Now largely relegated to cable, the mini-series was once a mainstay of American television. Beginning in 1976 with the success of Rich Man, Poor Man, and continuing with such classics as Roots and Jesus of Nazareth, mini-series became extremely popular on the networks (then ABC, CBS and NBC). Usually given a sizable budget, mini-series were often promoted as big events and broadcast during sweeps months to grab maximum ratings.

Based on the epic novel by James Clavell, Shogun was broadcast over five nights, between September 15 and September 19, 1980, on NBC. Drawn from the story of William Adams, an English pilot working on a Dutch merchant ship which reached Japan in 1600, the principal character is John Blackthorne, played by the king of the mini-series himself, Richard Chamberlain.

While taking his Dutch vessel through a secret passage across the ocean to Japan—kept hidden from the world by the Portuguese and Spanish in an attempt to exploit the Japanese people and their riches in the name of god—Blackthorne and crew run into a terrible storm, becoming shipwrecked in the small village of Anjiro. There, he and surviving crew members are by Portuguese priest Father Sebastio (Leon Lissek), who immediately recognizes Blackthorne as an enemy. Immersed in a warrior culture he doesn’t understand, Blackthorne must find a way to survive in a culture that considers him a barbarian.

Initially taken prisoner, Blackthorne (now dubbed Anjin-san), piques the interest of the liege lord of the region, Toranaga (Toshirô Mifune), who introduces the samurai to European customs, his knowledge of geography, and the threat to his power by the Catholic presence in his country, sent from the king of Portugal to pave the way for his eventual takeover. Intrigued by what the foreigner has to say, and hoping to make him feel more comfortable with the country and its customs, Blackthorne is given the services of an interpreter and teacher of culture in Lady Mariko Buntaro-Toda (Yôko Shimada), an incredibly beautiful woman whom he soon falls in love with. However, being together won’t be easy; Mariko is married to master archer Lord Buntaro (Hideo Takamatsu), Blackthorne’s continuing refusal to abide by strict Japanese culture and most importantly, his central role in the three-way fight between the Jesuits, who see him as a threat to their hold on Japan, and the brewing civil war that is to come between Toranaga and his rival for title of shogun, Ishido, ruler of the Osaka Castle (Nobuo Kaneko).

Emmy nominated writer Eric Bercovici (Washington: Behind Closed Doors) spends significant time developing the central characters, and exploring everyday life in Japan. It’s this attention to detail that helps make Shōgun such a fascinating experience. We are exposed to so much of 17th century Japan. Yes, some of its horrifying, but its history nonetheless. The first, and (as of this writing), only mini-series to be shot entirely in Japan, Shōgun has an authenticity that can’t be disputed. It’s wonderful that the filmmakers chose not to use subtitle to translate Japanese speech. 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 situation.

Sadly, though Shōgun features an impressive cast of Japanese actors (among them the great Toshirô Mifune, Yoko Shimada, and Furanki Sakai) the story keeps its focus on Blackthorne, while the Japanese cast members are glorified supporting players. I suppose this is understandable, Shōgun was made for broadcast television; it wasn’t likely that the core audience had seen The Seven Samurai at the local art house cinema (remember, this was in the days before home video).

Richard Chamberlain received solid reviews a Golden Globe, and an Emmy nomination for his work in this epic piece, but in retrospect, he seems far too American to be completely convincing as a 17th century British sailor. That isn’t to say that he didn’t give his heart and soul to the project, but one wonders if James Clavell’s initial choices of Sean Connery or Roger Moore could have brought an authenticity to the role. Toshirô Mifune is fascinating as always, perfectly capturing the multifaceted personality of Lord Toranaga. Yoko Shimada as the delicate Mariko seems tentative at first, but slowly draws the viewer in, much the way you imagine she did Blackthorne. As Rodrigues, Chamberlain’s Portuguese counterpart, John Rhys-Davies manages to steal every scene he’s in. Vladek Sheybal plays the scheming Captain Ferriera with directness but perhaps a bit over-the-top at times, and while marvelous character actor Michael Hordern’s Friar Domingo is lost in the first episode, his scenes are memorable.

Yes, Shōgun has its flaws, nearly 35 years after its initial broadcast, watching John Blackthorne and his ascent from English sailor to Japanese samurai is still a fascinating one. Networks just don’t make mini-series like this anymore, and it’s nice to see one of the best remembered ones getting the high definition treatment. Can The Thorn Birds be far behind?

Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Paramount’s 1080p transfer is very solid. Color richness and saturation levels are superb. Skin tones look natural and lifelike, while detail is apparent throughout. Individual strands of hair, facial features, and clothing material can all easily be made out. Sharpness is excellent, particularly in medium shots and close-ups, though some long shots show a slight blurry softness. Black levels are fine, though can’t be considered excellent, and some scenes have a slightly dark tint. I noticed a couple of specks of dirt, but all-in-all, this is a fine transfer.

The disc offers two English language choices: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The mono track is rather dull, with no bass in evidence. In contrast, the 5.1 track offers an expansive spread of the Maurice Jarre score and the sound effects across the front soundstage, while it’s not totally enveloping (sans rear), it works very nicely for the material, though the lack of LFE usage is notable. Dialogue has been well recorded and placed in the center channel. There are no hisses, pops, or other audio issues.

Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Japanese, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles, as well as French, German, and Japanese dubs are included.

The following extras have been ported over from the 2010 30th Anniversary DVD release:

  • The Making of Shogun(SD, 1:19:51) Writer Eric Bercovici, director Jerry London, cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, and stars Richard Chamberlain, Yôko Shimada, and John Rhys-Davies discuss pre-production scripting, casting, location scouting in Japan and shooting in the primitive Toho Studios, working with the locals and the culture gap that existed between the American 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 issues, post-production problems, and the program’s ecstatic reception. The thirteen-part documentary can also be viewed in individual segments.
  • Historical Perspective Featurettes (SD) All featuring Dr. Paul Varley of the University of Hawaii, look at aspects of Japanese culture touched on in the mini-series.
    1. The Samurai (5:37)
    2. The Tea Ceremony (4:57)
    3. The Geisha (4:58)
  • Selected Scene Commentary by Director Jeremy London: (SD) London provides commentary on seven scenes (about 12 minutes of the 9 hour production), though he largely discusses what’s happening on screen. Head towards the Making of piece for substantive information.