Against All Odds, Shōgun Has Filled the Void Left by Succession

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Against All Odds, Shōgun Has Filled the Void Left by Succession

Initial reviews of Shōgun compared the 10-episode historical drama about the power struggle between warring factions in feudal Japan to HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones. It’s easy to understand why, what with the series’ period setting and numerous parties seeking to rule. But as the FX series based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel has progressed and we’ve gotten to better know the players and stakes involved, it’s clear that the show, which was adapted for TV by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, actually has more in common with another Emmy-winning HBO program: the dysfunctional family drama Succession.

Shōgun stars Cosmo Jarvis as Pilot Major John Blackthorne, an English sailor and protestant shipwrecked on the shores of Japan during a time of great political upheaval. With most of his crew dead or on the verge of starvation, Blackthorne is taken prisoner by Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a cunning war hero who finds the Englishman amusing but also believes he can use him and his naval knowledge as leverage in his fight for control of the country after its previous leader died before his heir was of age. Although a council of regents is in place, its foundation is being tested by the scheming Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira), who plots with the other regents to impeach (and eventually kill) Toranaga, whom they believe to be too powerful.

With multiple factions fighting for control of the country, one can also easily see the connective tissue that exists between Shōgun and Succession. The tense backroom plotting and frequently shifting alliances are reminiscent of the meetings and secret deals that dominated Succession as the Roy siblings fought both each other and against outsiders for control of Waystar Royco, the multimedia conglomerate founded and run by their aging father. The damage inflicted years prior drives the grudges and decisions made by those today. But the similarities between the two series don’t end there. 

Just as creator Jesse Armstrong infused comedy into nearly every aspect of Succession’s satirical storytelling, making it one of the funniest shows to ever win Best Drama at the Emmys, so too does Shōgun. Sometimes the comedy is straightforward, such as when it is used to highlight disconnection and misunderstanding. Other times it’s less apparent, delivering devastating punchlines on unsuspecting viewers who’ve been drawn in by the series’ more serious storylines. But once you know it’s not your typical Serious Drama, Shōgun becomes even more enjoyable.

As an outsider, Blackthorne is understandably the source of much of the series’ comedy, as the language barrier provides easy and excellent fodder while underscoring the importance of communication. We see it most often when he speaks about his captors in English (standing in for Portuguese within the show, as the maritime superpower had already become Japan’s trading partner and introduced Catholicism to its shores by this time). “He’s a shitface, but he’s a brave shitface,” Blackthorne says of Tadanobu Asano’s Lord Yabushige in Wednesday’s “Abyss of Life.” These more modern insults pop up throughout the series and wouldn’t be out of place coming from the likes of Succession’s Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin). But we also see it when Blackthorne uses his position performatively, such as when he flails and shouts about a woman’s virtue in the series’ third episode, “Tomorrow Is Tomorrow,” in order to conceal the hiding place of Toranaga, who is pretending to be a woman to escape Osaka.

But it’s not just verbal humor that the writers use to inject comedy into Shōgun’s otherwise heavy proceedings. In the show’s fifth episode, “Broken to the Fist,” Blackthorne engages in a lengthy pissing contest with Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), the husband of his translator and love interest, Mariko (Anna Sawai), upon the man’s surprise return after being assumed dead. It is a moment that is meant to further highlight the culture clash at the heart of the show, as well as reveal Buntaro’s abusive treatment of his wife, but it’s depicted in a scene in which both men loudly slurp noodles and battle to see who can drink the most saké, revealing that neither is entirely above being a jackass. 

But if the writing for Blackthorne modernizes the series and showcases his outsider status, the humor of Yabushige, the lord of Izu and a loyal ally of Toranaga, ultimately reminds viewers of the prevailing attitudes and practices of Japan at the time. Upon the death of the Toranaga’s son in “A Stick of Time,” Yabu notes in the next episode the almost embarrassing nature of the way the younger man died while attempting to kill his traitorous uncle: “Cracking his head on stone—wasn’t a death I’d thought of. … I’d rank it lower than boiling but higher than eaten by dogs.” 

Blackthorne and Yabu are straightforward comedy engines, but there are other instances, especially in the latter half of the series, in which the show’s use of humor is darker and much more subtle, making it almost easy to overlook until the punchline is delivered well after the initial setup. This is often the case with Toranaga, the show’s version of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), an aging leader who built his empire and knows how to maneuver friends and foes into place without them being any the wiser. He is a man who rarely speaks of his plans, even with his closest allies, leaving them to guess his intentions. Like Logan, Toranaga’s actions reveal him to be the smartest man in the room, always a step ahead of the competition. And yet, in modern terms, one might also call him somewhat “messy.” In Wednesday’s episode, after a disagreement with Father Alvito (Tommy Bastow), he grants the Catholic priest a plot to erect his new church directly next to what will eventually be a tea house, or, to put it more plainly, a brothel. In the final episodes of the series, as the battle of wills between Toranaga and Ishido ramps up and more information eventually comes to light, we see this type of behavior more and more.

Throughout the series’ 10 episodes, the use of comedy balances the narrative’s frequent violence, which often results in rather gruesome deaths, both in battle and via seppuku, a form of ritualistic suicide performed by samurai that maintains their honor. It’s a necessary palate cleanser that ensures the series doesn’t lean too far into the grim. It’s different in this way from the biting and sarcastic humor of Succession, which is always present and can be cruel even as it highlights the absurdity of the rich and powerful to remind viewers the people they’re watching aren’t heroes meant to be worshiped. But both series construct jokes like they’re works of art, layering them into the narrative in such a way that they only work because of the unique world that has been built up around them. You might not see them coming until it’s too late.

When Succession came to an end last year, many wondered what would take its place, both on TV and in our hearts. What show could possibly be as bold and funny and tragic as the plight of the wealthy and emotionally traumatized Roys? What could carve out a lasting place for itself in pop culture while reminding us of the narrative power of episodic television? No one could have predicted that it would be Shōgun, a series that had been in development hell since at least 2018 and still hadn’t seen the light of day. But in fewer than 10 episodes, the show has successfully filled the void left by Succession’s departure. That it wasn’t another HBO drama but an FX limited series streaming on Hulu is only surprising in that FX as a brand hasn’t been as consistently reliable since the early-to-mid 2010s, when shows like Justified and The Americans anchored its lineup and American Horror Story was still good. But in hindsight, the power struggle at the heart of Shōgun and the ways in which the writers have embraced different types of humor make it the show’s most obvious successor. Of course, given the limited nature of the series, the question now becomes: what will fill the Shōgun void when the series wraps in two weeks’ time? 

Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Gold Derby, and, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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