James Clavell’s Shogun: 30th Anniversary Edition
Directed by Jerry London
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Running Time: 547 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 mono English
MSRP: $ 54.99
Release Date: December 22, 2010
Review Date: January 6, 2011
By the beginning of the 1980s, the miniseries ruled the airwaves. After such stunning successes as Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots, Holocaust, and I, Claudius, the miniseries continued into the new decade with another sensational line-up of programs. Nominated during the 1980-1881 season for the Limited Series Emmy Awards were such well regarded programs as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Masada, and Rumpole of the Bailey.And the inevitable winner that season was a program which mesmerized many millions of viewers for five successive nights on NBC, a miniseries nominated for fourteen Emmy Awards: James Clavell’s Shogun.
Based on the epic novel by James Clavell, Shogun starred Richard Chamberlain, who with his performance in this program continued his reign as the unofficial King of the Miniseries during the 1970s and 1980s (The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Crisco preceded Shogun, and The Thorn Birds and The Bourne Identity would follow). He plays Blackthorne, an English pilot (later to be dubbed Anjin-san), steering a Dutch cargo ship bound for the Americas in 1598 when a typhoon washes him and his men overboard near the coast of Japan. Though a complete alien in this strange but fascinating place, he wrestles constantly with the mores of the country and only slowly adapts to the customs and rituals of the samurai-dominated society. He comes under the special protection of one of the island’s two reigning feudal lords: Lord Yoshi Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune). Blackthorne introduces the samurai to European customs, the knowledge of geography he possesses, and the threat to his power by the Catholic presence in his country, sent from the kings of Spain and Portugal to pave the way for his eventual takeover. To aid their visitor in accustoming himself with the country, Toranaga assigns Mariko (Yôko Shimada) as his cultural attaché teaching him the language and customs. She, though lovely and quite charming, is also married to the lord’s right hand man Lord Buntaro (Hideo Takamatsu), and as the attraction between Mariko and Blackthorne grows, her position grows ever more dangerous.
As is the case with all miniseries of the day, the narrative takes its time spending lengthy quarter hour sequences on character exploration and the minutiae of everyday life, all courtesy of Emmy-nominated writer Eric Bercovici. It’s this rich and robust delving into a foreign culture of centuries ago that gives Shogun much of its enduring appeal, especially since we know all of the threats that come to the leading character in the opening hours can’t possibly lead to his death. How would the producers fill in the remaining hours of running time were he to fall victim to the violence that is perpetrated against other characters throughout the series: beheadings, crucifixions, seppuku, impalings, boiling in water: just about every possible violent method of death gets its moment of glory in the epic. In fact, the stories of the various political intrigues and the clash of church and state are more interesting now than the extended romantic subplot which is sweet but not deeply involving. Another positive aspect of the show is that subtitles are not used to translate Japanese speaking. When a translator is not a part of the scene (which is rare), narrator Orson Welles clues us in on what is being said as well as providing background information pertinent to the situations where he intervenes.
Richard Chamberlain received fine reviews, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy nomination for his daunting work in this epic piece, but in retrospect, he seems far too American and far too modern to be wholly convincing as a 16th century British sailor. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t invest heavily in the emotional and dramatic nature of the story, but he still seems somewhat miscast. Toshirô Mifune adds another interesting performance to his career achievements capturing the slyness, dynamism, and treachery of his Lord Toranaga. Yoko Shimada as the delicate Mariko seems tentative at first but slowly weaves a captivating spell that has one fully appreciating her performance by the end of the story. John Rhys-Davies as the Portuguese counterpart to Chamberlain’s Blackthorne steals every scene he’s in, his every appearance pure pleasure. Vladek Sheybal plays the scheming Captain Ferriera with perhaps a slight lack of restraint, but Japanese comedian Furankî Sakai is surprisingly grounded and authoritative as the alternately supportive and jealous Yabu. Alan Badel makes an earnest Father Dell'Aqua while Damien Thomas as the enigmatic Father Alvito also makes a positive impression. We lose marvelous character actor Michael Hordern’s Friar Domingo in the first installment, but he’s memorable in his few scenes.
The transfers are faithful to the original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1, but according to the copyright dates on the discs themselves, it appears these are the same discs issued for the 2003 release of this miniseries only now in different packaging. In most of the close-ups, sharpness is excellent and details in hair, clothes, and faces are easily discerned. Color can also be lushly saturated. Long shots and random other aspects in the photography are more problematic especially when shooting moves outdoors where sharpness isn’t quite as impressive. On occasion scenes have a crushed look about them with noticeable increased grain and mottled color. Blacks don’t often reach the ultimate depths of richness either. Still, despite occasional dust specks and some occasional moiré, it’s usually a strikingly pleasing picture. Each disc’s program is divided into different chapters: alternately 11 and 10 chapters on the four program discs.
The program offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mono audio tracks. The mono track seems fairly anemic with weak highs and no bass to speak of. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track which I used for most of my viewing is surprisingly good with Maurice Jarre’s lush score channeled through the entire soundstage and occasional use of the surrounds for ambient sounds in storms and during battles. The 5.1 track, however, is also light on bass and the LFE channel gets very slight use.
All of the bonus featurettes are presented in 4:3 on disc five in the set.
A making of documentary concerning every possible aspect of the series runs 79 ½ minutes. Writer Eric Bercovici, director Jerry London, cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, and stars Richard Chamberlain, Yôko Shimada, and John Rhys-Davies discuss preproduction script writing, casting, location scouting in Japan and shooting in the primitive Toho Studios, working with the locals and the custom gap that existed between American crews and Japanese crews, the Emmy-winning costume designs, the building of the two ships used in the production, controversies over violence and standards, special effects work, production snafus, the post-production problems, and its rapturous reception.
Three historical featurettes feature discussion by Dr. Paul Varley on different aspects of the ancient Japanese culture. “The Samurai” lasts 5 ½ minutes. “The Tea Ceremony” lasts 4 ½ minutes. “The Geisha” lasts 5 minutes. On the last featurette, he’s joined by Dr. Christine Yano who adds some other interesting facts about geisha life.
Director Jerry London provides commentary on seven selected scenes from the nine-hour production. Though he has a few anecdotes to relate, they’re all rehashed from the “making of” featurette discussed above. He also spends an inordinate amount of time describing what we’re seeing in the scene or providing story background before he gets to any real information about the filming. The scenes must be selected individually and none runs longer than 3 ¼ minutes. Most are between 1 and 2 minutes in length.
As a sign of the age of this transfer, the only trailer on the disc announces the upcoming release of the Indiana Jones trilogy on DVD (the original release of the films).
4/5 (not an average)
Rich in atmosphere but occasionally sluggish in pacing, James Clavell’s Shogun is one of the most fondly remembered miniseries in television history. Though this may be an old transfer, it still looks very good on DVD, and those who haven’t already bought or rented it are now offered a new opportunity to do so. Recommended!