Shōgun review: Disney riff on historical Japanese power struggles just takes too long to get going

Television: Adaptation of James Clavell’s best-seller is sumptuous but too slow

Shōgun (Disney+ from Tuesday) is the second television adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 best-seller about a stout-hearted Englishman caught up in a struggle for supremacy in 17th-century Japan. But the drama with which it has the most in common is far more recent than that 42-year-old miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. Glinting swords, bloody betrayal, nobles hatching dastardly plots by candlelight ... welcome to Disney-does-Game of Thrones.

As with George RR Martin’s fantasy blockbuster, Shōgun is visually sumptuous and goes above and beyond to transport the viewer to another world. Just like Thrones it also features lots of imaginative facial hair. Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne, an aggressively whiskered English navigator who looks and sounds like a lesser member of Mumford and Sons and who has hitched a ride to Japan aboard a Dutch trading mission.

His dream is to make his fortune in this strange new world. You can imagine his disappointment as he discovers the Portuguese have beaten him to it and already have a special relationship with Japan’s elite.

Outfoxed by mere Catholics, God-fearing Blackthorne is aghast. He is also extremely confused when plunged into the gory world of Segoku-era politics.


The Japanese are refined and polite – yet ruthless in their pursuit of power. It’s a lot for poor Blackthorne to get his head around. Even more perplexingly, he finds himself drawn to his official translator, the Japanese Catholic Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), who speaks fluent Portuguese (which Disney casually swaps out for English) and has her own reasons for befriending a foreigner.

It’s epic going. So why isn’t Shōgun more fun? The big sticking point is that it takes forever to get up and running. In this age of supposedly truncated attention spans, the series goes out of its way, early on at least, to test the audience’s patience. Imagine a remake of Lord of the Rings where 90 per cent of the action takes place in an endless Council of Elrond. That’s how it feels wading through Shōgun’s first several episodes.

Exciting things do eventually happen – and goodness are they spectacular. Yet the show is initially interested in establishing a tone rather than grabbing you by the scruff.

This results in a strange mix of gory historical drama and slow TV. It’s a unique blend, to be sure, but considerable fortitude and patience are required when navigating those slow-burning early instalments. Strong coffee might help too. More than a few viewers may conclude that there are better ways to spend their time and swiftly abandon ship.