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FX's 'Shōgun ': Church and State in Feudal Japan

| May 2, 2024 | By

Whether it's James Clavell's 1975 novel, NBC's 1980 miniseries, or FX's new miniseries, Shōgun is a rare story of Christianity in feudal Japan -- and, in particular, a Japanese Catholic inspired by a real person.

All 10 episodes of Shōgun are available to stream On Demand from FX and on Hulu.

What Is Shōgun About?

The story begins with the arrival of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), a British privateer aboard a Dutch sailing vessel that shipwrecks off the coast of Japan in 1600. He's no explorer. As described by, a privateer is "a pirate with papers."

At the behest of the government of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I, he's there to disrupt the established Spanish and Portuguese trade in Asia. He's an adamant anti-Catholic Protestant, but mostly, his mission is about money.

The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese pioneered trading in China, Japan and surrounding areas, and the Anglican Brits want a piece of it.

In Japan, Blackthorne finds himself in the middle of a brewing civil war among feudal lords vying for power in the wake of the death of a ruler, whose heir is just a child.

His guide is Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) -- surname goes first -- an enigmatic, unhappily married noblewoman with a deep shame in her past. A convert to Catholicism, she's loosely based on Lady Hosokawa Gracia,  a Catholic who was embroiled in the real-life political struggle that inspired Clavell's fiction.

Lady Mariko is fluent in Portuguese and English, having been taught by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. So, her liege lord, Yoshii Toranaga (actor and producer Hiroyuki Sanada) assigns her to translate for Blackthorne, who also speaks Portuguese.

While he is openly and relentlessly hostile to all things Catholic, Blackthorne does warm up to Mariko, and vice versa. But both are at the mercy of forces larger than themselves.


Talking to a Priest About Catholicism in Shōgun

FTP producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C. -- whose own family has roots in the Philippines -- avidly watched the series. Below he answers my questions about what he thought.

What do you think about the way Shōgun incorporates Catholicism into the overall story?

Shōgun incorporates Catholicism in the most mature way I’ve perhaps seen in mainstream media. It’s not “genre-rized” (pick any demonic-possession film). It’s not fetishized (like the priest characters in The Thorn Birds or Fleabag).

And it’s not unrelentingly critical to the point of being anti-Catholic (I’m one person who feels films like Spotlight or The Crime of Padre Amaro might fall into this category). Catholicism is just an organic part of the subplot that runs parallel to the main narrative. Characters must deal with the same day-to-day realities whether they are Catholic or not.

A historian said of Clavell's book that "an anti-Christian tone runs throughout Shōgun and manifests itself most clearly in the depiction of the European Jesuits." Do you get any of that in this adaptation?

In considering James Clavell’s Shōgun, Part One (The Asian Saga), it’s the one source material I have yet to read of recent films or shows.

I would make a distinction between characters in the adaptation holding anti-Christian sentiments versus the author and/or showrunners having an axe to grind.

Again, since the Catholicism is treated as a reality on par with the secular happenings on the show it leads me to think the show and the book are not anti-Catholic.

In contrast, as I mentioned earlier, to make the faith a genre, fetishize or overly critique it reveals some preconceived bias, assumption or half-truth about filmmakers conceptualizing the faith. FX's Shōgun avoids this.

How do you view the faith journey of Catholic convert Mariko, and the tension between her duty to the Church and her samurai duty to her liege lord?

When we meet Mariko in the show, she is already Catholic. The greatest tension she and the other characters face is the centuries ingrained cultural phenomenon of duty and honor. Meaning, if you could not hold up a duty to one’s liege lord it was a quick road to seppuku/hari-kiri/suicide.

It’s quite a culture shock for the viewer.

Mariko, unlike her non-Catholic counterparts, struggles with duty and a different path her faith calls out of her. The series begins with this tension as a minor plot point, but by the last couple of episodes, it’s what the dramatic tension is centered on.

At one point, when Blackthorne makes yet another anti-Catholic remark, she says, “Why do you cling to that?” What did you think of that moment?

Blackthorne is an English privateer shipwrecked on Japanese soil. He’s the love interest of Mariko. Mariko professes the fullness of the Faith.

He is a staunch Anglican, but really, Blackthorne's faith is defined more so of what it’s not, meaning not Catholic. It’s not attractive to Mariko.

I think Mariko is encouraging him to a more positive articulation of the Christian faith, that is, Catholicism in all its fullness.

Some have complained that Richard Chamberlain's Blackthorne was too central in the 1980 version of Shōgun, overshadowing the Japanese storylines (but then, Chamberlain -- who later played a priest in The Thorn Birds -- was a huge star and heartthrob at the time, so it's hardly surprising). How does the balance in this one work out?

I haven’t seen the earlier version, yet. From your memory of the 1980 adaptation, the pendulum seems to have swung the other direction — the Japanese characters now feature central with Blackthorne now the mostly helpless pawn maneuvering under the Shōgun.

He’s secondary in some ways to even the Portuguese priest.

Shōgun was shot with considerable Japanese input in the area of Vancouver, Canada. From a filmmaking perspective, what do think of the cinematography and overall production value?

The cinematography and production value are expectedly top-notch. I appreciated that it was not darkly lit, which seems to be the visual choice of practically every streaming show today.

In particular, the lens choices reflect the emotional tone of each episode. One episode where the samurais battle shows off the lush scenery of mainland Japan akin to an Akira Kurosawa epic. Later episodes become a bit more claustrophobic and simplistic with the interior footage more in line with the late family drama director Kon Ichikawa.

If you’re a fan of classic Japanese film, there’s much to appreciate here.

The character of local strongman Lord Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) – sneaky, duplicitous, sly … what do you like or dislike about him?

He’s all three. I’m not sure characters like him warrant our like or dislike. He’s someone who wields a considerable amount of power and does anything to hold onto it. He just ends up being sad.

The time period of Shōgun is also less than 20 years before the wholesale persecution of Christians in Japan (as seen in Martin Scorsese's film Silence, based on the novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō). What does the world of the show say about an opportunity lost to evangelize Japan?

There’s one Japanese character in the final episode who unfortunately does choose seppuku. It would remain a fixture of Japanese society to one degree or another up until the kamikaze pilots of WWII.

Mariko’s Catholic character shows a separate way. I felt the Japanese film Godzilla: Minus One also showed the path away from despair.

And nothing is terminally lost in terms of evangelization. I remember when, during the delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics of 2021, I had preached about the sporting event, and a woman from Japan, a member of our parish’s digital diaspora, mailed me a handmade Rosary.

What did you enjoy most about Shōgun?

The one big payoff for me was the appearance of ninjas in the penultimate episode. In my senior year of high school, I had a rather unhealthy obsession with ninjas to the point where it became the theme of our swimming team.

For our state meet t-shirts, the head coach was written as “grandmaster,” the pool facility man-“keeper of the dojo.” The swimmers, the “ninja team.” The group of assistant coaches? You guessed it, “The Shōgun.”

One of the three assistants died a few years ago, much too young. He was such a positive force in my coming of age. I’ve thought and prayed for him a lot these past couple of months.

Here's a peek at Shōgun:


Image: Anna Sawa in 'Shōgun'/FX

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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