Shōgun is a masterfully drawn period piece perfect for fans of The Last Kingdom or Game of Thrones

This week, FX premiered the first two episodes of its feudal Japan political drama Shōgun. It's off to a brutal, riveting start.
“SHOGUN” -- "Anjin" -- Episode 1 (Airs February 27) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX
“SHOGUN” -- "Anjin" -- Episode 1 (Airs February 27) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

The first two episodes of Shōgun are out now on Hulu, bringing to life the vivid feudal Japan-era story of James Clavell's bestselling novel. Starring Hiroyuki Sanada as the canny politician Lord Yoshii Toranaga, Cosmo Jarvis as shipwrecked Englishman John Blackthorne and Anna Sawai as highborn translator Toda Mariko, Shōgun has the power schemes of Game of Thrones, the attention to period piece detail of an Outlander or Black Sails, and brutal twists and turns that would feel at home on any of those shows. If you like well-crafted genre television that will send you spiraling down research rabbit holes, you may well have just found your next obsession.

I've seen the first two episodes of Shōgun and was blown away. Beware SPOILERS ahead in this review.

“SHOGUN” -- "Servants of Two Masters" -- Episode 2 (Airs February 27) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun Episode 1 and 2 review

If you enjoy shows like The Last Kingdom, then have I got good news for you: Shōgun will scratch that historical fiction itch and scratch it well. From its costuming to its razor-sharp writing, splendid acting, beautiful cinematography and painstaking detail, there isn't a weak link to be found in the first two episodes of the show. It's about as good as you could hope for a series debut, and I do not say that lightly.

Shōgun is an ensemble story with several different plotlines, and it juggles them all pretty well. On the one hand we have Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), one of several powerful lords vying for power after the death of the previous ruler of Japan. Toranaga is a leader in the vein of Ned Stark; despite receiving more than one opportunity to step into the power vacuum, he declines to bring on unnecessary bloodshed. Sanada has been a mainstay of genre television for years now on shows like Westworld, and he's never anything less than excellent, but with Shōgun he finally has a chance to shine as a lead. He makes the most of every scene.

On the other end of the spectrum we have John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), the fish out of water whose ruined merchant ship drifts to the shores of Japan. Blackthorne is compelling as he tries to navigate a totally foreign culture which up until his arrival didn't even know that England existed; a ploy of the Portuguese, who control trade between Japan, China and the West.

Most of the other characters fall somewhere on the spectrum between John and Toranaga's respective orbits, from Portuguese priests who want to get rid of the foreign "barbarian" before he can rat out their secrets to the Japanese to Toranaga's retainers and rivals. It makes for captivating television where every character feels like a real person with an actual life and motivations. And of course, it doesn't take long before those orbits begin to collide.

“SHOGUN” -- "Servants of Two Masters" -- Episode 2 (Airs February 27) Pictured (C): Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun doesn't waste a scene; every single one tells you something about the characters, the time period, or some other integral element of the tale. It's obvious that a ton of research went into the making of this show. Rather than skip over small bits of set design to focus on bigger conflicts, Shōgun takes its time to show how people did things like write letters, eat food or meet other basic needs. One small example is a brief moment where John rides a horse which has a straw mat on its back instead of a saddle, because he's a prisoner and doesn't warrant the nicer seat but still needs to be able to stay on the horse. These details leap off the screen. That Shōgun is able to fold all of them so deftly into the show while keeping everything moving at a steady clip is a huge testament to the production.

It's always a good sign to me when I can shut off my critic brain and get lost in a story, and Shōgun absolutely allowed that. I can't think of a single real complaint about its first two episodes. The action is brutal and sudden, the drama is clearly laid out and riveting, and the show obviously knows what its big themes are and how to play on them. It's a confident production, and that confidence bleeds off the screen to immerse the viewer.

Shōgun does throw you in the deep end at times, parceling out information in a way that's realistic to the characters rather than for the service of the audience. But personally, I found this to be a bonus rather than a hindrance. I always like when shows don't talk down to their viewers. Give me just enough information to figure things out without explicitly saying it, and I'll love it even more. That's exactly the type of show Shōgun is; more than once I gasped as pieces clicked together in my head for something the show didn't say out loud, like the Izu courtesan's quiet realization that Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) has a fetish for watching rather than doing things himself. And when big, blatant reveals happen — such as the scene where John tells Toranaga that the Portuguese believe Japan "belongs" to them — they hit all the harder.

It helps that Shōgun is a show that is designed for close watching. The majority of the characters speak in Japanese, which the show subtitles rather than pulling off some trick to make them speak English. Considering how much of the series is about John's experience of being a foreigner washing up on the shores of Japan, that adds so much to the immersion of the series. John and those who understand him speak in English, as a stand-in for Portuguese. I like this choice; it helps English-speaking viewers settle into John's experience more fully, and to have him speaking with subtitles as well probably would have diluted Shōgun's language barrier plotline rather than aid it. So far, I think Shōgun is handling its culture-clashing ideas really well.

When the dust settles on these first two episodes, John has just distinguished himself by helping Toranaga survive an assassination attempt, which also simultaneously laid bare that the allies of the Portuguese Catholic Church want to kill John so he doesn't betray their schemes to the Japanese. It was an exciting and heart-pumping scene, with bodies hitting the floor left and right before the final fight. And just like everything else in Shōgun, it accomplishes multiple things at once to keep the story humming along at an exciting clip.

I'm a fan of the weekly release schedule that Hulu is employing for this series, but for once I wish all the episodes dropped together so I wouldn't have to wait to find out what happens next. If the rest of Shōgun lives up to this stellar start, it's going to go down as a new historical fiction classic. I know I'll be watching to find out.


If you've got a soft spot for shows like The Last Kingdom, Vikings, Game of Thrones or Black Sails, Shōgun may well be your next TV obsession. From its stellar cast to its great sets, purposeful action, breathtaking visuals and period piece details, Shōgun is an exceptionally well-crafted series. When nearly every element of a production comes together so seamlessly, it's easy to get swept up and appreciate the magic. Next week can't get here fast enough.

Premiere Episodes grade: A+

Shōgun reviews:

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