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“Shōgun”'s fraught political landscape and power players, explained

Here's your introduction to the show's central conflict.

Power plays, courtroom intrigue, closed-door dealings, epic battles in a feudal world of ancient samurai... Shōgun has everything an audience craves from their prestige TV dramas, even if they're not always used to keeping who's who organized in their heads.

Hiroyuki Sanada stars on the FX miniseries as Yoshii Toranaga, a Japanese lord who's in a fight for his life to maintain his land and authority. When an Englishman by the name of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is marooned in his region one fateful day, Toranaga sees the foreign pilot as a chess piece to play in this game of thrones.

If you're still trying to wrap your head around what is going on with this show, or are tempted to dip your toes in for the first time, here's a handy guide to the central conflict and all the power players making moves.

Council of Regents

<p>Katie Yu/FX</p> Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranaga in 'Shōgun'

Katie Yu/FX

Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranaga in 'Shōgun'

Shōgun's 1600 time period places viewers at the end of Japan’s Sengoku period, which has a more dramatic nickname, the Warring States period, a 100-year era during which the country was in a perpetual state of civil war. Bushos, meaning samurai warlords, were constantly fighting each other for land until Japan was unified under Nakamura Hidetoshi, named the Taikō, meaning retired chief advisor to the Emperor. 

The Taikō wanted Toranaga, the lord of the Kanto region, to take his place. Foreseeing he would easily be outnumbered by the other opposing lords after the Taikō's death, he declined, despite his desire to rule. Instead, the Taikō formed the Council of Regents to govern the realm until his heir, his young son Yaechiyo (Sen Mars), came of age.

The Council is made up of five high-ranking bushos, each with military and administrative control over a fief: Toranaga, Ishido (Takehiro Hira), Kiyama (Hiromoto Ida), Sugiyama (Toshi Toda), and Ohno (Takeshi Kurokawa). Their main goal is to protect the heir, ensure the country doesn't fall into ruin until Yaechiyo can assume the throne, and (a key point) not to steal the rule of Japan out from under him. Easier said than done.

<p>Kurt Iswarienko/FX</p> Takehiro Hira as Ishido in 'Shōgun'

Kurt Iswarienko/FX

Takehiro Hira as Ishido in 'Shōgun'

With Ishido leading the charge, the Council is now uniting against Toranaga, who has been quietly amassing land by approving six marriage proposals, adding their territories to his own. Ishido, the protector of Osaka Castle, sees Toranaga as a threat to his own power. So he manipulates the Council against him. Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), the heir’s mother, is a main point of contention. Toranaga has been keeping the Taikō's consorts, including Ochiba, at his castle in Edo, claiming they are all related to family members. Ochiba, he says, has come to be with her sister, his daughter-in-law, while she’s in labor. The Council, however, sees it as a kidnapping. The four other regents plan to vote to impeach Toranaga if Lady Ochiba is not returned, which would mean not only his own death but the death of his clansmen.

The arrival of Blackthorne

<p>Katie Yu/FX</p> Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne in 'Shōgun'

Katie Yu/FX

Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne in 'Shōgun'

John Blackthorne's marooning on the shores of a Japanese fishing village in Toranaga's territory proves fortuitous to the busho in more ways than one, given that this time period also marks a fraught moment in time for Europe.

Sixty years prior to the events of Shōgun, Jesuits from Portugal set foot on Japanese soil in the name of spreading the gospel of Christianity. Over time, however, religion got into bed with commerce; the Portuguese established bases of operation and formed highly lucrative relationships with local leaders for the trade of silk and silver.

Now decades later, playing out in the background of Shōgun, the Catholics of Portugal and Spain are in the midst of a religious war against the Protestant English, who found allies in the Dutch. The Portuguese feel they have a monopoly on Japan and already consider it their territory. Their Jesuit priests, like Father Martin Alvito (Tommy Bastow), have maintained a foothold in the region all these years as they proved to be useful translators and have been successful in converting some of the Japanese lords, like Kiyama and Ohno, from Buddhism and Shintoism to Catholicism. So when John, an English Protestant piloting a Dutch ship, arrives in Japan, the Jesuit translating for him falsely calls the newcomer a thief and a pirate to sow distrust — even though he kind of is a pirate. He and his men have pillaged Spanish settlements as part of his mission as a Protestant emissary.

Upon hearing of Blackthorne from one of his spies, Toronaga sees the Anjin — a nickname for Blackthorne, meaning "pilot" — as a way of keeping the Council of Regents divided in his favor. When Ishido calls for a vote to impeach Toranaga, the Christian members of the council refuse to sign the declaration until Blackthorne is executed for his Protestant faith. So it becomes Toranaga's best interest to keep the Anjin alive to stave off his own death.

Things take a more interesting turn when Blackthorne, now being translated by the noblewoman Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai) at Toranaga's behest, reveals the true intentions of the Portuguese: how they have already claimed Japan as their own and how they conspire to replace the fief leaders with Catholics. A secret military base lies in Macao, which is heavily guarded by a army of rōnin who have all been converted to Catholicism.

Team Toranaga

<p>Katie Yu/FX</p> Tokuma Nishioka as Hiromatsu in 'Shōgun'

Katie Yu/FX

Tokuma Nishioka as Hiromatsu in 'Shōgun'

Toranaga's allies are many, and yet he still must play the long game if he has any hope of outsmarting Ishido's play.

Aside from Blackthorne and Mariko, Toda Hiromatsu (Tokuma Nishioka) is Toranaga's general, who at many times operates as his conscience. Hiromatsu's son is Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), a samurai who's loyal to Toranaga (at times, ruthlessly so). Even though he's a more than capable warrior, he's often possessive of his wife, Mariko. Usami Fuji (Moeka Hoshi) is Hiromatsu's granddaughter, who was forced to hand over her infant son to be killed as payment for a slight her husband committed when he spoke out of turn in Toranaga's defense at a meeting of the Council of Regents. She's now forced to live with Blackthorne and serve as his consort, though she hates the thought of being with what she calls a "barbarian."

Then there's Toranaga's own family, including son Yoshii Nagakado (Yuki Kira) and consort wife Kiri No Kata (Yoriko Doguchi). Nagakado is constantly seeking his father's approval, and his brash nature tends to be a liability. Kiri is more caring, though don't mistake her kindness for weakness.

Other figures in Toranaga's corner are Lady Iyo (Ako) and Muraji (Yasunari Takeshima). Lady Iyo is the widowed consort wife of the late Taikō who became a Buddhist nun known as a daiyoin. Muraji is a mysterious figure. He's a fisherman, a Christian, and the headman of Ajiro village. Though there's much more to him than is visible on the surface, he's extremely loyal to Toranaga.

Wild cards

<p>Katie Yu/FX</p> Anna Sawai as Lady Mariko in 'Shōgun'

Katie Yu/FX

Anna Sawai as Lady Mariko in 'Shōgun'

Two figures are notably caught in the middle of this conflict, one by circumstance and one by his own actions.

Lady Mariko is the last living member of a disgraced family, whose story will be parsed out over the course of the season. Though Toranaga appointed her as translator for Blackthorne, she's constantly torn between her duty to her lord and her religion. Father Martin Alvito has been living in Japan since he was a boy, and as he grew, he raised Mariko in the Catholic faith. So serving a Protestant goes against her long-held beliefs.

<p>Katie Yu/FX</p> Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige in 'Shōgun'

Katie Yu/FX

Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige in 'Shōgun'

Kashigi Yabushige, on the other hand, is intentionally trying to play both sides. Yabushige is the lord of Izu, which lies in the Kanto region and makes Toranaga his lord. His nephew is Kashigi Omi (Hiroto Kanai), who is the acting lord of Ajiro, the fishing village where Blackthorne is marooned.

Though Yabushige technically serves Toranaga, his allegiance is to himself. The first sign of this character flaw is when the local Jesuit priest calls for Blackthorne's execution in the beginning of the series. Yabushige declines, hoping to use possession of the Dutch ship to his advantage. He later tries to convince Ishido that Blackthorne could be useful in sussing out what the Christians have planned for Japan.

Where this is all leading

<p>Katie Yu/FX</p> Hiroyuki Sanada in 'Shōgun'

Katie Yu/FX

Hiroyuki Sanada in 'Shōgun'

To understand Shōgun, we must turn to the history books.

The character of Toranaga is based on the historical figure Tokugawa Ieyasu, who rose to become the first shogun (military leader of Japan) under the Tokugawa shogunate that he established. Ishido is inspired by Ishida Mitsunari, who plotted to prevent Ieyasu's rise to power. Blackthorne, too, is inspired by yet another historical figure, William Adams, an English navigator who would become a samurai under Ieyasu.

All of this is to say that everyone in Shōgun is on the precipice of a major political reshaping in the nation's history. And that means war is to come. The real events all culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara, a famed conflict fought between Ieyasu and Ishido's forces. How we'll get to that point is the game at play in Shōgun. Who will come out on top? Who will live long enough to see the final outcome? And what will Toranaga and Ishido do to make sure it's them?

The first three episodes of Shōgun are now streaming on Hulu.

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