With Further Ado #301: Guest Columnist – Communication in the Unknown – A Shogun Review

It’s another week and time for another winning entry from our annual student competition. This one’s a great read.

Communication in the Unknown
By Sean Tierney

You’re steps away from entering an unfamiliar building, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, in an unfamiliar land; it’s your first day at a new school and the only thing you know for certain is that you don’t. Now imagine we bottle up this tense sensation of being engulfed in uncertainty and crank the dial up to eleven, that’s the feeling encountering main character John Blackthorne in FX’s Shogun. A character who is not only navigating the trials and tribulations of an unfamiliar culture and language, but one who is also coping with the understanding that his life is in another man’s hands and even the slightest false step could put him six feet under.

While Blackthorne strives to understand the foreign land he has stumbled upon, even more is hidden behind the stoic expressions of the Samurai and their culture. Blackthorne effectively serves as a tour guide through this renowned culture as both he and the audience are uncovering the many layers all at once. There’s a notion surrounding film culture that exposition is cheap and film/TV should ‘show don’t tell’. By utilizing Blackthorne as a tour guide, Shogun subverts the need for exposition allowing the audience to see Japan for the first time through a newcomer’s eyes. That is the superpower of Shogun, the show’s ability to demonstrate rather than explain, utilizing its main character for both practical and impactful purposes.

Japanese culture has always seemed to have somewhat of an aura around it; there’s a natural intrigue surrounding the uniqueness of it, yet also kind of a mysterious nature surrounding their culture. The podcast Hardcore History, hosted by Dan Carlin, did a six-part series called “Supernova in the East” centered around the Pacific Theater during World War II. This series focuses heavily on the fanaticism of Japan’s culture and the prevailing narrative surrounding them is that “The Japanese are just like everyone else, only more so”.

This narrative, while very much present at the time of WWII, is also incredibly evident throughout Shogun. In this case Blackthorne serves as a representation for “everyone else” as he witnesses the similarities in Japanese customs to his own English ones, only dialed up a notch. He essentially serves as a manifestation of how the West views Japan. At first, his instincts are to think of these foreigners as beneath him and to frame their interactions as simply a proxy between himself and his real enemy, the Catholic Portuguese. Blackthorne insults their customs, their people, and their cities only to uncover all the beauty that this country has to offer. It’s a brilliant way the show displays the West’s colonialist philosophies, viewing the rest of the world as merely resources they can use to triumph over their own enemies.

Eventually Blackthorne explains to Lord Toranaga, his captor and later ruler, European colonialism, and Toranaga is shocked to learn how little regard they have for Japan. While this explanation would have likely been an easy place to insert exposition in other shows, Shogun makes this explanation a conversation between the characters. What’s really powerful in this case about conversation over exposition, is that all the characters have motives, and those motives are present in their dialogue. You can see Toranaga plotting to use global politics as a means to achieve success domestically. He understands that others have interests outside of Japan and uses that against them. Blackthorne does the same, using his knowledge of the outside world to make himself a resource to stay alive. A greater understanding of the characters is gained as a result of Shogun’s use of conversational dialogue helps illustrate characters plans, motives, and power dynamics without overtly spelling it out.

In addition to its use of conversation, the show is very deliberate with its use of translation. Blackthorne can speak Portuguese (read as English in the show) as can the bilingual Lady Mariko, who serves under Toranaga. The difficulty of being translated accurately is painfully obvious after watching the show, but not something most would initially consider before watching the show. Characters, especially early on in the show, are wary of false translation and the bias and motives of a translator. This serves as a useful tool to initiate character exchange as Mariko and Blackthorne often argue about his plans before she translates it to Lord Toranaga or other characters. She will at points spin his words, both in and against his favor, depending on who’s allegiance she’s honoring in the moment. Mariko’s role is often as a gatekeeper to Blackthorne as she is the only one able to communicate on his behalf, allowing her to protect him from others and himself, if she so desires. The language barriers allow for a tremendous amount of dramatic irony in the show, allowing us to witness the blurred political lines. As a result of the language barriers, the characters are often reliant on demonstrating their feelings rather than discussing them.

Shogun’s use of conversation, translation, and dialogue serve as intriguing alternatives to traditional exposition. In addition, the framing of the show, with Blackthorne serving as the exclusive outsider in a foreign land, allows for intriguing exchanges and opportunities for exploration of Japanese culture without overt explanation.

Shogun is available for streaming on Hulu and Disney+. For more about the show and links to view it, click here.