Hulu’s Shōgun Hates Japan And Wants You To Hate It Too

By Joshua Tyler | Published

Shogun series review

Shōgun’s first episode begins with such extreme brutality and disregard for the value of human life that, rather than ride my overall revulsion at the show’s horrific portrayal of the Japanese people into a review, I decided to wait a few episodes before saying anything. As of this writing, five episodes of Shōgun have aired with five remaining, and I’m ready to pass judgment on what this new Hulu mini-series is.

Where most historical Samurai epics tend to celebrate the best aspects of ancient Japanese culture, Shōgun seeks a different path. That path leads down a road of wanton killing and an addiction to rules bordering on psychopathic. That is the ancient Japanese Samurai culture of this series. 

Which version is right? The noble warriors or the selfish killers so addicted to following orders they’ll happily murder their own children? Ask a historian; I’m only a simple TV critic.

Shōgun review

So far, though, it’s hard to call Shōgun anything other than a total condemnation of the Japanese and their way of life. The only consistently sympathetic character in the series is an English pirate named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis). It is Blackthorne, not the Samurai he’s surrounded with, who is the show’s real star.

John Blackthorne has done horrible deeds in the past, though we’ve yet to be told what they are. Wicked past or not, Blackthorne is appalled at the seventeenth-century Japan he encounters.

Blackthorne arrives on a ship in dire crisis. Most of the crew is dead, those left are starving, and they have no idea where they are. When their ship runs aground on a Japanese shore, with everyone on board unconscious and on the brink, the local Samurai respond by hauling them off the ship and throwing them in a muddy hole. 

Shōgun Blackthorne
Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne

A few hours later, they begin taking crew members one by one and slowly boiling them to death in a pot of water just to see how long they’ll scream before they’re dead. The screams don’t seem to bother anyone in the village beyond the level of annoyance.

Through determination and cunning, John Blackthorne separates himself from his fellow sailors and winds up involved with the upper crust of Samurai leadership. Those leaders believe they can use him and his knowledge of foreign warfare to their advantage. 

At the time of Shōgun, Japan is in the midst of a crisis. The Catholic Church has recently moved in and begun converting Samurai into Christians. Strangely, this seems to have had no effect at all on the Japanese people’s devotion to their culture’s rituals or disregard for human life. Mostly it has resulted in a few Samurai wearing crosses. 

Shogun review

The Catholic Church and its greed is the least of their problems. The country’s former leader has died, leaving a fractured council in his place. Most of the show’s plot centers around the political maneuverings of the leaders on this council and where John Blackthorne fits in. 

Lord Yoshi Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) becomes Blackthorne’s benefactor, promoting him to an important position and forcing high-class women to marry him and serve him against their will because that’s just how the Japanese do things in Shōgun. They have as little regard for women as they do for everything else, save for their adherence to often senseless cultural rituals and rules.

Hiroyuki Sanada is so brilliant as Toranaga that, at times, he becomes someone you root for. That is until you remember the first episode, where he had a man murder himself and his baby boy because he spoke too loudly in a meeting.

Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranga
Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranga

This is the fundamental problem with Shōgun. It doesn’t seem to like the world it’s set in or any of the people who live in it. To be fair, the show’s main character, John Blackthorne, shares that distaste for the horrific codes of the Samurai, and we’re meant to identify with Blackthorne. So I guess it’s all going to plan.

This isn’t the first show to depict an ancient warrior culture in a violent and brutal light. AMC’s Vikings did something similar. But Vikings did a better job of making its characters’ brutality something you could understand and perhaps also forgive at times. Or maybe it’s simply that even at their worst, viking warriors won’t kill their best friend’s baby because its father spoke too loudly. 

Those unsettling issues aside, Shōgun is brilliantly acted and well-plotted. Revolting though it may be, the show’s exploration into the intricacies of Samurai life is complex and fascinating. Trying to understand why these people do what they do is an endlessly interesting mystery.

Shōgun review

They’ve spared no expense on the production design, and the show’s battles are as satisfyingly thrilling as they are brutal. Ancient Japan is made beautiful, in those scenes where it’s not soaked in blood. There’s a lot to enjoy Shōgun, as long as you’re prepared to hate everything about ancient Japanese culture and the Japanese people who adhere to it.