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Shogun
DVD disk
10.08.2004 By: The Shootin Surgeon
Shogun order
Director:
Jerry London

Actors:
Richard Chamberlain
Yoko Shimada
Toshiro Mifune

Rating:
Movie:
Extras:
Overall:

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WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Richard Chamberlain stars in this epic 1980 mini-series based on James Clavell's fantastic book. As John Blackthorne, a 16th English navigator running away on the high seas from the Spanish fleet and eventually wrecking on the coast of feudal Japan, Chamberlain becomes embroiled in a bitter war between the island nation's two dominating warlords. An intense love affair between himself and the Lady Mariko (Shimada) burns in the meantime.
IS IT A GOOD MOVIE?
I was fortunate enough to watch this mini-series with my folks when it first ran on television back in 1980 and although my youth at the time meant that I had forgotten most of it by now, I was lucky enough to have someone hand me a copy of the book later on, which I chewed through in record time. Iíll spare you the usual yammer about the book being better than the movie because I have yet to see the opposite happen (the book is always better than the movie, itís a fact of life), but we can always hope that the movie (or in this case, the mini-series) will have enough depth to give you at least some of the thrills and emotions that you felt while flipping pages. This one does. From dialogue to costumes to landscapes and music to moods, every detail is paid close attention to and if it werenít for occasional weaknesses in the actorsí performances, mostly by our man Richard who could overact with the best of them, one could say this was ďThe Perfect Mini-SeriesĒ.

At almost 10 hours in length, SHOGUN is definitely a time investment, but itís one that pays off. The portrayal of the periodís Japanese society is absolutely fascinating and Iíve heard from more knowledgeable than me that itís also bang-on in terms of realism and accuracy. To add to the intrigue is the eternal quarrel between the Catholic and Protestant Churches of the time. Superpowers were not countries but rather faiths at the time and the spillover from that division reached far into the Orient. Blackthorne, the Protestant Englishman and also a Pirate lands into a Catholic colony run by the Jesuit Priests, themselves one of historyís most influential groups. Those who hold a certain knowledge of history will easily parlay it into a more entertaining experience.

A lot of the realism stems from the fact that the Japanese sequences are not subtitled which permits (or rather causes) the English-speaking viewer to really feel the state of confusion that the shipwrecked sailors also found themselves in. The Japanese actors offer some really nice performances too, complete with bowing, glaring, yelling and head-chopping. Seriously though, they manage to breathe life into characters we canít decipher and can only understand through facial and body expressions and even though Chamberlain is a bit too feminine and pretty to cast an intimidating figure as a pirate, he strikes a perfect contrast with the calm and well-mannered Japanese. To sum it up, SHOGUN is an achievement both in terms of scale and execution featuring a great story in an amazing and different context. It's good family viewing and some might even learn new things about another culture while watching.
THE EXTRAS
My mantra when evaluating DVD's in terms of extras has always been "quality over quantity". I'd rather see one or two meaningful features than a huge list of meaningless wastes of time. There's not much on this set, but it does count.

The first big feature is an hour and a half long documentary on The Making of Shogun that is neatly divided in thirteen individual vignettes. Covering the conversion from book to novel, the casting decisions, locations, studios, props and much, much more, you can't ask for more complete a rundown of an filmmaking experience. One particularly surprising story to me was the one about the Erasmus, the ship Blackthorne wrecks in. This huge sailboat was not just a prop but a functional ship that sailed from London to San Francisco and all the way to Japan for the shoot. Apparently it was equipped with an engine, but the captain in charge was such an old seadog that he refused to use it.

Next up is a set of three Historical Perspective Featurettes in which we get a scholar's explanation on the actual aspects of Samurais, Geishas and the Japanese Tea Ceremony. They last about 5 minutes each and are a pretty neat way to get a bit more in-depth knowledge about things you see a lot of during the series.

There's also a set of seven quick scenes that are isolated and that have a commentary track by director Jerry London. The scenes are short and London mostly talks about very basic stuff like sets and costumes but it's quick, easy to watch and decent overall.

It should also be noted that the packaging on this set is really nice. The five discs fit into a fold-out tray that has a sweet picture of two criss-crossing samurai swords and the whole thing fits into a nice slip cover. Slick.
FINAL DIAGNOSIS
As far as television goes, this is near much the best you can have in terms of mini-series. Grandiose in every aspect, SHOGUN is a delight to watch and surprisingly rewatchable for something that lasts almost ten hours. The price (about $80USD) is also within the range of affordability, making this one for the DVD rack.
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