‘Shogun’ Series Premiere Recap: House of Lords

Episode 1: ‘Anjin’

Episode 2: ‘Servants of Two Masters’

The ghostly Dutch trading vessel Erasmus materializes out of the fog, dwarfing the homes of a small coastal village like a Lovecraft-ian monster emerging from the sea. It may as well be one.

There is no shogun, no unquestioned and absolute ruler, holding the country’s fractious lords together when “Shogun” begins. The Erasmus, with its cargo of guns and ammo and its irascible English pilot, is the harbinger of a world war into which Japan doesn’t even realize it’s been drafted. Its flag means death.

Adapted by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks from the 1975 novel by James Clavell, “Shogun” co-stars Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, the Erasmus’s pilot, or navigator. Blackthorne is part of a small fleet commissioned by England to find the mysterious and very wealthy island of Japan, and harry any Catholic forces along the way. This is a tall order: England’s Catholic rivals, Portugal and Spain, have kept their lucrative route to East Asia a secret from the rest of the world — even as they kept the existence of England, and Protestantism in general, a secret from their Japanese trading partners.

By the time Blackthorne and what’s left of the fleet’s crew wash ashore, they’re down to a dozen or so bedraggled, starving and half-delirious men, looking and acting every bit like the barbarians they’re held to be by the heirs of Japanese civilization. This is no fit state under which to meet Lord Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), an opportunistic sadist who aims to hang onto the ship and its weaponry for himself.

Yabushige defies the wishes of his Portuguese Jesuit translator and spares Blackthorne, who seems a mere pirate until his Protestant desecration of the Catholic cross tips off the nobleman to his true motivations. Yabushige does, however, slowly boil a member of the crew to death to further his studies of dying men’s last moments. Samurai or serial killer: six of one, half dozen of the other.

While Yabushige’s cruelty gets laid on pretty thick, “Shogun” does not render that cruelty as some innately Japanese feature. The show is set in 1600, as Europeans have been waging centuries of brutal religious warfare and burning heretics alive.

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