With "Shogun," the American miniseries reach its creative peak. It's nearly impossible to imagine a show of its scope and (for television) subtlety being made today; that it was made in the network television environment of 1979 is even more astonishing.
Its epic story, originally spread across nine hours that aired over nearly two weeks, is essentially a fictionalized account of Will Adams, an English sailor who ultimately became a respected statesman and sorta samurai in early 17th century Japan. Attempts to film Adams' story had percolated in Hollywood for years – Peter O'Toole, Toshiro Mifune, and even Akira Kurosawa were tied to various efforts at one time or another. Richard Chamberlain nearly made a vaguely similar project for Kurosawa earlier in the '70s, while Kurosawa was among those approached to bring James Clavell's bestselling novel to the screen.
But it was the new miniseries format that was best suited for the long and complex tale of John Blackthorne (Chamberlain), a British navigator shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. At a time when the only gaijin (foreigners) in Japan are opportunist Jesuists, Blackthorne's arrival is viewed with enormous suspicion by those trying to favor the Japanese warlords. One of these high-ranking leaders, Toranaga (Mifune), sees in Blackthorne a means to consolidate his power and become Shogun, the supreme military ruler.
Taking Blackthorne under his wing, Toranaga teaches Blackthorne the Japanese way of life, while quietly learning Western strategies from his eager student. Blackthorne also becomes romantically involved with his translator-teacher, the beautiful Lady Toda (Yoko Shimada).
Seen even in 2003, "Shogun" is impressive on many levels. Writer-producer Eric Bercovici's basic approach was to condense Clavell's material by telling "Shogun's" story strictly from Blackthorne's point-of-view. This, more than anything else, sucks the viewer in because his experiences become our experiences. When, early in the first episode, Japanese servants approach him and speak in Japanese, he has no idea what they are saying, and neither do we. As he becomes acclimated with Japanese culture and basic Japanese phrases, so too does the television audience. As such the miniseries works enormously well in educating its audience about the culture and history and language of Japan, all in the midst of an enormously entertaining story.
As the supplemental material rightly notes, "Shogun" in turn inspired a mini-boon of interest in Japanese culture in the early-1980s, perhaps the biggest since American soldiers returned from the Japanese Occupation in the early-1950s. Though its violence is much less shocking today than it genuinely was when it was new, "Shogun's" long unsubtitled scenes in Japanese are still very impressive. That real Japanese actors were used (as opposed to say, casting Ricardo Montalban as Toranaga) and real Japanese is spoken throughout was beyond innovative for late-'70s American television.
Jerry London's direction and some production aspects have a TV look about them, but the scale of the show is still impressive. The cast is generally excellent, and Maurice Jarre wrote the memorable score.
Video & Audio
For a series whose films elements were reportedly in bad shape, "Shogun" looks and sounds just fine on DVD. A 5.1 surround mix is offered, but the mono track is crisp and clear, and the image has little in the way of dirt or artifacting. The color and 4:3 image probably looks better than it did when it originally aired.
My one big complaint about the presentation concerns the way the episodes have been broken up. Rather than present the shows as they originally aired, the box set presents "Shogun" as one gargantuan movie. There are opening credits at the beginning of the first show and end credits at the end of the last, and that's it. The original breaking up of the narrative into a miniseries per se is gone, and the chapter stops offer no assistance here, either. As one who finds chapter stop inserts generally useless, one for "Shogun" would, conversely, seem absolutely essential. But the box includes no booklet, and the box itself offers no clue what's on what disc.
A new, 79-minute "Making of Shogun" is the centerpiece of the extras. The 4:3 presentation is broken up in myriad chapters, which can be played separately or seamlessly as one big show. (The breaking up of the documentary, now the format of choice among big studio releases, is to circumvent certain SAG and other union parameters.) Given the miniseries' length, scope, and the uniqueness of the production, the documentary's length is reasonable, and only occasionally lags.
The documentary features interviews with most of the key creative team, including director London, writer-producer Bercovici, and star Richard Chamberlain. At 50, Yoko Shimada looks like she just stepped off the set of the 23-year-old show, but John Rhys-Davies appears gaunt and perhaps ill. The documentary neither whitewashes nor delves too deeply into the notoriously troubled production, which went outrageously over-budget and incurred the wrath of the Japanese film industry. One odd aspect of the documentary is the general absence of Maurice Jarre's music. In its place is some rather generic-sounding stock music of unknown origin.
Behind-the-scenes footage shot in 1979 is briefly glimpsed in the documentary. It's a shame none of this is offered separately. Notably absent as well are additional and alternate scenes shot for overseas and feature versions. This footage features nudity and possibly more explicit violence not permitted on network television of the period.
Also featured are short featurettes on aspects of Japanese history and culture featured during the program. This material is nice and in keeping with the educational aspects of the miniseries, though it lacks any real depth.
An incongruous 4:3 preview reel of Paramount's "Indiana Jones" boxed set rounds out the extras.
One suspects that the market of a "Shogun" DVD consists mainly of people who saw it when it first aired, but never had the opportunity to see it again. A massive VHS boxed set was released years ago, but few rental stores bothered to carry it, and the show was never released to laserdisc. Now, thanks to the miracle of DVD, all 547 minutes have been packaged in a form probably smaller than the paperback edition of Clavell's novel.