Ahead of the Remake, Reminisce About 1980’s ‘Shōgun’
What better time to reminisce about the 1980s miniseries Shōgun than before its remake? NBC aired Shōgun over five nights between September 15 and September 19, 1980. Based on the James Clavell novel of the same name, it was inspired by the adventures of English navigator William Adams. Adams went to Japan in 1600 and became high rank in the service of the shōgun. Officially called Sei-i Taishōgun, this was the title of military dictators of Japan during the years 1185 to 1868. Several other characters in the miniseries were modeled after real people including Lord Toranaga, played by Hiro Sanada.
The series follows the character John Blackthorne, played by Richard Chamberlain, a Pilot-Major who gets in the middle of a battle between Japan’s two most powerful warlords who compete to get the title of shōgun as he also struggles with a new language and culture. The series was well-received by critics and viewers and received several awards including a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe. NBC received high Nielsen ratings with Shōgun and the series followed the success of the miniseries Roots in 1977. After the airing of Shōgun, the novel became the best-selling paperback of that time.
While it was a hit in the United States, it wasn’t well received in Japan. It was broadcast a year later and Japanese viewers thought that it was a trivial fictionalization of events in the 16th century and preferred other more accurate historical dramas. In the U.S., Shōgun contained a few firsts for American television and aimed to break taboos. For instance, it was the first network show that was allowed to use the word “piss” and show urination. It was also the first for network TV to show a man being beheaded, plus there were some nude scenes and discussions of sexuality, which were very uncommon at the time.