Shōgun Episode 6 is a subtle, powerful hour that gives its female leads time to shine

"Ladies of the Willow World" is another fantastic episode of Shōgun that stands out for how it centers the women at the heart of the conflict to control Japan.
“SHOGUN” -- "Ladies of the Willow World" -- Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured: Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX
“SHOGUN” -- "Ladies of the Willow World" -- Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured: Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

We're past the halfway point in FX's feudal Japan historical series Shōgun, and the stakes are rising ever higher. Last week's episode, "Broken to the Fist," ended with a calamitous landslide that put the Anjin John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) back in the good graces of Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). But all is not well on the home front, as Blackthorne's relationship with his translator/love interest Mariko (Anna Sawai) grows even more strained.

We've got a lot to discuss this week. As always, beware SPOILERS ahead for the latest episode of Shōgun.

“SHOGUN” -- "Ladies of the Willow World" -- Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun Episode 6 review: "Ladies of the Willow World"

Thus far, FX's Shōgun has been an absolute masterclass of a television series, adapting the 1975 novel by James Clavell while injecting a ton of historical authenticity into the proceedings. There have been culture clashes, pitched skirmishes in torchlit forests, and more political upheaval than is healthy for anyone involved. "Ladies of the Willow World" stands out, however, because it's an episode that explores the affects of all this on the women at the center of the story.

This is both wonderful because it gives actors like Anna Sawai and Fumi Nikaido, who plays the complex villain Lady Ochiba, plenty of great material, as well as because it fills in some very important blanks in the political tapestry. If you were a little confused about Ochiba's exact place at court or how Mariko's family fell from grace, this episode should go a long way toward clearing things up.

That starts right in the cold open, which shows how Mariko and Ochiba met as children. After spending so much time with Mariko throughout the season and hearing accounts of how her father was executed, it was immediately compelling to be launched into a time where he was still alive. The episode infuses flashbacks throughout that skip to different periods of Mariko and Ochiba's lives. Not only do we get to see them grow up, but also how everyone in their spheres interacted. Toranaga colluding with Mariko's father, as well as the horrible way that the Taikō's wife (Ako) gave Ochiba the chance to father a child with her husband were particular highlights.

“SHOGUN” -- "Ladies of the Willow World" -- Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured (L-R): Ako as Daiyoin/Lady Iyo, Fumi Mikado as Ochiba no Kata. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

The ramifications of Mariko and Ochiba's pasts play out in big ways in the present. While the conflict over who should succeed the Taikō has primarily been portrayed between Toranaga and the other regents, "Ladies of the Willow World" paints a parallel between Mariko standing at Toranaga's side and Ochiba pulling the strings on Lord Ichido (Takehiro Hira) in order to seize control of Osaka. Both are in positions of power, yet power also pushes against them in ways that are difficult to navigate. And while Ochiba is firmly in control of her surroundings, Mariko seems to be hitting a turning point.

Toranaga does quite a bit to facilitate that, with an almost fatherly level of concern for her; which is fitting, since we now know he was extremely close with her father before his death and has known her since childhood. But that doesn't stop him from being the ruthless manipulator who know he is.

First, Toranaga elevates John Blackthorne, giving him lands and titles as well as command of the cannon regiment. This ruffles feathers among Toranaga's supporters, especially the ambitious Omi (Hiroto Kanai), who was due to command the cannons before. Then, Toranaga tells Mariko's husband Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe) to sequester himself from his wife for a week, because his outburst at Blackthorne's house in the previous episode was bringing shame on Toranaga as his lord.

The fact that Toranaga suggests Buntaro divorce Mariko is also a very interesting touch that gives us a window into why Buntaro refuses to leave her even though it's clear that they hate each other. The way Buntaro treats Mariko is horrible, but the show is doing a good job of making these two feel like real, flawed people who are unfortunately stuck in each other's orbit. Things feel even more tragic once Toranaga reveals to Mariko later in the episode that the only reason her father married her off to Buntaro was to get her as far away as possible before he killed Kuroda, the previous ruler of Japan before the Taikō, and cast shame on their house.

It's a lot to take in, but this is all super crucial information. The show does a great job of handling it, especially considering how dense it all is.

“SHOGUN” -- "Ladies of the Willow World" -- Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured: Yuka Kouri as Kiku. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

This culminates with a painful scene for Blackthorne and Mariko at a brothel. Toranaga orders Mariko to arrange for Blackthorne to be seen there by a courtesan, to help relieve his stress, since Blackthorne is still adamant about wanting to get his ship back and leave to attack the Portuguese. Toranaga orders Mariko to go there with him, to translate in case he wants to talk to the courtesan. That's awkward already, but even more so because Toranaga clearly knows that Mariko and Blackthorne have feelings for one another.

Their trip to the brothel is just as tense as you'd expect, but layered even more because the courtesan, Kiku (Yuka Kouri), gives them an opportunity to both spend the night with her. She gives a beautiful speech about the Willow World, revealing how many people come to the tea house in order to forget their issues and escape in a private moment, something which resonates deeply with Mariko as she translates. The layers to this scene are amazing — Mariko translates for the courtesan, and as she does it's almost as if she's giving the same exact speech to Blackthorne. The framing for the shots as well as the performances go a long way toward conveying what a heartwrenching position this is for both Mariko and Blackthorne, and how badly both of them want that escape.

It's also, notably, the only time in the episode where Mariko actually translates word-for-word. As Mariko's relationship with Blackthorne change, the accuracy of her translations changes. Often she sands off his rough edges, or says something that is not exactly the same as what he said on purpose so as not to ruffle feathers — or, in some cases, because she disagrees with him. That she slipped back into strict translation in this scene only made it more moving.

“SHOGUN” -- "Ladies of the Willow World" -- Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured: Takehiro Hira as Ishido Kazunari. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Meanwhile in Osaka, Ochiba makes her power play, convincing Ishido to to support a lord who she deems pliable in order to force a vote to impeach Toranaga. However, this plan runs into snags when another regent refuses to go along, rightfully guessing that he and his fellow politicians had become hostages to her and Ishido's agenda. Instead, he tries to flee, and Ishido kills him and all his followers.

Ishido and Ochiba are doing a coup to force some kind of vote against Toranaga. They've locked in the regents. They send someone to go warn Toranaga. And here we see the Protuguese again for the first time in a minute. Martine wants to ally with Toranaga, which is interesting.

The final few scenes of the episode, where Toranaga confides in Mariko that her father hoped she would return to finish his fight, while Ochiba tells Ishido of how she steered her own fate, give off vibes reminiscent of Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower in House of the Dragon. These are two women who have a long history who are now on opposite sides of a looming war. And with Ishido and Ochiba firmly strongarming the council, Toranaga finally makes the call to assemble his allies for a dangerous plan, codenamed Crimson Sky. The goal: to raid Osaka and install a new government, with Toranaga as the Shōgun warlord. Something tells me it's going to get bloody in the final few episodes of the series.

Mariko turns down the opportunity to join them. They're all sad about it. He touches her hand as she leaves. And then they all walk back and it's awkward. And Mariko's translations again tell so much. Mariko says she hasn't seen Ochiba in years, and they discuss Ochia, war, honor and gender disparities. A fascinatingly frank conversation. Toranaga tells her some serious truths about her father's plan for her.

Shōgun Bullet Points

  • The cold open ends with Mariko's father telling her "Your duty is what endures, nothing more," as the camera shifts back to the present where she sits in Blackthorne's rain-soaked house. The way this show understands themes and character depth is so powerful.
  • Speaking of great lines, I also have to shout out Toranaga's mourning speech following the landslide. "Death is the end of having lived. It is an affirmation of life itself."
  • Blackthorne and Mariko praying in their own languages in adjoining rooms while being able to hear each other is a haunting scene. The shadows and framing in the composition were exceptional.
  • The traditional Japanese play which shows the history of how Ochiba became mother to the heir was a great touch. It's fun to watch, builds several different characters at once, and fills in crucial backstory.
  • I didn't expect Ochiba to come in and be such a formidable villain more than halfway through the season. At the same time, you have to empathize with her. Both she and Mariko had their houses stripped of honor; Mariko's father killed Ochiba's before being put to death for the crime. They've had similar, very difficult roads.
  • There are a lot of great scenes in this episode, but one of my favorites is the final one between Toranaga and Mariko where they have a fascinatingly frank discussion about Ochiba, war, honor and the gender disparities in their society.
  • Blackthorne's rise is not being marked kindly by Omi, who in one episode had his command of the cannon regiment taken and his favorite courtesan asked to spend the night with the Anjin. That guy is going to be trouble.


Shōgun slows things down a bit in "Ladies of the Willow World," but that is very much a strength for the episode. We need this time to reset, to figure out how our cast of disparate characters feels about one another and their situations, and to better understand where they came from in order to feel the gravity of where they're heading. With the added bonus that this episode gave both Mariko and Ochiba a heavy spotlight, Shōgun continues to prove that it's excellent whether it's depicting intense battles, political scheming or intimate conversations. Is this show even capable of a bad episode?

Episode grade: A+

Shōgun reviews:

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