husband Buntaro asked permission to kill Blackthorne...but Toranaga pointed out he couldn't kill Blackthorne over seducing his wife without killing Mariko too. This led to Toranaga demanding Mariko choose her priorities, and her asking for him to kill her in response. Everyone's very eager to die at the moment on this show. I hope a better fate awaits Mariko in particular.


"A Stick of Time" continues Shōgun's streak of excellence, but like Toranaga, I'm starting to get just a little tired of how hopeless things seem. The show remains compelling, but I'm hoping that the shocking ending of the episode means we're about to move into an even more breathtaking endgame for the series.

Episode Grade: A-

Shōgun reviews:

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