Shogun takes us back to both an earlier time in television history and a significant point in the history of Japan. James Clavell's novel was transformed into a spectacular and well-watched mini-series in the early 1980s. It follows the exploits of a ship's pilot named Blackthorne as he leads a crew into the unknown world of Japan around 1600. Crossing the Pacific Ocean was not easy; but attempting to make inroads into the Portuguese controlled Far East would prove harder.
The basic story involves the Englishman Blackthorne's journey in becoming a samurai. Crash landing in Japan during a wild storm, Blackthorne arrives in a Japan having early relations with the Portuguese. The Pope has given the half of the world containing Japan to the Portuguese. Blackthorne is trying to find his way to this treasure trove. He ends up in the middle of a battle between various factions of the ruling class, and between the Portuguese and that ruling class. The figure who would become Shogun recognizes Blackthorne's animosity toward the Portuguese as a useful trait to nurture. He eventually has Blackthorne isolated in a village where it is decreed that the whole village will be put to death if Blackthorne does not master Japanese in a short set of months. Blackthorne is outraged at this barbarous decree, but he struggles on to learn the difficult language. He meets Mariko who knows English and can translate for him. A love interest develops, only hindered by her death and her samurai husband.
In becoming a samurai, Blackthorne puts himself in the middle of the battle to control Japan. An essential lesson of the book and program is in this battle. Japan is trying to deal with the pressure of a major colonial power. The damage of colonialism is going to be clear in the places seized to the west. Japan is paying tribute, but the question is how to avoid being taken over.
The answer not fully given. After the end of the story Japan will kick the Portuguese out of Japan, trading only with the Dutch and only through the port of Nagasaki. The damage of colonialism is avoided. This will allow Japan to economically develop in the later 1800s without the damage inflicted by the colonial period. In short, without a colonial power in control there is no one to prevent their successful development.
Of course students might question why being a colony was such a bad experience. All one has to note is that Britain was damaging the colonies in New England in the 1700s. That damage cast against the push of Calvinist-based religions to prosper, is the underlying cause of the American Revolution. "Taxation without Representation" was just a theme to get the rest of the colonies to go along. Damage is never even, and the Middle and Southern Colonies were not being damaged at the level New England was. They had agricultural product of value to the system, New England did not. New England wanted to manufacture products, which was Britain's role as the British saw it.
One of the problems in reviewing Shogun for geographic content is that one would just have to suspect that the mini-series is permanently buried in the vaults at Paramount. It was a multi-night affair, and the networks seem to be out of that stage. A two-hour videotape version is available.
Shogun represent the deepest trek into the cultural past of another country that American television has likely made. The focus is on Japanese culture at all levels. The group nature of society, particularly at the village level is brought home with strength. The essence of samurai culture is a central element of the plot.
The videotape does have drawbacks. (1) If you have watched the full series, you might be jarred by how they cut the many hours down to two. (2) Mariko and Blackthorne do take a furo, or bath. She is partially nude. (3) The videotape is based on the first showing of Shogun on television. The Japanese is translated for the viewer only if it is translated to Blackthorne. In the second showing on television subtitles were added. Their appreciation of what was going on increased. This version does give a better experience of what explorers faced in dealing with language. Most students would be unwilling to face that experience.
In the end, this is one of television's finest moments. It is an enriching experience in learning about culture.
The final issue is finding any version of this in 2013. Netflix has the full version available and you will find that superior to the short version. You are making a major commitment in time to that version, but it is worth it.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Shogun. Dakota Alliance XII (5): November-December 2002: 7.