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Silly voices and the weight of words in ‘Shōgun’

In a genre where action usually determines outcome, ‘Shōgun’ is unusually alive to language and its nuances

Cosmo Jarvis and Anna Sawai in 'Shogun'
Cosmo Jarvis and Anna Sawai in 'Shogun'

To play the English major taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II in his 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, director Nagisa Ōshima cast David Bowie. It was an inspired choice to complete the superb quartet at the heart of the film: English actor Tom Conti, another musician in Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Takeshi Kitano, then a comedian, a few years from embarking on a distinguished directorial career. Ōshima, an idiosyncratic, acclaimed filmmaker, commanded respect—though as Bowie mentioned in an interview to Movieline, his countrymen were the ones who felt the heat. “With his Japanese actors he was very severe, down to the minutest detail,” he recalled. “With Tom Conti and me, he said, ‘Please do whatever it is you people do’.”

I was reminded of this story while watching the American limited series Shōgun, which premiered in February (it’s on Disney+ Hotstar in India). It centres on an English pilot of a Dutch trading ship, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), who washes up with a skeleton crew on the coast of Japan in 1600. As in Oshima’s film, the performances of the Japanese actors in Shōgun seem calibrated to the minutest degree, while the Europeans are given more leeway. Néstor Carbonell plays a Spaniard sailing with the Portuguese (the only Europeans in Japan then), talkative, boastful, ribald—a type familiar from fantasy-historicals like Game Of Thrones. And then there’s Blackthorne. 

Shōgun’s charms are manifold, and this would be an engrossing series had Blackthorne been played conventionally. It’s to Jarvis’ great credit that he takes a real risk. His Blackthorne is a memorable weirdo from the moment we see him, unkempt and almost delirious. When the ship runs aground, he’s taken prisoner, but manages to remain alive by proving useful, first to warlord Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), and then to his daimyō, Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). The regent engages Blackthorne to teach his men European warfare —a task he’s entirely unsuited for. They communicate through Mariko (Anna Sawai), though by episode 4, Blackthorne has picked up rudimentary Japanese.

The biggest risk Jarvis takes is with Blackthorne’s speaking voice. It’s not the gruff baritone you’d expect from this barrel-chested man; it’s a little higher and faster and posher. There’s a bit of Richard Burton in there—and Blackthorne’s creative cussing brings to mind Ian McShane in Deadwood. “Tell this poxy little bastard I piss on his whole damn country,” he rages mere minutes after being captured by Yabushige’s nephew. 

Jarvis commits fully to the voice, and everything else follows from it. There’s a scene in episode 3 that’s a litmus test for viewers in how it combines the voice done full-throttle with physical comedy. Toranaga is being smuggled out of Osaka, where his enemies have him imprisoned, in a covered palanquin meant for his wife. Just as they are leaving, a check is ordered. Blackthorne creates a diversion, yelling at the offending soldier in English for outraging the modesty of a woman. “It’s not proper!” he seethes. “Worse than that it’s vullllgar!” The same scene occurs in the 1980 miniseries adaptation of James Clavell’s novel, with Richard Chamberlain in the Blackthorne part and the great Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga. It’s played for slapstick comedy there, Chamberlain dancing and pretending to have gone mad. The 2024 version of the scene is funnier and more believable because Jarvis, though deliberately agitated, isn’t behaving too differently from his regular self. For all the locals know, this is how Englishmen are. 

Actors doing unusual voices is cinematic catnip for me. Hollywood tends to value respectable passes at tough accents—say, Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus. Even something as weird as Julia Garner’s Russian-German-American hybrid in the Anna Delvey series Inventing Anna is an expert take on something that already exists. But when Robert Pattison’s first words in The King emerge as a mad Pepe Le Pew parody of Frenchified English… it fills me with a weird delight. With his startling southern US accent in The Devil All The Time and his ornate seaman ranting in The Lighthouse, Pattinson has climbed to second spot on my Silly Voices ranking. The reigning champion, of course, is Tom Hardy, whose Peaky Blinders performance was all the more exciting for me because I genuinely couldn’t understand anything he was saying and was therefore unsure if he was going to help Cillian Murphy or slit his throat. Just when you think he’s out of voices, the trailer for The Bikeriders drops, with Hardy playing a tough 1960s biker who sounds like a cross between Lee J. Cobb and Elmer Fudd.

Blackthorne may not always choose words carefully, but Shōgun does. The series, created by Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, makes a significant departure from the 1980 version by subtitling the Japanese dialogue. This has the advantage of making the Japanese characters much richer, and reduces the pressure on Blackthorne and Mariko’s exchanges (they are actually speaking Portuguese—the English were entirely new to Japan at the time). 

The title of the first episode (also the name by which Blackthorne is addressed) is a pun—anjin, Japanese for “pilot”. It sets the tone for a show alive to the malleability of language, the ways it can sustain but also deceive and misdirect. The first translator for Blackthorn, a Portuguese priest, twists his words and is dismissed by the hilariously irritated Yabushige. The second, stung by Blackthorne’s assumption that he’ll misrepresent him, “gives him” the Japanese word teki (enemy) so he can tell Toranga himself. When Mariko takes over as interpreter, her translations have little bits of advice and context for the anjin she’s increasingly fascinated by.

This arrangement crumbles in episode 5, when Mariko’s husband returns practically from the dead and is immediately suspicious of the familiarity between the foreigner and his wife. Over a long dinner followed by a tense sake-drinking session, Mariko mistranslates almost everything Blackthrone says to her violent husband, and issues a stream of warnings in place of translating his words back. Conversation breaks down, Mariko suffers, and the two men nearly end up duelling. 

The same episode shows the fatal power of words misconstrued. Blackthorne is given a pheasant by Toranaga as a gift for training his troops. Moved by the gesture, he hangs the bird from a hook outside his house, with the intention of cooking it later. He brushes aside the concerns of his consort and house help about the stench, causally saying “If touch—die” in Japanese. This leads to a tragic series of events: the gardener is ordered to take down the bird by the village head, but is then killed because of Blackthorne’s unwitting edict. “The bird meant nothing to me,” he protests to Mariko. “Your words gave it meaning,” she replies. In a genre where actions usually determine outcome, Shōgun is unique in its insistence on language being the real battlefield.

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