DVD review: “Shōgun” (1980)

“Shōgun” (1980)



5 Episodes

Created by: James Clavell

Featuring: Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Shimadav,Damien Thomasv,John Rhys-Davies

Father Alvito:You are a heretic Dutchman pirate! You’re going to die.”

“Shōgun” (1980) has recently been released on DVD for at least the third time, the reason is clear it was one of the defining miniseries from a time that will never be seen again, when there was no CGI, everything had to be carried practically, audiences were massive and there was a genuine thirst for new stories and narratives.

“Shōgun”  was primarly about John Blackthorne  and his adventures after his Dutch trading ship Erasmus and its surviving crew were blown ashore by a violent storm at Anjiro on the east coast of Japan. Blackthorne, the ship’s English navigator, is taken prisoner by samurai warriors. When he is later temporarily released, he must juggle his self-identity as an Englishman associated with other Europeans in Japan, namely Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests, with the alien Japanese culture into which he has been thrust and now must adapt to in order to survive. Being an Englishman, Blackthorne is at both religious and political odds with his enemy, the Portuguese, and the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. The Catholic foothold in Japan puts Blackthorne, a Protestant and therefore a heretic, at a political disadvantage. But this same situation also brings him to the attention of the influential Lord Toranaga, who mistrusts this foreign religion now spreading in Japan. He is competing with other samurai warlords of similar high-born rank, among them Catholic converts, for the very powerful position of Shōgun, the military governor of Japan.

“Shōgun” was produced after the massively successful television miniseries “Roots” (1977) ,  that success, as well as “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), resulted in the production of many other miniseries during the 1980s. “Shōgun”, which first aired in 1980, also became a highly rated program and continued the wave of miniseries over the next few years as networks clamored to capitalize on the format’s success.

“Shōgun” aired on NBC which achieved its highest weekly Nielsen ratings in its history, in fact its 26.3 average rating was the second highest in television history after ABC’s with “Roots”. An average of 32.9% of all television households watched at least part of the series. The miniseries’ success was credited with causing the mass-market paperback edition of Clavell’s novel to become the best-selling paperback in the United States, with 2.1 million copies in print during 1980, and increased awareness of Japanese culture in America. Interestingly the Japanese characters speak in Japanese throughout, except when translating for Blackthorne; the original broadcast did not use subtitles for the Japanese dialog. As it was presented from Blackthorne’s point of view, the producers felt that “what he doesn’t understand, we [shouldn’t] understand”.

Shōgun broke several broadcast taboos and contained several firsts for American television. It was the first network show allowed to use the word “piss” in dialogue and actually to show the act of urination as a symbolic act of Blackthorne’s subservience to the Japanese ruling class and to punish him for saying “I piss on you and your country”, Blackthorne is urinated upon by a samurai. In the first episode Blackthorne’s stranded shipmate is suspended in a cargo net and dunked, screaming, into a boiling vat of soy sauce and water until Blackthorne acquiesces to the Japanese nobility. A man is shown beheaded early in the first chapter, another first for network TV. Men are shown wearing fundoshi. Mariko is shown naked in a bath scene, and when Blackthorne is reunited with his men, a woman’s breast is visible. Shōgun was also noted for its frank discussion of sexuality (e.g., pederasty), and matters such as Japanese ritual suicide (seppuku).

If you have never seen “Shōgun” then you are in for a treat as it is a look back at how television used to be as well as the power of it to be a medium that people paid attention to in the tens of millions unlike in todays world where viewership is a fraction of that time. Not only that but it is interesting to see the technical changes as well as how the quality of the picture has altered over the intervening years. If you have a chance then purchasing this DVD will be ideal as well as a thoroughly entertaining watch, this was made for binge watching.


  1. Set in early 17th-century Japan, shipwrecked English navigator John Blackthorne finds intrigue and culture shock in a feudal society that puts a premium on honor. A rival Lord sentences Blackthorne to death.
  2. After Lord Toronaga rescues Blackthorn from prison, he enlists him as his aide and names him, ‘Anjin-san’. Mariko is directed to tutor Anjin-san in the language and customs of Japan.
  3. Blackthorne and Mariko begin a romance; Toronaga continues to build his army for a battle with Ishido. Anjin-san proves his mettle during an earthquake and is honored by Toranaga for bravery. Mariko’s husband Buntaro, arrives in Anjiro.
  4. Anjin-san’s assimilation of Japanese ways is evident in his exemplary conduct. Toranaga decides to return the Erasmus to Anjin-san. Mariko tells Father Alvito of a plot to murder a Christian lord on the Council of Regents.
  5. Treachery, tragedy and turns of events occur. Toronaga becomes SHOGUN after the defeat of Lord Ishido. Mariko is killed in the final battle at Osaka Castle. Heartbroken, but resolute, Blackthorne begins construction of another ship.


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