The MVP: Tadanobu Asano Steals the Show as Shōgun’s Loveable Dirtbag Yabushige

Subscriber Exclusive

TV Features fx hulu
The MVP: Tadanobu Asano Steals the Show as Shōgun’s Loveable Dirtbag Yabushige

Editor’s Note: Welcome to The MVP, a column where we celebrate the best performances TV has to offer. Whether it be through heart-wrenching outbursts, powerful looks, or perfectly-timed comedy, TV’s most memorable moments are made by the medium’s greatest players—top-billed or otherwise. Join us as we dive deep on our favorite TV performances, past and present: 

[Spoiler Warning: Contains spoilers for the full season of FX’s Shōgun.]

Shōgun has many strengths, and one of the most immediately eye-catching is its slate of powerhouse performances. Between Hiroyuki Sanada’s wily and calculating Toranaga, Cosmo Jarvis’ curse-spewing, weird accent-wielding Englishman Blackthorne, and Anna Sawai’s captivating, unwavering resolve as Mariko, the central cast helps bring out the best in these compelling characters. But despite this stacked lineup, I can’t stop thinking about one portrayal in particular: Tadanobu Asano’s intensely charismatic performance as everyone’s favorite traitorous degenerate samurai, Yabushige.

For those who haven’t been following this year’s standout show, this historical drama is set in 1600 and centers on the power struggle between Lord Yoshi Toranaga and his chief political opponent Ishido (Takehiro Hira) as they carry out a battle of wits to determine who seizes control of Japan. Serving under Toranaga’s banner is Kashigi Yabushige, the lord of Izu. Well, “serving” is putting it quite generously because, from the moment we meet him, it’s clear that Yabushige only cares about one thing—the long-term survival of Yabushige.

In Yabushige’s eyes, Toranaga is caught in an unwinnable battle, resulting in this scummy vassal taking every action imaginable to ensure his neck escapes the encroaching noose, playing both sides of the conflict so that he can jump ship whenever a clear victor emerges. Normally, he would be the kind of character we root against because he’s two-faced and conspiring against our beloved protagonists. But the thing is, Asano’s performance is so fun to watch that every time this weirdo appeared on screen, I found myself grinning from ear to ear.

First and foremost, he simply exudes a very different vibe than the rest of the cast. While this series is frequently focused on deadly political intrigue and similar grave subject matter, Yabushige eventually develops into the closest this story has to a comic relief character. He schemes with the same ferocity as Tom constantly chasing Jerry, and his efforts are equally doomed. In light of dire events, he’ll draft up another last will and testament with an eyebrow raise and one of his signature incredulous grunts. (Asano has so many grunts for this character: happy ones, sad ones, angry ones, confused ones—a grunt for all seasons). The performance gets across that this guy is constantly flying by the seat of his pants, frequently out of his depth in an ocean filled with sharks.

There is a hilarious clumsiness to how he navigates these delicate situations, the unconvincing tenor of his voice as he makes thin excuses for his actions wavering in front of Toranaga’s discerning gaze that clearly sees through his nonsense. One of the main reasons he isn’t frustrating to watch is because this pair of actors communicate that Yabushige’s plotting is frequently being manipulated by Toranaga to serve the ends of our main cast. Yabushige may be a scumbag, but he schemes in such a readable way that it’s hard not to chuckle.

That said, the character certainly doesn’t come across this way initially. When we first meet Yabushige, his sadistic tendencies are front and center, as he boils one of Blackthorne’s sailor buddies alive to satisfy his fascination with ranking the “best” and “worst” ways to die. Here, the performance makes him seem appropriately distant and cruel, capturing that this is an extremely powerful man with unnerving proclivities and the means to enact them on a whim.

However, even in this more detestable mode, he still demonstrates some of his more admirable qualities, like something that could maybe be construed as bravery. When Blackthorne convinces him to look for the Spanish navigator Rodrigues, Yabushige risks his life by climbing down a steep cliff face (even if he does this because he wants to seem tough in front of the Anjin). He may be a borderline sociopathic schemer, but deep down, there is still some trace of something more.

The character and actor also bring out one of the most delightful relationship dynamics in the show, as Yabushige forms an unexpected bromance with Blackthorne, the two finding an eventual camaraderie despite the language barrier and the fact that he, you know, brutally murdered one of Blackthorne’s men. The scenes between the two reveal that Cosmo Jarvis’ crass and headstrong Blackthorne and Asano’s Yabushige have many things in common, namely their bravado and crustiness (Yabushige is rocking an unkept beard the whole series, and as noted multiple times, Blackthorne could use a bath). The two slowly build out a mutual respect until they’re outright working together in scenes that nail the buddy comedy vibes thanks to Asano’s endearing screen presence and the dad-like pride he takes in his frenemy’s success.

However, the “biggest” part of the performance, in the traditional sense, comes in the series finale. It’s a stretch that gives the character an unexpected amount of closure and embodies how nearly every player in this series is granted numerous layers of depth. At the end of Episode 9, Yabushige does classic Yabushige things and betrays his allies. However, this time around, events go differently than usual, and someone important is killed by accident as a result. Yabushige is entirely wrecked by the turn, and the performance captures his guilt-ridden psyche as he stumbles through Osaka in a fugue state. His total shock contrasts excellently against his previous goofiness and further conveys the funereal atmosphere of this last episode to capture that, after all his plotting, he has finally realized there are some things more important than his own self-preservation.

But thankfully, he doesn’t leave the stage in this completely frazzled state, and in his last scene, Asano brings him back to his senses, becoming a true stand-out in an episode already chock-full of them. He faces his lord one final time, this time free of treachery. Toranaga reveals his full plan, and we see Yabushige’s face turn from skepticism to awe, his desire for a good death seemingly fulfilled in having played a role in his lord’s eventual victory, this all coming across in Asano’s final gleeful smile as the sword falls.

The writing team behind Shōgun and author James Clavell obviously deserve a lot of credit for Yabushige, but it’s Tadanobu Asano’s portrayal that fully brings this multifaceted figure to life. From his alarmingly blasé attitude towards violence to his charming buffoonery, his performance made it impossible to look away whenever this traitorous lord was on screen, delivering a character who pushes back on the tired, ahistorical trope that samurai were perfect paragons of duty. I’ll miss many aspects of Shōgun now that it’s completed its run, but one of the most acutely felt will be the absence of this delightful slimeball and his deeply dishonorable antics. I like to imagine that somewhere in the pits of hell, he’s still grunting away.

Watch on Hulu

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin