Ah the late 70s and early 80s, the age of the television mini-series, an almost forgotten television event, though slowly being rediscovered by the advent of the limited series. It’s slightly different of course, because back then, there were only a few channels available, making a mini-series an event over consecutive nights.
Shogun was based on the titanic novel by James Clavell, which I read in 1985, I was in grade nine. I wanted the challenge of a giant novel, having only read The Lord of the Rings the year before, and only having read a couple of Stephen King books by that time.
I loved the story, of a ship’s pilot arriving in Japan, and being drawn into the culture, which he at first thinks is barbaric before he begins to adapt to it, using and being used by the warlords, and the religious missionaries. It took me quite some time to get through the novel, but I enjoyed all of it, learning a handful of Japanese as I did – something that I also love about the mini-series – it didn’t use subtitles, you had to pay attention, and learn with the characters.
When I was done with the book, I was intent on seeing this adaptation for it, but it wasn’t available at the time, all that I could get my hands on was the theatrical release, which only runs two hours – when you realise that in total the adaptation is nine hours long.
The mini-series was a big budget production, adapted from the novel by Eric Bercovici,and features great locations in Japan, model work and a collection of solid actors. Orson Welles serves as the narrator to give us the background as the opening episode debuted on 15 September, 1980.
In the 17th century, John Blackthorne (portrayed by that miniseries hallmark, Richard Chamberlain) – rechristened Anjin ‘pilot’ – is blown ashore in Japan, and finds himself immersed in a culture he doesn’t understand. One based on strict structures of class and honour.
He gets some aid from a Jesuit priest, Father Sebastio (Leon Lissek) who he sees more as an enemy, and who sees him as a heretic pirate, and soon becomes a pawn in a political game as he encounters the local warlord, Yabu (Furanki Sakai) and eventually, the all-powerful Shogun, Lord Yoshi Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune).
The first episode (feature length in itself) takes its time, setting up characters, arcs, and events that will resonate throughout the series. And while some of it looks very much like a television movie, shot and framed like one, there is an expansive story at work here, one that engaged at the time it first aired, and can still captivate today.
The opening episode, and the finale both run two and a half hours, while the middle instalments run about ninety minutes. These are not short stories. It’s a commitment, but masterfully executed by television standards of the time.
Next week, I continue Blackthorne’s journey in the epic television adaptation of James Clavell’s Shogun. The episodes are cut into one whole long story, and broken up over four discs, so I can only make educated cases about what episode is what outside of the opening and closing ones, so I refer to them as discs instead of episodes…
Until next time.