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‘Shōgun’ might be the TV program of the year (again) in FX’s majestic new telling

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — In the early heyday of miniseries, “Shōgun” was the show of the year in 1980, and it might be again 44 years later. FX’s updated, sumptuous version of James Clavell’s sweeping novel blends an intoxicating combination of action, romance and political intrigue, majestically spread over 10 parts that, unlike most limited series, sustain that weight and then some.

Set in feudal Japan at the start of the 17th century, the story begins with a European ship that reaches a fishing village under the stewardship of English pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis).

With Japan already visited by Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries – turning the country into Portugal’s “secret empire in the East” – the locals are wary and indeed brutal toward the “barbarian” invaders, in scenes that pushed network standards back in 1980 and that are exceeded in those visceral qualities here.

“I won’t die in this wretched land,” Blackthorne says defiantly, although given how the odds are stacked against him, that sounds like a hollow pledge.

Soon, though, word of the English pilot, or “Anjin,” reaches Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, recently seen in “John Wick: Chapter 4,” and simply spectacular), who is in the midst of a perilous political battle with other members of the Council of Regents. Those tensions followed the death of Japan’s ruler, leaving a power vacuum until his young son is old enough to succeed him.

That chaos also creates the possibility of one regent emerging to consolidate power, and perhaps even gain the title of shōgun. Eager to find any advantage, Toranaga brings the Anjin into his circle, enlisting the lady Mariko (Anna Sawai, in a big step up from Apple’s “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters”) to serve as his translator. Harboring her own complicated past, and locked in an unhappy marriage to the suspicious samurai Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), Mariko and Blackthorne gradually forge a bond filled with risk for both.

Richard Chamberlain earned the nickname “King of the Miniseries” thanks to “Shōgun” (after Sean Connery passed on the part) and “The Thorn Birds,” and Jarvis, while perfectly fine, can’t match that level of leading-man charisma.

Yet part of that has to do with shifting the narrative balance, smartly, toward both enhancing the female roles and the Japanese characters in general, as Toranaga jockeys with his principal rival Ishido (Takehiro Hira), realizing that strategically outmaneuvering him might be the only way to survive.

“Shōgun” plunges into a feudal society where life often appears cheap, and ritual suicide (or seppuku) happens with a regularity that’s not for the faint of heart – or for that matter, when it comes to the muscular and stark action sequences, the weak of stomach.

Still, if the original NBC miniseries was in many ways ahead of its time, this sweeping, heavily subtitled production arrives in an age that’s far more hospitable to this kind of ambitious storytelling. The only quibble would involve some creative liberties taken with the book near the end (the author’s daughter, Michael Clavell, is among the producers), which are provocative but not necessarily an improvement.

Of course, in today’s heavily fragmented streaming environment “Shōgun” won’t be the massive ratings hit that it was back when there were three broadcast networks (and not much else), but those who wade into this dense history will be amply rewarded.

“All men can be broken,” Toranaga muses at one point, with a quiet sense of menace and determination.

If only all limited series could be half as good as “Shōgun.”

“Shōgun” premieres February 27 on Hulu and at 10 p..m. ET the same day on FX.

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