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Shōgun & Black Sails - Both Alike in Dignity

Shōgun & Black Sails - Both Alike in Dignity

TV Miniseries Review: Swords and Subversion, in Spades

On this week’s show:

Shōgun and Black Sails -

The most popular TV series this spring have subversion in common, and no apologies.

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This is the week of April 26, 2024.
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On the left, Toby Stephens as Captain Flint in Black Sails, and on the right, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shōgun’s co-producer, who plays mastermind Lord Yushi Toranaga

Highlights of Today’s Show

The hottest television this year are two sprawling subversive historical epics. No one dreamed they would become a double feature.

One was shot 10 years before the other!

The first, Shogūn, is precedent-breaking Japanese/Hollywood blockbuster, shot on Vancouver Island with a peerless Japanese and international cast that would make the Royal Academy blanch.

The second is Black Sails, which debuted 10 years ago on STARZ, to nothing but late night cult attention. Netflix decided to re-release Sails like a new child, and it has taken OFF.

Shōgun is set in the 1500s as the sophisticated and aesthetic civilization of Japan found itself invaded by savages— that is, the Catholic Portuguese, plus one wild Protestant Englishman, a fish out of water.

The script changes two things from the original ethnocentric novel: One, to demonstrate the Japanese view of Europe, and a driving motive that lies outside of Judeo-Christian aims.

Secondly, Shōgun enters the intimate subjugated world of women in Japan’s 16th century, who against every turn, exercise power on a level that takes sacrifice to the limit. To pull this off, without resorting to Super-Girl exploits, is really something.

Clockwise from top: Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, (Shōgun); Jessica Parker Kennedy as Max, and Zach McGowan as Captain Charles Vane (Black Sails).

In Black Sails, we witness another imperial adventure written as a cross between a prequel to Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the actual end of the West Indies pirate heyday in the 1700s.

Betrayal is king. The pirates practice and defend a vulgar democracy. They are, both men and women, bisexual and sexually transactional without giving a flip about it. There is a deep rift about slavery. The constant is lust for gold, to the pride of a steal.

Shogūn is more “highbrow” than Black Sails, but Sails was way ahead of its time, TV-speaking. They are both massively entertaining, and despite the usual creative departures from reality, they will make any viewer curious to find out what REALLY happened in those times. (See cites below).

In both shows, we are seeing a mark in TV history, a triumph of primary sources and anti-colonial pushback.

When I think of how these events were presented to me in high school, where textbooks were still proclaiming “Christopher Columbus discovered America” as if the world was a lost bedroom slipper, it takes my breath away.


History Reality Check: What’s Real, What’s Made Up?

Note: Massive Spoilers! I’m glad I watched most of the shows with my own impressions before I began to dig into the real stories.


Black Sails

Also recommended: Warrior, Bruce Lee’s rejected movie script come to life as a 3-season series, thanks to his daughter. It’s all about the Chinese Tongs and immigrant experience in San Francisco in the period leading up to the Exclusion Act. Superb.

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