Shōgun, Disney+ review: still missing Sharpe? Then dive into this old-fashioned epic

Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige in Shōgun
Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige in Shōgun - Katie Yu/FX/Disney+

Shōgun (Disney+) is a gloriously old-fashioned TV drama, and not just because it brings back memories of the 1980s version starring Richard Chamberlain. This remake may have glossy, 21st-century production values but it’s still the kind of historical epic in which the men are tough, the women look like Bond girls, and Japanese warlords boil people alive.

The year is 1600, and a ship drifts towards the Japanese coast carrying the dregs of its malnourished crew. They all appear at death’s door except John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), for he is the hero of the tale and bears a passing resemblance to Tom Hardy.

The men are promptly taken prisoner. The Japanese are unwelcoming; so are the Portuguese Catholics, who don’t want these Protestant Englishmen muscling in on trade. But Blackthorne, regarded by his captors as a “barbarian”, has stumbled into a power struggle between various Japanese rulers, and by degrees proves himself to be of use.

Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne
Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne - Katie Yu/FX

James Clavell’s novel provides rich source material and magnificently retro dialogue. “We’ve endured pestilence, known starvation; we’ve chewed the calfskin that covers the ropes. We should be corpses by now but here we are – 12 s--t-smelling but generally able-bodied Protestant scoundrels on a mission against a savage horde and the entire, goddamn, motherless, s--t-picking Portuguese fleet. This is not where we die,” Blackthorne growls at his men. If you miss the days of Sean Bean swearing in Sharpe, this series is for you.

Where this adaptation differs from the 1980s version is in the amount of time it gives to the Japanese characters. We are no longer viewing the story only from Blackthorne’s perspective, but observing all sides. Long stretches are subtitled, but that’s no longer a barrier in this age of global streamers.

Hiroyuki Sanada brings gravitas to the role of Lord Toranaga, while Tadanobu Asano is a stand-out as the sly Yabushige, a warrior nominally loyal to Toranaga but with an eye for the main chance.

The adaptation falls short of greatness. At times it feels too dense – too much talking about feudal politics when there should be more action. Jarvis, although charismatic, has an edge of wry humour in his voice that doesn’t always fit the circumstances. But the production looks magnificent. And the strength of Shōgun is the way it immerses us in a world that, with its rituals and violence, feels as foreign to us as it does to Blackthorne. This is not a series for the lily-livered, and is all the better for that.