‘Shogun’ (1980): NBC’s blockbuster miniseries premiered 40 years ago

Now, what’s a Drunk TV virtual Fall TV season..without some special event television (“We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming tonight because of the f*cking actor’s strike to bring you an NBC Movie Event!”)?

That’s right: it’s time for a blockbuster miniseries, and a quick glance over at the calendar tells me this September 15th is the 40th anniversary of the premiere of NBC’s mega-hit serial, Shogun, a massive $22 million programming event that kept an estimated 130 million (total) pre-VCR American TV viewers glued to their sets for five consecutive nights back in 1980.

By Paul Mavis

Based on the James Clavell bestseller of the same name, and starring Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, and Yôko Shimada, Shogun came this close to beating the record Nielsen ratings for ABC’s Roots when it first premiered. So, there are a lot of viewers out there, my age and older, who no doubt have fond memories of this exciting miniseries, chronicling the culture shock adventures of fictional Englishman John Blackthorne’s (loosely based on the English navigator William Adams) adventures in early 17th century feudal Japan. Newer viewers will still want to tune in…unless they’re waiting for FX network’s much-delayed reboot, which everyone involved with promises has even more humiliation, degradation, and marginalization for our inherently evil White Western male “hero.”

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Reviewer’s note: It’s not within the scope of this brief synopsis to detail the many subplots and characters found in the 9+ hour Shogun…nor would I want to spoil the fun. This rundown is only to set the stage.

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Feudal Japan, 1598. Wayward Dutch trading vessel The Erasmus, having successfully navigated the Straits of Magellan, and piloted by Englishman John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain), shipwrecks off the coastal waters of Japan, near the village of Anjiro. The “Japans,” as Blackthorne has been telling his disbelieving crew, do exist. However, the arrogant Blackthorne and crew are viewed by the exceedingly polite—and exceedingly deadly—samurai who rule the village, as barbarians from a vastly different culture who are worthy only of suspicion.

Met by Portuguese priest Father Sebastio (Leon Lissek), Blackthorne refuses to hide his hostility towards the Jesuit (England wars with Spain and Portugal, while Portugal jealously guards her trade and control over Japan), who likewise states the Englishman will die a pirate’s death. Blackthorne, immersed in a warrior culture he doesn’t understand, personally insults head samurai Omi (Yuki Meguro), only to soon learn humility from the soldier who urinates on the stiff-necked Blackthorne (Blackthorne endures this unimaginable humiliation to save one of his crewmen from being boiled alive).

Kept as a prized pet by Omi’s leader, Lord Kasigi Yabu, Daimyo of Izu (Frankie Sakai), and “befriended” by Portuguese pilot Rodrigues (John Rhys-Davies), Blackthorne is conveyed by slave ship to Yabu’s master, Yoshi Toranaga, Lord of the Kwanto (Toshiro Mifune), who slyly grasps the importance of gleaning information from this stranger. In exchange for information on European warfare and sailing techniques, Blackthorne is allowed to live in increasing comfort as he develops a true friendship with the wise Toranaga. Blackthorne is even given the services of an interpreter and teacher of culture in Lady Mariko Buntaro-Toda (Yôko Shimada), a mesmerizingly beautiful creature who soon captures Blackthorne’s heart.

However, multiple obstacles stand in the way of Blackthorne’s love for Mariko, including her marriage to master archer Lord Buntaro (Hideo Takamatsu), Blackthorne’s refusal to abide by the strict Japanese culture, and most critically, his central role in the three-way fight between the Jesuits, embodied by the crafty, calculating Father Martin Alvito (Damien Thomas), who see him as a threat to their hold on Japan, and the brewing civil war that is to come between Toranaga and his rival for title of shogun, Ishido, ruler of the Osaka Castle (Nobuo Kaneko).

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Trust me: no one who tuned into Shogun‘s first episode forgot: 1) the peasant getting his head lopped off for failing to bow to Omi, and 2) Chamberlain getting enthusiastically pissed on by same said Omi—two “firsts” for American television. It’s getting increasingly difficult now even for me to remember just exactly how innocent those TV times felt back then, after decades of being exposed—and numbed—to the exponentially-increasing violence and sex of today’s television.

So it’s impossible to convey to new viewers what a shock it was to see those two scenes unfold on a prime-time network broadcast. You can (successfully) debate the aesthetic worth of Shogun all you want. However, there’s no question that those two moments in the story electrified audiences who were already intrigued by what they were seeing, fulfilling exactly the purpose of these “big event” miniseries: grab the viewer by the throat, preferably through the tried-and-true dramatic elements of sex and violence, and keep them coming back for the commercials.

Special programming events, including miniseries, were usually reserved for “sweeps” periods, back when the “Big Three” networks determined their ad rates based on ratings’ performance during three key calendar periods: November, February, and May. Shogun broke with tradition when savvy NBC honcho Fred “The Man With the Golden Gut” Silverman opened his fall season with this rather outrageously unconventional mini, featuring outsized violence and sex, a foreign historical context largely unfamiliar to American audiences, and long passages of unintelligible Japanese dialogue without the aid of English subtitles. It was a bold programming move that turned into a perfect happenstance of history, since the premiere of Shogun coincided with a nasty SAG/AFTRA strike in the summer, that shut down production of most of the upcoming fall programs. And with few new shows as competition, Shogun had the American viewing public’s attention to itself.

Published in 1975, James Clavell’s Shogun racked up an impressive sale of 7 million hardcover copies. Yet Hollywood was leery of committing to such a large book (over 1200 pages), which would require a lot of trimming and a huge budget. Super agent Michael Ovitz, representing Clavell, almost sold Paramount studios on a big screen packaging featuring director Richard Attenborough, celebrated screenwriter Robert Bolt, and Sean Connery in the role of Blackthorne. Accounts vary as to why the deal fell apart, but in 1977, Ovitz, after watching the phenomenal success of ABC’s miniseries Roots, decided Shogun was the perfect property for the extended TV format.

Clavell wasn’t, however (a movie director and screenwriter, too, he was a snob about TV…until he got that one million dollar check for being an “executive producer”), nor was ABC or CBS, who were first approached with the proposal (CBS reportedly said, “We don’t think Americans care too much for Asia,”). Last-placed NBC, with nothing to lose and an executive (Deanne Barkley, head of TV movies at the Peacock network) willing to gamble millions—an astounding $22 million—on a risky project, gave the go-ahead, with Paramount covering any budget overages for future syndication rights. Location shooting and interiors (at the famed Toho Studios) were all to be done in Japan—a first for an American television production…and a significant factor in the high budget.

Sean Connery was again approached for the lead (as were Albert Finney and Roger Moore), but ultimately the more affordable TV star Richard Chamberlain was chosen (the ornery, notoriously work-shy Connery reportedly laughed at the suggestion of his shooting a mere television movie for months in Japan—a country he openly admitted to not liking when he made the Bond film, You Only Live Twice, there in 1966). Despite NBC’s initial worries that middle America and the two coasts might be bored to tears with nine hours of feudal Japanese history, once Shogun showed up on the NBC schedule with not a single new episode of M*A*S*H or Three’s Company or The Dukes of Hazzard to harass it in the Nielsen’s, its popularity was almost assured. Why, after all, would you watch an old Charlie’s Angels rerun or some local political programming filler (that strike was really punishing…), when you can watch a denogginizing and some guy getting peed on? NBC was rewarded with over a third of all TV households tuning in, and over 50% of all people actually watching TV.

So much for commerce. Aesthetically, as a film, as a miniseries…how does Shogun hold up after 40 years? The short answer? “Not too bad.” I don’t agree with many critics who call Shogun the pinnacle of the miniseries form, but it is exceptionally well-written, largely well-acted, and unconventionally designed (for my money, nothing will ever equal the visual and thematic scope of Dan Curtis’ and Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, the single most harrowing look at the Holocaust I’ve ever seen—and that includes Spielberg’s overrated Schindler’s List). Most reviewers usually comment first on the novelty—at least in television at the time—of screenwriter Eric Bercovici (Hell in the Pacific, the miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors), and director Jerry London (minis The Scarlet and The Black, Ellis Island, and the superlative Chiefs, with Charlton Heston) winnowing down Clavell’s massive tome into an adventure/political drama/romance seen strictly from Blackthorne’s P.O.V.

By refusing to explain long passages of Japanese dialogue, we experience what Blackthorne experiences, including culture shock and confusion, until he gradually becomes more savvy to the Japanese way of life. This technique works marvelously well…at first. However, once the character begins to learn and then master the language, why not subtitle? Logically, it doesn’t make much sense, either, to have interpreters explaining the simplest exchanges to Blackthorne in later passages when supposedly, he’s already long-mastered the language. Why not get the full flavor of what is being said by these intriguing Japanese characters by using subtitles?

Even the producers must have known this technique wasn’t working past the early scenes; eventually, they’re forced to incongruously drop-in narrator Orson Welles at various times (in his full, awful “We will serve no wine…before it’s time,” portentousness) to translate more complicated passages from Mifune and other characters. Shogun‘s plotting becomes too dense, too subtle, to survive a technique that starts out as expressive, but which eventually turns into a restrictive gimmick.

As well, some scenes and passages in Bercovici’s script feel severely truncated or underdeveloped, making the viewer wonder if too much of the book was stripped away, affecting the coherence of these scenes. A good example is Blackthorne’s “mad” scene, where he saves Mifune’s life by acting mentally deranged, complete with hopping and screeching and mugging. It’s a good scene, and we can guess why Chamberlain is doing what he’s doing (we’ve seen that scene before in other films, frankly), but we’re never given any context as to why he would suddenly decide to act that way, or indeed why anyone else would let him act that way without killing him straight off. We don’t know enough about the characters to explain these actions; perhaps it’s explained better in the book (as well, other scenes seem unnecessarily elongated and obtuse, such as Lady Ochiba’s birthday party, a character who is shot as if she’s going to significantly contribute to the narrative…but who comes and goes quickly).

While not a deal-breaker with Shogun, Richard Chamberlain’s performance is resolutely “TV” in its scaled-back smallness. Chamberlain, an excellent actor who’s better when he’s quiet and sincere, or quiet and oily (Dr. Kildare for the former, or his marvelously villainous turn in The Towering Inferno for the latter), just doesn’t feel like a rough-hewn 16th-century English sailor (his reaction to a guy getting beheaded is comically overdone…considering 16th-century English sailors were routinely exposed to such nautical horrors as keel-hauling and “walking the plank” for the sharks below).

He’s too taciturn, too calm, to carry off what should have been a rousing turn (any of the big-screen talents sought for this role—Connery, Moore, Finney—would have effortlessly filled out the role). For this kind of action/adventure, he’s far too dialed-back; and when he does try for rambunctious, such as when he screams, “Turn, you whore from hell!” when he’s battling The Erasmus through a storm, the effect is giggle-inducing. Luckily, the soft, romantic Chamberlain is given plenty to do here in his scenes with Shimada, and he’s quite good interacting with that beautifully expressive actress.

Where Shogun excels is in its admirable attempt to illustrate some of the intangibles of feudal Japanese culture (and the clash against Blackthorne’s Western views), as well as in the construction of the Mariko character. It’s engrossing to watch viewer substitute Blackthorne begin to excel at the complicated moves in feudal Japanese society, although the script is always careful to never let Blackthorne become a master, keeping him and us continually off guard just when we think he’s got the game figured out.

A good example of this comes early when Toranaga rewards Blackthorne with a return trip to Anjiro, for the purpose of safekeeping from Ishido, and to fully learn the intricacies of the Japanese language. We think Blackthorne can now sufficiently handle himself, since he has such a powerful “in,” until he learns that the whole village will be massacred—women and babies, as well—if he isn’t fluent in the language in six months. It’s a horrifying moment for Blackthorne, an inexplicable lesson in the opaqueness of the world he now inhabits, and one that forces him to adopt equally severe Japanese measures (he threatens ritual seppaku if Lord Yabu doesn’t rescind the order) to cope with the situation. Shogun‘s script doesn’t try to rationalize this alien culture, nor does it overly criticize it in context with Blackthorne’s Western ways; it just presents this world, as is, and let’s the viewer/Blackthorne navigate it. And if you think they’re going to be this culturally fair and even-handed in the upcoming FX remake, I’ve got some stock in phony Covid masks to sell you (wait…they’re all phony. Never mind).

The most distinct insight into this at-times bewildering culture comes from the Mariko character, a character I found more compelling than the miniseries’ nominal lead. Blackthorne’s journey from English sailor to Japanese samurai may be unconventional in the specifics, but it’s fairly recognizable in the structure of that traditional “hero’s journey.” Mariko’s various plights through her evolution, however, are not nearly as familiar to us (and therefore, far more compelling). From her acceptance of the seemingly contradictory influences of her Japanese heritage and her new-found Catholicism, to her taboo love for Blackthorne, to her breaking with tradition to defy her husband, to her willingness to conduct at first a sexual affair-by-proxy with Blackthorne, to her resolute request to make Blackthorne stick to his bargain of a true, fulfilling affair with limitations, Mariko’s reactions to these events are intriguingly outside our conventional expectations for melodrama.

Of course, a great deal of the character’s success lies with actress Yôko Shimada, a stunningly beautiful actress capable of subtle, beautiful underplaying. As exciting as Shogun is in chronicling the adventures of Westerner Blackthorne as he ascends the heights of feudal Japanese society and its warrior culture…Mariko’s fascinating story commands the most interest in this well-mounted miniseries.


Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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