Extreme brutality in the new Shōgun series and its correspondence in the Japanese medieval world. How bloody were the 17th century samurai

The new series “Shōgun” on Disney+ promises to surprise with brutal scenes, inspired by medieval Japanese practices. In fact, from the very first episode, the series captures a scene of extreme violence, a punishment that Japanese nobles practiced in the 17th century.

The new series “Shōgun” promises to perfectly capture life in medieval Japan PHOTO Disney+

After enduring starvation, scurvy and the captain's suicide on a ravaged Dutch merchant ship, pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) and his crew are shipwrecked off the coast of Anjiro. There they are thrown into a well by armed Japanese soldiers, awaiting their fate.

Although Blackthorne escapes execution, one member of his crew does not share the same fate – he is bound and placed in a cauldron, where he is slowly boiled to death.

It's not a scene from the fantastical Westeros, despite reviews of the show comparing Shogun to “Game of Thrones.”

The scene is set in Japan in the year 1600 – a time of great turmoil after two centuries of civil wars.

Blackthorne – a character based on the navigator William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan – must adapt to a foreign and brutal reality, in a context where a government of five regents threatens to break into factions following the death of the Taikō (the imperial regent).

With Portuguese Catholic missionaries an additional antagonistic presence for Blackthorne, the Protestant, his survival may depend on an alliance with Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) – also involved in eliminating political rivals.

Originally a worldwide bestseller (James Clavell's 1975 historical fiction had sold 15 million copies by 1990), “Shōgun” had previously demonstrated its potential on the small screen.

In 1980, the original nine-hour NBC miniseries—starring Richard Chamberlain, John Rhys-Davies, Toshirô Mifune and Orson Welles as narrator—won three Primetime Emmy Awards and three Golden Globes after earning the second-highest audience in American television history. The popularity of the series in the 80s contributed to the rise of sushi restaurants in the US.

Set in 2024, the new series from Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks largely ditches the big names, but brings an even brighter historical context to the fore – with a rich depiction of feudal Japan in all its splendor and horror.

In 1600, world power dynamics were very different from today: Protestant England had been forced to defend the throne of Elizabeth I from the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, with the intention of restoring Catholicism and ending English support for Dutch independence from Spain.

This period is marked by the global exploration of Portugal, which discovered Japan in 1543 – and began trading Western goods such as fuse firearms, while also spreading the Catholic faith through Jesuit missionaries.

This context serves as the background for Blackthorne's perilous journey at the beginning of the “Shōgun” series.

The connection between Shōgun and historical reality

The Portuguese (and the Spanish) had two objectivesexplains Thomas D. Conlan, professor of Asian studies and history at Princeton University and author of The Samurai and Warrior Culture of Japan, 471–1877: A Sourcebook.

The first was to convert Japan to Christianity. The second was to eventually conquer Japan (by) converting high-ranking lords to Christianity. But they had to be careful… because militarily, the Portuguese simply couldn't compete with Japanese might.

In fact, this caution was recorded as early as 1552 by one of the first Western visitors to Japan. “They are very polite to each other, but not to strangers, whom they utterly despise,” Catholic missionary Francis Xavier said of the local population in a letter to the Society of Jesus in Europe.

They are, in short, a very warlike people, and engaged in continual wars with each other.

Japan at the time was in the midst of a long and chaotic upheaval—which is why the tensions seem ready to explode in “Shōgun.” Known as Sengoku Jidai or “The Warring States Period” (ca. 1467-1615), this was an era defined by almost constant civil wars as feudal lords engaged in a struggle for total control of the country.

The goals of three successive warlords—including Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the recently deceased Taikō of the “Shōgun” narrative, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, his later successor—would be accomplished with the unification of the country in the early 1600s, but not without considerable violence and force at beyond the reach of the bushi class (samurai warriors).

Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko from the Shōgun series

Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko from the series Shōgun PHOTO Disney +

Sword-wielding samurai conformed to a strict moral code regarding the ideals of the cultured warrior. As Danny Chaplin, author of “Sengoku Jidai. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan,” explains, their beliefs came from several religious traditions: “From Buddhism, samurai learned not to fear death, since the self was an illusion anyway. From Shintoism, samurai learned to honor their ancestors, giving them a deep sense of loyalty and continuity. From Confucianism, the samurai learned the elements of behavior towards others within a strictly hierarchical society.

But despite these virtues, they were also ruthless in maintaining order. For example, to maintain his honor, in the event of an offense by a member of a lower caste, a samurai could apply “kiri-sute gomen” or “authorization to cut and go“. The situation is demonstrated right from the start of the brutal new series when a peasant loses his head (literally and figuratively) in the street.

Loyalty to one's rule, moreover, was supreme in samurai values—and to die in that service was considered an honor.

Seppuku, the favorite punishment of Japanese lords

To fall into the hands of the enemy – or to fall to an unfair fate – was once considered a disgrace. These ideals (prevalent into modern times, with the kamikaze pilots of World War II) are best described by the act of seppuku, a ritual suggested by Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) in “Shōgun” when he draws his sword after falling into the ocean, meeting an ignominious death by drowning.

These were brutal times,” says Chaplin; katana swords were frequently “tested” on condemned prisoners, and the taking of up to thousands of heads as trophies during battles “was widely practiced by the samurai”.

In another famous incident from 1597—reminiscent of the arrival of Blackthorne's crew in Japan in “Shōgun”—Taikō gave an example after the pilot of a shipwrecked galley suggested that the Spanish intended to conquer Japan by infiltrating it with missionaries.

Hideyoshi ordered 26 Christians crucified and speared in response. Just as the Tudors in England beheaded wives and burned Catholics at the stake, the Japanese used cruel methods like those applied to Blackthorne's unfortunate comrade: the legendary bandit Ishikawa Goemon – a kind of Japanese Robin Hood – was boiled alive on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto , in 1594.

Punishment violence had to be spectacular and terrifying to ensure compliance with the laws,” says Conlan.

Perhaps seppuku itself—often offered as a “privilege” to samurai defeated in battle, but also preferred as a method of capital punishment because the victim's family was less likely to seek revenge for a suicide—illustrated this spectacle more than anything else.

In one famous incident, Taikō even ordered the seppuku suicide of his already exiled grandson in 1595 to avoid a possible challenge to the succession of the inheritance.

Such cruelties (Hideyoshi executed his entire family, totaling 39 men, women and children) contributed to Western perceptions of the Japanese: “Europeans were shocked that Hideyoshi could do this to a close relative,” says Conlan.

The Sengoku period reached its peak with the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 – the largest and probably the most important in Japanese feudal history, with up to 36,000 killed or seriously wounded in a single day. It's an event that seems to be looming on the horizon in “Shōgun.”

In its wake, Japan entered a new era, the Edo—defined by over 250 years of relative peace, an isolationist foreign policy (aimed at eliminating the colonial and religious influences of Spain and Portugal), and the prohibition and persecution of Christians.