Shogun Returned to What Was So Great About Early Game of Thrones

FX’s Shōgun seems to be scratching an itch left by the ending of Game of Thrones.

Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones versus Tokunaga in Shogun
Photo: HBO / FX

This article includes spoilers for Shōgun (and Game of Thrones too).

It is a spectacular sight. Five armies, each serving one of the great clans and regents of feudal Japan at the end of the Sengoku period, gather on a field at Sekigahara. Nothing less than the fate of the realm hangs in the balance, and Lord Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira) is about to be delivered the fatal blow when a letter reveals his betrothed, Lady Ochiba-no-kata (Fumi Nikaido), has thrown in her lot with their mortal enemy. The slaughter which is to commence against him will be immense.

… Or so we’re told. Because all of this devastating spectacle is a tease, a trick or shadow on the wall, as one might say. It’s a vision of the future gifted from one man to another who is already dead. We are supposed to take it on faith that this is the inevitable conclusion to which Shōgun, the captivating new series from FX and creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, is building. Because that is not the point of the final episode of the miniseries. The substance of what is actually a fairly quiet hour of television is that everyone, including the man who is about to lose his head, is dancing to a beat written, orchestrated, and constantly manipulated by the master conductor Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada).

For those who’ve fallen in love with this severe world and its often bloodthirsty characters, it is bittersweet to see Toranaga stand victorious above Kashigi Yabushige’s (Tadanobu Asano) headless corpse—and not only because Yabushige made for a strangely entertaining rat. No, there is also the knowledge that like the poor decapitated wretch, we will not get to see the final victory of Toranaga’s tactical brilliance. But this show isn’t about winning the game. Rather it’s the terrible human cost and psychological damage the game did along the way from which we are to derive our darkest pleasure.

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Through that prism, Shōgun might just be the best season of epic television storytelling since the first four or so seasons of Game of Thrones. Because unlike that both beloved and controversial HBO series, Shōgun never forgets the spectacle is secondary to characterization, satisfyingly twisty political maneuvering, and a scene where a single, well-invested character loses their head.

Game of Thrones’ Early Years

Despite what internet hive-mind culture or revisionist history tells you, the early days of Game of Thrones really were a glorious thing. Obviously a key reason for this is that the show’s first four seasons were adapted from author George R.R. Martin’s original three (and best) A Song of Ice and Fire novels. These are the ones where characters had seemingly complete arcs before the game board reset. And to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ credit, they often made shrewd choices in adapting those characters for the screen.

While being set in a fantastical world with a sprawling narrative told on multiple continents and with a legion of characters, Game of Thrones’ early years could not afford to revel in the spectacle described by Martin’s prose. When the king had a tournament in his capital city in the first season, it might only resemble the handful of shaggy tents and horses you’d find at a Renaissance Fair. And when the same king went on a boar hunt, the show couldn’t even afford the tents or horses (much to Martin’s continued annoyance).

But the reason folks fell in love with the series wasn’t (at least initially) the fields of fire and dragons. It was the characters. The world they operated in was a complete fantasy, but the characters took it seriously, as did actors like Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, and Lena Headey, who imbued the faux-history pastiche which Martin mined from European and Near East histories with the gravity of a Shakespeare play based on the same historical events. It was a sprawling epic about power, and how the exercise and exploitation of it can induce great and terrible things. (Usually terrible on that show.)

One of the best schemers and courtiers in the series, Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), even muses the following in Game of Thrones’ second season: “Power is a curious thing. Who lives, who dies? Power resides where people think it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.” Varys said these fateful words ahead of the first major onscreen battle in Game of Thrones’ run: the naval siege of Blackwater Bay. While filming that episode was considered a major boon for Benioff and Weiss at the time since they could only afford to allude to battles in the first season, it looks faintly humble when compared to modern epic shows today, including GoT’s later years.

There are not enough extras or digital effects to suggest armies of thousands in the episode, and most of the swordplay occurs between a few dozen extras in a wide shot. And yet, we’d argue it is one of the best episodes in the series because its tension is totally derived on what effect this battle is having the psychologies and social standings of various beloved characters and their interpersonal dynamics: Queen Cersei and her terrorized plaything Sansa Stark (Headey and Sophie Turner); the unloved King’s Hand and his monstrous nephew and king (Dinklage and Jack Gleason); even the ramifications it will have for sadists like the Hound (Rory McCann).

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Unlike Shōgun, “Blackwater” features a major battle, but it is still incidental to the true thrust of the series, which is how battles are themselves borne out of the politics and powerful machinations that shape and destroy lives.

Shōgun: An Economical Epic

Whether by accident or design, Shōgun recalls these lessons in its all-too-brief 10-episode run. While the complexities of Shōgun’s much more candid historical fiction are knottier—with the series like the James Clavell novel it adapts pulling directly from historical personages for its story about what happens when feudal Japan first comes in sincere contact with the West—the series is still ultimately an ensemble piece. And each character informs a larger tapestry about how individuals are used and moved by the sweep of power.

Like Game of Thrones’ first season—which itself is modeled on the calm before a storm of multigenerational war from the end of Medieval England—Shōgun tracks a last gulp of air before acrimonious clan leaders in feudal Japan start moving their game pieces toward mass bloodshed. Yet the series does not bother to seriously recreate the Battle of Sekigahara or any major military actions that follow Toranaga’s lunge toward power.

In fact, the most profound action set piece in the series is when a woman of high rank, Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), uses her status to provoke a skirmish within the walls of Osaka Castle. Implicitly being held hostage by Lord Ishido, Mariko calls into sharp relief the lie within Ishido’s niceties as he plays host. In spite of being an honored guest/implicit hostage, Mariko breaks decorum and demands to leave the castle.

A few men die horribly as her handful of samurai do battle with local guards, and she herself draws a few drops of blood when she picks up a spear after her men are dead. But the profound horror of the scene is not derived from action or fight choreography; it is in the anguish and despair Sawai brings to Mariko’s desperation. The scene becomes a metaphor for the character’s inability to make a single choice that would give her control over her own life. She is always boxed in by the expectations and tight-smiling cruelties placed on her by men.

Yet even this metaphor still works as a grand move in the larger game of thrones. Indeed, even in her final victory Mariko was nonetheless ordered to make this stand by her lord. The master game player…

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A Winner Without Fireworks

Which brings us back to the Shōgun finale. By faithfully adapting Clavell’s 1975 novel, the limited series avoids the need and expense of filming a major battle and instead keeps what such devastation ultimately means front and center. It’s a testament to the chilling intelligence and cold-blooded ruthlessness of Yoshii Toranaga.

In the scene where Toranaga beheads Yabushige, the condemned man marvels that his lord must know what it’s like to control the wind. “I don’t control the wind,” Sanada dryly observes. “I only study it.” What a magnificent understatement.

Toranaga’s understanding of human nature gives him the ability to recognize in Mariko’s death wish the perfect vessel for creating political disunion in Osaka. He likewise must have taken one look at Englishman John Blackthorne’s (Cosmo Jarvis) naked self-interest and saw a readymade tool he could use to distract his enemies while bringing the growing Western influence in Japan evermore under his control. Indeed, the final scene of the show is of Toranaga observing Blackthorne as he and the Englishman’s own former rivals put away petty grievances in order to cooperate in raising Blackthorne’s wrecked ship from the sea. Through it all, the Englishman is completely unaware that Toranaga is the man who also sank the ship and at that very moment plots to make sure Blackthorne will never leave these shores. Still, the Anjin looks at Toranaga with gratitude, like a pet who has been well trained.

That is all you need to know about why Toranaga becomes shōgun—the militaristic ruler of Japan. And suddenly his kindness to Blackthorne when he prevents the European from committing seppuku takes on an added, and not entirely pleasant, dimension. The same applies to his similar kindnesses he previously showed to Mariko. Whenever she spoke longingly of her need to die by ritualized suicide, Toranaga would grow exhausted if not disdainful. But he wasn’t trying to convince her to live; he always intended to grant that self-destructive wish but only at the moment most beneficial to him.

There are thus a few ways to read Toranaga’s rise to the top. He is undeniably the smartest character on the show, and the master game player, but are we watching the ascendency of a genius or a monster? It might depend who you ask. The same would likely apply to the historical figure he is based on, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Like Toranaga, Tokugawa came of age as a 16th century warlord during the Azuchi-Momoayama period—an era when Japan was wrecked by a seemingly endless series of civil wars and lawlessness. Tokugawa’s rise to shōgun marked the end of that chaos and the beginning of the Edo period, where his descendants ruled over a peaceful state for the next 260-plus years.

But it came at a greater cost than just the lives of a couple pawns like Mariko and Yabushige. In fact, another way to consider the Edo period, especially in its first century, was as an era defined by authoritarian control and oppression. There was no war, but there was also no autonomy for those unlucky enough to live beneath the samurai class.

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Consider the relatively charitable Portuguese priest whom Toranaga allows to build a church. The same character probably lives to see that church’s congregation of peasants crucified, tortured, and otherwise murdered in barbaric spectacles within the next 30 years. It is indeed estimated the Tokugawa shogunate killed tens of thousands of Japanese Christians by 1640, largely because they saw the religion as a foreign influence which encouraged rebellion and disrespect of authority. There was indeed the Shimabara rebellion of 1648. But for hundreds of peasants nailed to crosses, or thrown into the sea due to their beliefs, the menace of colonial influence probably seemed much smaller than the approaching tide.

One can similarly reexamine Toranaga’s masterstroke of turning Lady Ochiba and her son against Ishido by way of Mariko’s death. Toranaga was acutely aware of Ochiba’s childhood friendship with Mariko, which ultimately superseded her initial distrust of Toranga. However, her original disdain for Toranaga will eventually be vindicated. After all, in order to better consolidate power underneath his shogunate, the real Tokugawa compelled Yodo-dono, the real the mother of the heir, and her son to commit suicide. It made his vision for an orderly and safe Japan easier to achieve.

While these darker, nastier aspects about Toranaga’s rise are also avoided by stopping where Shōgun ends, they’re nonetheless telegraphed in the calculating looks Toranaga disperses amongst his game pieces doing his bidding. In its own way, Shōgun ends with a character you’ve been rooting for revealing a disquieting avarice for power and control that causes the viewer to reconsider everything they thought they knew about him. In other words, in a subtler and more subdued way, it at least suggests the heel turn that Game of Thrones’ finale was built around. However, it doesn’t read that “turn” as a twist that must be hidden in order to create maximum heartache among the fans. It treats the revelation as a natural outgrowth of a character audiences have been rooting for.

Frankly, it even reminds me of those early scenes of Game of Thrones where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) showed moments of coldness or vengefulness that gave pause, such as when she took visible satisfaction in her brother’s (rightful but still cruel) execution or how she had the capacity to order hundreds of men to be crucified, whether they were guilty or not of a crime. Only in later seasons, was the character built up as a kind of superhero, presumably to make the rug pull in the finale more shocking—or some might say inexplicable.

Shōgun, conversely, reveals Toranaga’s cunning and capacity to use people is greater than the average viewer likely anticipated, and that talent comes with very sharp edges. It isn’t a twist; it’s a culmination of a great character’s journey to power. And if you find yourself second-guessing your allegiances to him, then you know the show’s ending worked.