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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Shogun (mini-series) aka James Clavell's Shogun [Blu-ray]


(Jerry London, 1980)






Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Davis Entertainment & Lion Rock

Blu-ray: Paramount Home Entertainment



Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 547 min. avg. 54 min/episode

Disc Size: 50 X 3

Average Bitrate: 27-34 Mbps

Episodes: 10 in 3 Parts

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: July 22nd, 2014



Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video



English & Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1
English & Japanese Dolby Digital mono (restored)
DUBs: French, German and Japanese mono



English SDH, French, German, Japanese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish, none




• Selected Scenes Audio Commentary by director Jerry London
• The Making of Shōgun - in SD (79:20 min)
• Historical Perspective Featurettes - in SD (15 min)
o The Samurai
o The Tea Ceremony
o The Geisha


Description: John Blackthorne, an English ship pilot, whose vessel wrecked upon the Japanese coast in the early 17th century is forced to deal with the two most powerful men in Japan in these days. He is thrown in the midst of a war between Toranaga and Ishido, who struggle for the title of Shogun which will give ultimate power to the one who possesses it.



Journey to the brutal, thrilling world of 17th century feudal Japan with SHŌGUN, the unforgettable adventure based on the bestselling novel from James Clavell. Winner of three Golden Globes and three Emmys, the three-part miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain arrives for the first time on stunning Blu-ray July 22 from CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Media Distribution. The sweeping story of love and war follows John Blackthorne (Chamberlain), an English navigator shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. Rescued, he becomes an eyewitness to a deadly struggle involving Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune), a feuding warlord intent on becoming Shogun – the supreme military dictator. At the same time, Blackthorne is irresistibly drawn into the turmoil and finds himself vying to become the first-ever Gai-Jin (foreigner) to be a made a Samurai Warrior.



The Series: 9
Critical Reception [Wikipedia]:
The miniseries was sparked by the massive success of the television miniseries Roots (1977) that had aired on the ABC Network in 1977. The success of Roots, as well as the critically acclaimed TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977), would spawn many miniseries onward through the 1980s. Shōgun, which aired in 1980, also became a highly rated program and continued the wave of miniseries over the next few years (such as North and South and The Thorn Birds) as networks clamored to capitalize on the format's success.

The success of the miniseries was credited with causing the paperback edition of the novel to become the best-selling mass-market book in the United States, with 2.1 million copies in print, and increased awareness of Japanese culture in America. In the documentary The Making of 'Shōgun', it is stated that the rise of Japanese food establishments in the United States (particularly sushi houses) is attributed to Shōgun. It was also noted that during the week of broadcast, many restaurants and movie houses saw a decrease in business. The documentary states many stayed home to watch Shōgun—unprecedented for a television broadcast.

The Japanese characters speak in Japanese throughout, except when translating for Blackthorne. The original broadcast did not use subtitles for the Japanese portions. As the movie was presented from Blackthorne's point of view, the producers felt that "what he doesn't understand, we understand.” Rotten Tomatoes gives the series a critic rating of 80%.



Time Out London:
Startled blue eyes above silky beard, Richard Chamberlain in a kimono looks more like an actor on his way to the bathroom than a grizzled English seafarer, cast ashore in 17th century Japan, where he turns samurai and becomes romantically and actively involved in a violent political intrigue. Based on James Clavell's huge novel, Shogun was originally a 10-hour TV mini-series. Shamefully hacked down to 151 minutes (still a yawning long haul), the plot has been rendered action-packed but utterly incomprehensible. Though production credits and cast point to a lively synthesis of oriental/occidental interests, the end result reduces the complex moral codes of feudal Japan to an inexplicable death wish. The threat of harakiri follows Chamberlain's illicit hanky-panky with the Lady Mariko (Shimada) as surely as day follows night, and yet again that rising sun blobs onto the screen like a pulpy tangerine. -
One of the best things about a quality mini-series is quite simply that of sheer volume; if you're having a great time with the first hour of Shogun, lucky you! There's over eight more hours to enjoy! And you'll have to search far and wide to find a made-for-television production that boasts this sort of quality. The costumes, the set designs, the majestic Maurice Jarre score, and the obvious respect for even the smallest cultural detail of 17th century Japan combine to create an entirely engrossing, not to mention lengthy, tale. That the viewer is not even offered subtitles when the Japanese characters speak is an indication of the respect the filmmakers have for their audience; those who are paying attention simply won't need the subtitles in order to follow the drama. With his performances in Shogun, The Thorn Birds (1983), and a handful of other (less celebrated) mini-series, Richard Chamberlain became known as the king of multi-chapter TV dramas, and his work here represents some of the finest of Chamberlain's career. And of course you can expect nothing but a truly regal presence when you have Toshiro Mifune as your intensely noble feudal warlord. - Scott Weinberg
Everything about Shogun is big and impressive, from its running time (nine hours) to the large cast, superb location shooting, and obvious care taken with the sets and costumes (the castle sets were constructed using traditional peg and groove methods; every kimono was unique). The story is set in a crucial period in Japanese history as nearly 150 years of civil unrest were about to come to an end with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. . . Despite being filmed entirely in Japan and featuring an impressive cast of Japanese actors. . . Shōgun is concerned primarily with Blackthorne’s story while the distinguished Japanese cast is reduced to being supporting players in the heroic tale of a white guy making good in a foreign land. . . [and] while the Japanese characters behave as if they were living in the period of the story, Blackthorne appears to have popped out of a time machine, because his values are more typical of the late-20th century than the early-17th. - Sarah Boslaugh


1980 - The year I bought my first VCR - a Sony Betamax. I wanted it expressly to record this series, which for reasons I have since forgot, imagined would be a keeper. And so it was, allowing me to watch the entire series again about the time that it went into syndication, which loped off a couple hours of program and substituted Jane Alexander for Orson Welles as Narrator. Eventually, my copy became unwatchable - not from overplay, as it happened, but from underuse. Much the same fate awaited more titles in my library than I care to admit. It was not 2003 that Paramount brought out a proper DVD of the original broadcast plus some pretty good bonus features, all of which are on this Blu-ray edition as well, though, sadly, not upgraded to HD in any way. The DVD image was good and the sound quality passable, no worse than I remembered my Beta copy to be, but the new Blu-ray, while apparently struck from the same source as the DVD, betters it in small ways which, accumulatively, make for a more satisfying viewing experience.

There was a curious gap in my television watching history: I was present during its earliest years, but absent all through college and beyond, from 1960-1972. I mention this because I didn’t really know from Richard Chamberlain all that much. I never watched Dr. Kildare. Still haven’t, and not likely to. He always struck me as trying too hard to impress. Still, he had a certain charisma, a kind of commanding presence despite his relatively light frame and his reliance on intensity. Not having read the book, and knowing Japanese actors primarily through Toho films, especially the always impressive Toshiro Mifune, what I was not prepared for was Yko Shimada. Totally unknown to me prior to Shōgun, Shimada absolutely swept me off my feet, as she did Blackthorne, with her directness, grace, innocence and oriental beauty.

Shimada first appears at Toranaga’s bidding from a hidden door of sorts, gliding past Mifune to rest just alongside and behind him. A simple move, but one that relays to us, however subliminally, the relationship her character has to Toranaga and to Blackthorne, something that the Englishman never quite comes to terms with - until it is too late. This is perhaps the most carefully prepared scene in the drama, one that director Jerry London lingers on at length to allow the dynamics, however subtly portrayed, to sink in for his audience. It comes near the end of the second hour where Blackthorne is finally presented to Toronaga following a series of interactions with local island leaders, incarcerations and transports to various locations. Unlike the village where Blackthorne first awakens to his local hosts, Toronaga’s castle is an exalted piece of work, both in terms of sheer elegance and mystery. Blackthorne has been until now utterly dependent on intermediaries of the “enemy” - he, English, Anglican; they, Portuguese, Jesuit & Catholic.

Father Martin Alvito (Damien Thomas) sits about halfway between Toronaga and Blackthorne and well off and to the side, permitting a clear view by all the participants. Father Alvito proposes himself as translator, but Blackthorne insists that he does not trust him to act for him. As if by magic, at the mere ring small bell, Toronaga produces Lady Toda Mariko (Shimada), whom Blackthorne accepts as translator, not only because he sees no reason not to but because he is blinded by her presence. He is also blinded to the fact of what she is doing at this moment, which is to whisper her translation of Blackthorne’s words into Toronaga’s ear, a fact that Blackthorne accepts as mere formality. However, it is much more than that. Not that she is distorting his meaning but that Blackthorne sees her as apart from Toronaga and in relation to himself when the reverse is more the case.

What Blackthorne fails to see is that Toronaga anticipated the Englishman’s mistrust of Alvito, a man who presents himself to Blackthorne as having Toronaga’s confidence, and had Lady Mariko waiting for just this reason. Mariko, in her way, is just as strategically important to Toronaga as Alvito has been, and Blackthorne will become. Toronaga is fully aware of her story, her pain and her loyalty, all of which glides past Blackthorne with her very entrance on the stage, just as the sliding doors move in every home and castle.

Reviewers are often quick to point out that the Japanese characters who do not speak English (almost all of them in this case) are not subtitled so as to further “our” identification with Blackthorne’s plight. For our part, we have endured the stranded seaman’s various humiliations, mutually incurred insults, threats of death to himself and his surviving crew. We - meaning: the English speaking audience - identify with him and, once he gets past his initial posturing just this side of fanatical fervor, he sees in Lady Mariko a respite and oasis from his journey. It must be seductive and unnerving in equal measure that she does not lower her gaze in feigned embarrassment as other women commonly do - or did, even Europeans, I assume - unless they have designs. Naturally, he falls in love with this oasis or should I say: mirage, with consequences predictable to a Japanese audience, but not to us. . . which leads us to the most intriguing and most profound aspect of this drama: translation.

From the moment he awakens to the “Japans” Blackthorne is thrust into a situation not unlike that of a person who suddenly loses their sight. He depends on others to find his way, even to survive – add to this the responsibility he feels for his crew – yet he trusts no one. As the worst possible luck would have it, the very first person he comes across that speaks English and Japanese is a Jesuit priest who sees Blackthorne as mongoose to his cobra, or vice-versa, depending on who has the upper hand – nearly always the priest. There is a moment a little later on that ripples throughout the story in which Blackthorne becomes aware of, and gives expression to, his dis-ease by demanding that his translator makes clear to his captives that he does not trust him to translate for him. Blackthorne’s predicament seems unresolvable – yet he cannot simply tolerate the crisis. You would think the matter could be resolved rationally, but the concept of “natural enemies” seems ordained from Genesis, as resonances in this story with Biblical and present day Middle East are enough to make you cry. We, the audience, must ask ourselves at this point and at countless times throughout the drama, what we would do and say in a similar position.

Just as writers Clavell & Bercovici and director London invite the audience to learn something of seventeenth century Japanese language and culture, Toronaga wants the same of Blackthorne to the extent this is possible and permitted. Toronaga instructs Mariko to be the Englishman’s teacher and for a considerable part of the story they have interchanges of unusual lyricism that are nothing short than the language of love, all the more tender because of its contrast to Blackthorne’s previous interactions on this island, save the Portuguese pilot, Rodriguez. (The intimacy and attention this form of interaction requires makes for an effective template we see in the kind of here and now communication that has become so popular in recent decades.) As the Englishman becomes more fluent he comes to an interesting crossroads: whether or not to revert to his former style of personal power politics. In the beginning we see Blackthorne as a man who places his pride - of self, of country, of religion - above all else, even the safety of his crew. As he falls in love with Mariko, as with all men in such a state, his pride gives way to adoration – both slippery and dangerous slopes – and as he becomes fluent in her language he deceives himself that his understanding of her is equal to his command of the language. Because he wants what he wants, he feels she will comply with his desires, an illusion that men have of women so basic and primal that only tragedy can result, a misapprehension familiar to us all.



Image: 8   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.
I expect there will be those who will come down on this
Blu-ray for not being HD full frame - i.e., 1.78:1 - but despite being shot on 35 mm film and, as I recall, matted for potential theatrical presentation, what we have here is the aspect ratio as we saw it 1980, except that the film has been rescanned for high-definition viewing. Paramount’s DVD edition was already very decently color corrected with good contrast control and noise spec’s. I would have said there was nothing about that image, unlike its lackluster audio mix, that cried out for renewal on standard definition terms. All the same, the new hi-definition transfer is improved, if not by leaps and bounds. Despite its softness, the image suggests the motion picture film from which it was struck and, as such, must look more impressive than on its original outing on television over thirty years ago.

Density and resolution is very good, with facial textures and fabrics like the shoulder roll on Blackthorne vest and the fine silk of a kimono or the metallic ornamentation of the Japanese headgear, come through wonderfully – not so much that they bring attention to themselves, but that they offer a tangible reality merely suggested by the DVD. Color is of a similar palette as the DVD but a bit less murky and a skosh brighter and deeper. Contrast, especially in outdoor scenes where there are light values across a wide spectrum, are just about perfect, showing off what well composed and properly lit 35 mm photography can do. There are no transfer anomalies or enhancements to get in the way. Noise is pretty much non-existent and the picture looks wonderful projected in motion and standing still onto a large screen. There are a very few fleeting patches of bewildering mushiness and the occasional source damage (see top of the frame of #30) that we wouldn’t have expected to be repaired. I observed that the difference between DVD and Blu-ray is seen to better advantage projected with my JVC RS-57, which likely benefits from some extra judicious processing, than my iMac display, which only slightly exceeds HD spec.



Subtitle Sample Paramount - Region FREE - Blu-ray



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Audio & Music: 8/8
Happy that the producers of this Blu-ray included an optional “restored” original mono track. Not so happily, they didn’t have the good sense to make it uncompressed (What’s up that, anyway!) I could go on and on about how manifestly stupid it is to go to all the trouble of restoring the original soundtrack and then offer it in a substandard audio file, but three whacks in two sentences, plus taking off a point on the score should suffice. Anyhow, few people really care. Given the choice and default to the surround track, few would even bother to see what mere mono has to say for itself.

That said, switching between the uncompressed surround and restored mono tracks is an interesting, if frustrating, exercise. The DVD also had a 5.1 mix, but in a compressed format. It lacked focus and dynamics that many were quick to blame on its age and the fact that the series was made only for TV. Well, on the evidence of the new DTS-HD MA mix, we can safely put that assumption to rest. Right from the opening titles and on through the storm and all the succeeding scenes, the new mix has huevos, dramatic impact, and improved clarity of dialogue. The music score especially, with its Japanese instrumental accents, comes through like a slicing sword. We could not have suspected that any of this was hidden away by listening to the DVD. The surprise is that the restored mono (which was also an option on the DVD, but sounding more authoritative here for some reason), despite its being tired old Dolby Digital, is almost as good as the new surround mix, and, in some subtle ways, better.

As good as the 5.1 mix is, there are drawbacks to assigning surround channels when you don’t have access to individual tracks prior to the final theatrical mix, which, given the relative lack of finesse for various subtle atmospheric effects, such as the gentle lapping of waves at the shore or a gentle breeze through the trees, I suspect is the case for Shōgun. This is hardly a major flaw, even in this surround mix, which really comes into play only subtly for musical swells and some storms and the like. This is by no means a modern audio design, though it is far better than average for its time and venue. The music, effects and dialogue on the mono are so good that it begs for an uncompressed format - in which case it would almost certainly be considered the preferred mix. Compare the lightning cracks in the prologue, and note how naturally voices come off, as compared to the airiness heard in the surround. As it is, the surround is just fine and does offer some (as most reviewers would say) “much needed” space.




Extras: 5
In addition to Jerry London’s scene-specific audio commentary, CBS ports over the two major bonus features from their DVD set and the director’s isolated commentaries for selected scenes.
Disc One: The Making of Shōgun (alas, in SD) (79:20 min)
Disc Two: Historical Perspective Featurettes (SD) (15:00 min.)
Disc Three: Separate Commentaries by Director Jerry London on Select Scenes (SD)



Recommendation: 8
Not to put too fine a point on it, Shōgun is exceptional drama, and one of universal appeal: there is romance, adventure, war, mystery and, defying the odds, there are profound psychological and cultural insights in abundance thanks to a brilliantly contrived script by Eric Bercovici. Bercovici, by the way, previously and since did considerable work in television as writer and/or producer for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Washington Behind Closed Doors and McClaine’s Law, among others. It may be more than a coincidence that while filming Shōgun he met and married Chiho Adachi, who acted as consultant and interpreter for that production.

The performances by the entire cast are quite good - stimulating and, at times excellent, especially the Japanese, and, thanks to Jerry London’s fine direction (among other credits, he directed the excellent (and still absent on plastic home theater media) 1983 miniseries Chiefs, there is a sense that they are all on the same page in terms of emotional pitch, which is to say: just short of hysterical, making the appearance of Yko Shimada‘s Mariko that much more an effective dramatic contrast. Richard Chamberlain as the protagonist Pilot-Major John Blackthorne does fine work here as a man whose neck we want to wring for most of the first hour but who gradually lets his character get into his “part” so to speak, and we, in turn, his. The photography and attention to period detail is astonishing for its time and venue, and was influential in raising the bar for television series in these areas.

The transferred image and audio are very good, save only that the original mono, though restored, is presented in a compressed format. We do regret that none of the bonus features have been upgraded to HD, especially since there is so much interesting and valuable material there. The entire series is presented without a break, with the first three episodes on the first disc, and the remaining episodes spread discs two and three. There are convenient chapter stops but no episode demarcations as such.

Leonard Norwitz
July 15th, 2009






About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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