Shogun's Radical Depiction of Self-Sacrifice

Daniel Jung

FX/Hulu’s Shogun forces us to expand our understanding of self-sacrifice and death.

The ten-episode series based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell is set in feudal Japan, when emperors were protected by samurai and lords ruled over large plots of land along with the residents who lived in them. This period also marked a time when communal honor and civic duty were among the highest virtues in society.

Prior to the events of the first episode, the reigning emperor of Japan dies, and his lone heir is too young to rule. In his stead, five lord-regents are appointed to govern the country. This is where the first episode picks up, with Lord Regent Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira) scheming to seize the country by pitting the other three lord-regents against the last: Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). As is the case with any power vacuum, a ruthless struggle sets the scene as the two regents maneuver their loyal generals into place—chess pieces in preparation for the inevitable battle ahead. But the show doesn’t follow a well-worn trail. Instead, Shogun carves out a thematically rich path all of its own through its running commentary on the nature of death and sacrifice. It tells its familiar story in an unfamiliar way, offering an honoring portrayal of sacrifice that challenges Western viewers in particular to consider how death can be loving.

Another character in Shogun is John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an Englishman whose trading vessel is marooned off the Izu coast. He is taken captive by Toranaga’s men and forced to navigate Japanese culture as a newly subjugated vassal. Blackthorne is given the nickname “Anjin,” meaning pilot. It's a fitting name given that his character serves as our stand-in, navigating us through all the confusion he experiences.

Blackthorne's first paradigm-busting experience occurs when he witnesses Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), a Toranaga underlord, fall into the ocean from the cliffs. Wave after wave crashes into Yabushige; each time he manages to grip a ledge, the arms of the sea pull him back into the white water. When it seems like death is inevitable, Yabushige draws his sword, preparing to end his own life rather than let the ocean take him under. Blackthorne asks the same question we do as viewers: “What the hell is he doing?”

We can only assume that, by taking his own life, Yabushige relieves his men from the duty of having to go into the ocean after him in a rescue attempt. But just as Yabushige readies to plunge the end of his sword into his chest, a rope falls from above and his men pull him to the top of the cliff, where Blackthorne awaits. He’s unable to make eye contact with Yabushige; it's as if he’s witnessed a ghost. Blackthorne's face tells of both bewilderment and reverence. The scene zooms out to a wide angle shot overlooking an oceanside horizon and we witness a trembling Blackthorne bow before Yabushige on the edge of this jutting cliff.

The show's unconventional portrayal of sacrifice challenges Western viewers to consider how death can be loving.

Later in the season, as Blackthorne grows in favor with Toranaga, he is given more authority and power, earning the title of “Hatamoto,” along with the gift of a prized pheasant. Wanting to show his appreciation, Blackthorne hangs the pheasant from a rafter on his front porch and instructs the other villagers that no one is to touch the bird until it is ready to be made into a special stew—a recipe from his homeland.

But Blackthorne's Japanese is rudimentary. “If touch, die” is all he is able to muster in communication before leaving the village. When he returns, he is horrified to hear that his consort, Fuji (Moeka Hoshi)—honoring his words down to the letter—ordered the death of the elderly house gardener (Junichi Tajiri) who removed and touched the pheasant. Blackthorne’s eyes are filled with horrified and incredulous confusion. “What have you done?” he demands. “You put that old man to death over a stinky, God-cursed pheasant?” Fuji bows to the floor and asks for Blackthorne's sword so that she may take her life as repayment for her mistake. This is all too much death for Blackthorne to bear, so he storms away.

Blackthorne’s indignation makes sense to the modern viewer who has been shaped by Western values of personal liberty, agency, and volition. Even though he’s been given the name “Anjin,” Blackthorne can’t open his mind and rid himself of his cultural biases. It’s difficult for him to make sense of a culture that emphasizes loyalty and duty as the highest expressions of love. Throughout the series, we follow the doubts and questions of our stand-in character as he traverses through a land with seemingly upside-down and inside-out understandings of death and self-sacrifice. But Shogun’s depiction of such things runs parallel, in some ways, to the gospel. We are reminded that Jesus’ willingness to die is for more than just love— at least the way we typically understand love, as something tied to individual liberation and redemption. Jesus’ obedience to death on the cross was not just for each of us, but also to honor the will of the Father. It was his duty to be the lamb, a duty he fulfilled for the glory of God.

It can be easier for us to share Peter’s outrage in response to Jesus’ declaration of self-sacrifice in Matthew 16. But perhaps we need to expand our understanding of this crucial aspect of Christ's death. While there is no Scriptural justification for something like seppuku, Western Christians watching Shogun can be challenged to acknowledge that there are aspects of duty and honor that are often lost on our ears.

Shogun asks us to reconsider what it means to live a self-sacrificial life, recognizing that grace abounds to us, pardoning us from all the ways we’ve brought dishonor to the village of God. In response to that grace, we have a higher calling for our lives, one that beseeches us to generously cultivate our conviction that to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Topics: TV