‘Shōgun’ series finale review: A finespun, powerful farewell to the Anna Sawai-led feudal saga

A moment with Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshi Toranaga in FX’s ‘Shōgun’

The strategic maneuvers of Toranaga-sama have reached their climax with the highly anticipated last episode of Shōgun gracing our screens today. Contrary to expectations of an explosive finale, the series chose subtlety over spectacle. The show’s masterminds, Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, have meticulously woven narrative threads true to the essence of James Clavell’s acclaimed novel throughout the season. In the ninth and final installment, viewers will not witness a grand battle involving the shipwrecked English navigator Blackthorne or the diverse group of samurai that have become central to the story.

From his unexpected arrival to a humble fishing village on Japanese shores, John Blackthorne (portrayed by Cosmo Jarvis), armed with a ship full of Western arms, finds himself entangled in the 16th century’s brutal power struggles. Over the span of the series, Blackthorne is skillfully manipulated by Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a power-hungry feudal lord who seeks to exploit the Englishman’s hostilities with the catholic Portuguese traders in Japan. Facilitating their communications is Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), who learned Portuguese from the priests residing in their land. As a trusted retainer of Toranaga’s household and an interpreter, she plays a pivotal part in the unfolding political drama.

Shōgun (Japanese, English)

Creators: Rachel Kondo, Justin Marks

Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Cosmo Jarvis, Anna Sawai, Tadanobu Asano, Takehiro Hira, among others

Episodes: 10

Runtime: Approximately 45-50 minutes each

Plot: Amidst a power struggle in 17th-century Japan, an English explorer lands on its shores to become enmeshed in the contest for the influential position of shogun.

The original novel, penned by James Clavell in 1975, spans a generous 1,100 pages and was first adapted into a mini-series five years later. Fast forward to 2024, and we have Kondo and Marks reviving Shōgun with a fresh perspective while staying faithful to the narrative’s core elements, such as the enticing samurai-led skirmishes for dominance, and a portrayal grounded more genuinely in Japanese culture.

The new Shōgun series delves into the subtleties of Japanese culture and the private battles waged within individuals. Though the series features its fair share of classic samurai skirmishes – from covert assassinations to startling decapitations – it does not rely solely on action sequences to propel the story. Instead, its primary narrative force comes from the intricate web of dialogues. These exchanges, often laced with the austere customs of feudal Japan, reveal the true weight of each spoken word and unspoken thought.

Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko from FX’s ‘Shōgun’

The impressive Anna Sawai embodies Toda Mariko in FX’s ‘Shōgun’ | Photo Credit: Ruth Dhanaraj

Throughout the show, actors like Anna Sawai and Hiroyuki Sanada are particularly noteworthy, capturing the complex nuances of their characters. Sawai’s portrayal of Mariko is enthralling as she navigates the nuances of language to reveal, or conceal, strategic information.

The translation process, as explained by Justin Marks, was exacting: starting with English, moving to contemporary Japanese, and then refined by a playwright who excels in traditional Japanese period dramas. The subtitles viewers see are the translations of this carefully crafted dialogue.

The series is, overall, a testament to the rigorousness of this process. Yet, one may yearn for more time with these characters and their clandestine maneuverings. While the finale forgoes a grand battlefield spectacle, it remains loyal to the narrative style that prioritizes smaller, strategic moves within Toranaga’s master plan.

Mariko’s words, “We live, we die – we cannot command anything further,” encapsulate the show’s philosophical depth. This core theme resonates through interactions where every character, even the observant Toranaga, relies on circumstances shaped by others’ actions.

The real challenge for the Shōgun adaptation was to distill a grand tale into ten hours of compelling television. By giving the story a genuine Japanese voice, the series presents audiences with a richly layered historical saga.

Shōgun is now available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar

Leave a Comment