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‘Shōgun’: Your Guide to Understanding the Power Players

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Shōgun: Your Guide to Understanding the CharactersFX

When Shōgun begins, FX damn near requires that its audience understand hundreds of years of Japanese history. The series takes place in the early 1600s, nearly three hundred years before the island nation had electricity. Japan is living under a feudal system, ruled by powerful lords (called daimyō) and their loyal samurai. That’s why the series is earning comparisons to Game of Thrones, even if we won’t see any dragons or magic. But for those a bit confused by Shōgun’s plot so far, harking back to Thrones isn’t an insane mindset to tap into. Shōgun follows a similar power struggle involving lords vying to be king—just change king to shōgun.

The early episodes also spend a fair amount of time introducing John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), the main character of James Clavell’s 1975 Shōgun novel. Though his TV counterpart isn’t as important to the time period as the character in Clavell’s novel implies, he's still a major player in the FX series. After episode 6, he's basically a full-fledged member of Toranaga's crew. To better understand the power players of Shōgun, let’s break them down one by one.


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Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Toranaga.FX


Yoshii Toranaga

Just as most power-struggle tales begin, Shōgun’s story opens with a dying king: the Taikō. His final wish is for Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), Japan’s president of foreign relations, to take his place until his young heir comes of age. Wisely, Toranaga advises against it (even though it’s exactly what he wants). There are four other competing lords, and they would only unite to defeat him immediately after he came into power. Having foreseen this, the Taikō commends Toranaga for his wit and states that he already wrote up a document to establish a ruling Council of Regents composed of the five lords when he passes.

In the short time after the Taikō’s death, Toranaga continues his plan behind the scenes. Through a series of bold political moves, he begins attaining power through non-confrontational means. Namely, he doubles the size of his region of Kantō by accepting six marriage proposals from neighboring fiefdoms. This is something that may have led to certain death on Game of Thrones—and it’s also grounds for impeachment within the council. Toranaga also starts to hoard the Taikō’s widows at his residence in Edo, under the pretense that they are related to his various family members who are in labor. So Toranaga is ordered to come to Osaka and face interrogation—which could very well end in his death. Escaping back into his territory, he and his allies now prepare for war.

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John Blackthorne making a very John Blackthorne expression.FX

John Blackthorne

Loosely based on William Adams, the first Englishman to sail to Japan, John Blackthorne arrives at the perfect time for Toranaga. Though he’s an insane barbarian in the eyes of the Japanese (he certainly acts like one!), the Protestant Englishman informs the lord about his war with the Christian nations. Spain and Portugal already have a strong foothold in Japan by this point—but back in Europe, they’re engaged in a religious battle with England. Secretly, England sends Blackthorne to disrupt this relationship and reestablish ties with Japan based on military aid and trade.

This chance encounter is beneficial to Toranaga. He can use the Protestant’s knowledge to threaten the council members and sow discord within their alliance against him. Meanwhile, Blackthorne can use his newfound relationship with Toranaga to weaken the Christian chokehold on Japan. Even worlds apart, they have the same enemies.

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What are MarikoFX

Toda Mariko

Mariko (Anna Sawai) currently serves under Toranaga as Blackthorne’s translator. She’s also wife to Buntaro, a skilled samurai who bravely helped them escape from Osaka. Her father-in-law, Toda “Iron Fist” Hiromatsu, is one of Toranaga’s trusted advisors. As we learn in episode 5, she was the daughter of a general who betrayed the former ruler of Japan. Her life was sparred by marrying Buntaro, but she is not in a happy marriages. As Mariko grows closer to Blackthorne, their working relationship evolves in dangerous ways. Can she separate her feelings for the Englishman from her duty to Toranaga?

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Ishido, Toranaga’s main rival.FX

Ishido

Ishido (Takehiro Hira) is Toranaga’s main adversary on his path to the shogunate—and the most cunning member of the council. When Toranaga arrives in Osaka for his interrogation, Ishido is leading the alliance against him. He’s also the only active member scheming behind the scenes to prevent Toranaga’s rise. Though he was unsuccessful in turning Toranaga’s commander Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) into a spy, he’s clearly an intelligent strategist and a formidable foe.

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Lady Ochiba, potentially Toranaga’s true adversary to the shogunate.FX

Lady Ochiba

Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido) makes her first major appearance as a power player moving forward at around the halfway mark of Shōgun. Showing up at the end of episode 5, she establishes herself as the only one capable of protecting her son—the true heir—even if she thinks that going up against Toranaga is near impossible. As the widow to the late Taikō (the former ruler), and the daughter of Kuroda (the ruler before the Taikō), there is no one with more status in Osaka. So, she decides to partner up with Ishido and essentially run the Council of Regents through him to prepare to stop Toranaga's rise.

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Yabushige is easily the Shakespearean fool in Shogun. FX

Kashigi Yabushige

Yabushige is the lord of Izu and one of Toranaga’s greatest vassals. While he often tries to play both sides by currying favor with Ishido, episode 4’s shocking ending solidifies Yabushige’s fate as a member of Toranaga’s army. Beneath Yabushige is his nephew, Kashigi Omi (Hiroto Kanai), a samurai of the fishing village Ajiro. Yabushige also has an elder samurai in his party named Igarashi, who sports a very cool eye patch.

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Nagakado, you’ve got some explaining to do. FX


Yoshii Nagakado

Nagakado (Yuki Kura) is Toranaga’s most favored son. Eager to fight, he often turns toward violence before he thinks the situation through. His bold move at the end of episode 4 dramatically changes the tide of the conflict, with Toranaga reprimanding him to his face and praising his decision to others. Thanks to his act of violence, they have home team advantage.

Kiyama

Typically clad in all red, Kiyama (Hiromoto Ida) is the leading Christian member of the council. He’s Toranaga’s main antagonist throughout episode 3, sending the assassin after Blackthorne and leading the assault against Toranaga’s party in the woods. He has his forces set up a line of flaming arrows before falling back to attack Toranaga in the harbor. In both cases, Kiyama fails to stop him from leaving Osaka.

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More of Ohno, please.FX

Ohno

For the time being, Kiyama seems to hold sway over the other council member, Ohno Harunobu (Takeshi Kurokawa). Ohno was once a fierce warrior, but he now suffers from leprosy. Naturally, his search for a cure has placed him under the wing of the Christian sect. He sits on the council behind a veil of sheets, afraid to show his ghastly face. Even so, he still voices his opinion in episode 2 and backs Kiyama’s plea to have Blackthorne executed.

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Sugiyama. What’s his deal?FX

Sugiyama (Deceased)

Sugiyama (Toshi Toda) was the most mysterious member of the council. Before his death, all we knew was that he descended from one of the richest samurai families in Japan. Sugiyama barely even uttered an opinion until around episode 5. By then, his dissent also served as his death sentence.

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