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How Oda Nobunaga’s Unbelievable True Story Inspired ‘Shōgun’

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Oda Nobunaga’s Unbelievable Story Inspired ‘ShōgunFX

When Shōgun begins, FX throws audiences into the deep end of one of Japan’s most turbulent eras. A Council of five rulers—who are governing Japan until their late lord’s heir comes of age—looks to impeach the powerful Yoshii Toranaga (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). Apologies to everyone who is barely hanging on to the historical facts of series so far, but episode 6 throws viewers another curveball. As it turns out, Shōgun’s story actually begins over a decade prior to episode 1. Buckle up, because we’re taking the Magic School Bus back to 1580s Japan.

In episode 6, Shōgun introduces viewers to Lady Ochiba. She’s the new power player in Osaka and late Taikō’s wife. Her young son will become the next ruler of Japan once he comes of age, so she’ll do whatever it takes to stop Toranaga’s rise. She was also childhood friends with Mariko, until one fateful night when Mariko’s father assassinated her father—the warlord Kuroda. He was the former ruler before the Taikō, and the head name on the Shōgun family tree. As dramatic as that betrayal sounds, it’s actually based on historical fact.

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Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), the ruler-to-be on the Shōgun family tree.FX

In 1582, Oda Nobunaga was the most powerful warlord in Japan. Known as the first Great Unifier, Nobunaga ended a period of mass civil war and restored the island nation to one unified system of power. Through his conquests, Nobunaga gained many allies, including Tokugawa Ieyasu (Toranaga in Shōgun), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Taikō), Hosokawa Fujitaka (Toda Hiromatsu), and Akechi Mitsuhide (Mariko’s father, Akechi Jinsai). This unification was quite brief, however, as Nobunaga was inexplicably betrayed by Akechi. In what’s known as the Honnō-ji incident, Nobunaga’s loyal vassal assassinated him in a surprise attack.

According to Ryoji Yamagishi, a historian at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, Akechi’s motivations remain unknown to this day. “The truth remains shrouded in mystery,” she wrote for Toyo Kezai. “In recent years, the theory that there is a ‘mastermind’ has been gaining attention, which claims that someone was behind the incident and manipulated Mitsuhide Akechi into carrying out Nobunaga’s assassination.” In episode 6, Shōgun alleges that Toranaga may have concocted the scheme himself. Audiences are left wondering whether or not to trust Lady Ochiba’s accusations, but it’s another wrinkle that will surely delight history buffs and incite more drama. It also provides a solid reason for Ochiba to serve as Toranaga’s adversary moving forward.

Kuroda, who serves as Nobunaga’s counterpart in Shōgun, is actually a composite of two historical figures. The series combines Nobunaga and his brother-in-law, Azai Nagamasa—since Nagamasa’s daughter is the character that directly inspired Lady Ochiba. Nobunaga and his brother-in-law were technically enemies in real life, yes, but it’s not terribly critical to your understanding of Shōgun. It’s a minor change for the series, and one that better positions Ochiba as Toranaga’s rival. As we move into the second half of Shōgun, we’ll reach the end of the saga—and likely witness one of the most important battles in Japanese history.

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