From best-selling author James Clavell ("King Rat," "Noble House") comes the sweeping award-winning story of love and war, set against the spectacular background of feudal Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century. Richard Chamberlain (TV's "Dr. Kildare," "The Thorn Birds") stars as John Blackthorne, an English navigator shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. Rescued, he becomes an eyewitness to a deadly struggle involving Tornaga (Toshira Mifune, Rashomon), a feuding warlord intent on becoming Shogun, the Supreme Military Dictator. At the same time Blackthorne is irresistibly drawn into the turmoil, he finds himself vying to become the first-ever Gai-Jin (foreigner) to be a made a samurai warrior.
The 70s and 80s saw the start of the epic movie miniseries phenomenon that we have all come to love. If you remember the the miniseries 'Roots', you would have remembered that it played over a few nights and wasn't considered a film nor a series, but an actual television event. It won numerous awards back in 1977 and is still one of the ultimate tales of that time period. If we fast forward three years later to 1980, we would have another television event miniseries that spanned five nights on NBC.
This monumental and milestone in television was called 'Shogun', which is still the only American television show to be completely filmed in Japan. Producer James Clavell and director Jerry London did an outstanding job 34 years ago with this epic five-part series and it still holds up to the test of time, despite a few flaws. 'Shogun' won tons of awards at several different ceremonies in 1980 and is still considered one of the greatest accomplishments in television history. It's budget, foreign landscapes, and attention to detail of the 17th Japanese culture would set the stage for many television series to come and set the bar pretty high, just for our entertainment.
That being said, this series was made 34 years ago, and it lacks the twists, turns, and action beats that come with modern day shows. There are slow moments that build character, and there isn't a whole lot of visual effects either. And actor Richard Chamberlain's performance as John Blackthorne hasn't really stood the test of time over the past 34 years. However, 'Shogun' is still an amazing and visually stunning series, despite those small flaws. And it even had Orson Welles narrate the entire series, which was a feat of its own.
If you're unfamiliar with 'Shogun', which is based of the novel of the same name, the series starts when John Blackthorne's (Chamberlain) ship crashes off the coast of Japan in the 17th century. Now Blackthorne is an Englishman, but has to disguise himself as something else, due to the religious and political times back then. He comes across a war lord named Toranga (Toshira Mifune), who is hell-bent on becoming Shogun, which is the supreme military leader.
Toranga and Blackthorne form an unlikely alliance and begin to work together as Blackthorne learns the way of the Samurai. Toranga gives Blackthorne an interpreter by the name of Lady Mariko (Yoko Shimada), as they secretly fall in love with each other, but it's a doomed relationship from the start, because Mariko is already married to someone powerful. Through battles, lessons, love, loss, betrayals, and friendships, we see this 17th century Japanese culture through the eyes of an outsider who is trying to get back home and find himself and a family.
One thing is for sure, 'Shogun' is very dramatic. Some would say it is overly dramatic, but at this point in time, that is what people expected. Mifune and Shimada's performances were excellent, however Chamberlain's performance bordered on being to over-the-top and not acting natural like his co-stars did, and in today's standards, it comes across as laughable. But the set designs and production value are out of this world. The pacing for the show is decent enough with some slow patches here and there, but the sheer scale of the series and its amazing script make this still worth watching, even though most audiences back in 1980 would have appreciated it more.
This 'Shogun' series comes with a highly impressive 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I couldn't have asked for a better transfer and better looking image, even if I offered one million dollars. Everything looks great here. You can tell that a good amount of time and love went into remastering and cleaning up this 34-year old show. The detail looks amazing with excellent closeups that reveal individual facial hairs, wrinkles, and makeup that you could never see before. There is also a great bit of depth in this new transfer in the wider shots, giving us a great image.
Don't worry, the series doesn't look digitally cleaned. It still has that amazing filmic look with a very nice and balanced layer of grain. There are a few shots throughout the series that look softer than others, but that's due to the original source, and not this amazing transfer. The colors are perfectly saturated and simply pop off screen. The skin tones are very natural and black levels are deep and inky at all times. There are some specks that pop up here and there, but they are gone in a flash, and the major problems such as dirt, banding, aliasing, and other issues have been taken care of. This video presentation is outstanding.
This release comes with a very good lossless DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix in English as well as several 2.0 audio tracks in English, German, Japanese, and French. The 5.1 track is definitely the way to go, but for you purists out there, you'll find that the 2.0 tracks provide good sound. But with the 5.1 mix, we have a more full bodied sound that echoes through the rear speakers, which puts us in the center of the conflicts of the show. That being said, this audio track isn't as good as the above video presentation, but then again, the audio technology 34 years ago wasn't as good.
The dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow, but at some points there are a few muddled lines. And some of the sound effects sound like they were indeed made in a studio, and not real, but hey, it was 1980. The sound effects rarely travel to the rear speakers, but when they do, they sound very good, and it's mostly during the sword fighting battles, where the 5.1 really takes shape. The score never drowns out the dialogue or the sound effects, but it always sounds odd and misplaced in relation to what's going on in the show. The LFE is very good and the dynamic range is fairly wide. By no means is this a demo worthy audio presentation, but it's a solid one, considering the source material.
The Making of 'Shogun' (SD, 80 mins.) - Here is an in depth look at the making of 'Shogun' in 13 sections. The cast and crew from the original series all discuss different aspects of making the show, including the casting, the culture, the tone, the art, editing, the origins, and more. It looks like some of these interviews were cut short for timing. Hopefully one day we will receive the full interviews.
Historical Perspective Featurettes (SD, 15 mins.) - Two professors from the University of Hawaii discuss the 17th century Japanese culture that was shown in the series, including Geishas, samurais, and afternoon teas.
Select Scene Audio Commentary - Director Jerry London provides seven short commentaries on seven different scenes (not episodes) of the show. I'm not sure why he wouldn't have wanted to do an entire episode or the entire series, but maybe they're holding out for another edition. In these short commentary tracks, London provides some specific information on how the scene was shot and some fun stories from the set. I just wish there was more of this.
James Clavell's 'Shogun' television series looks incredible on Blu-ray. It's the best it has ever looked, and they did an excellent job remastering the audio portion too. And yes, the show still holds up 34 years later. It still has the power to captivate the veteran audience as well as new audiences who are interested in the Japanese sword fighting genre. Sure, there are some dull moments, but the sets, writing, acting, and cinematography are all top notch here. And the extras are definitely worth watching. I know it's a higher price than normal, but it's definitely worth the buy. Highly Recommended!