Shogun S1E3: Tomorrow is Tomorrow

From the first shot, this show has been assuring us that, amidst these powerful Japanese nobles and their armies, this one bedraggled English sailor is the key figure. The other characters certainly treat him that way. And last week we saw a glimpse of why, as he draws a map of the world — something Japanese sailors have only the faintest notion of — and outlines the Portuguese machinations against Japan. They’ve been converting Japanese citizens in the hopes of installing a Catholic ruler, loyal not to their God, but to the Portuguese crown.

At the end of the previous episode, one of the show’s various about-to-be-warring parties sent an assassin to kill him before he could reveal more. But which one is still a mystery.

Toranaga calls on Yabushige, his volatile lieutenant, to discuss the assassin. But this is only a pretext to confront Yabushige about his meeting with Ishido in the previous episode and test his loyalty. Yabushige admits that Ishido offered him Toranaga’s title after his imminent death. Yabushige claims to not want that, but his loyalty does come with a price — to expand his fiefdom under Toranaga’s rule. Toranaga asks his own price in exchange. He wants Yabushige to help Blackthorne and Mariko — the translator who Toranaga has as-yet-unspoken plans for — escape Ishido’s palace and hide, before the next assassin shows up.

So they arrange to leave, along with Toranaga’s family, and Fuji, the widow of the man who committed seppuku (and killed their infant) in the first episode. (Her grandfather sends her with two samurai swords that her father died to protect, which will surely be significant down the line.) Toranaga stays behind, seemingly resigned to his fate at Ishido’s hands.

Ishido catches the party in the act of leaving, and a tense standoff ensues. But protocol is important, so while he may be able to keep Toranaga as a de facto prisoner, he can’t prevent his wife and the rest of his household from leaving, especially when the assassination attempt gives her a very justifiable pretext for wanting to leave. So he watches them go, unaware that Toranaga himself slipped into one of the litters carrying the ladies of the household while Ishido’s back was turned.

The ruse is nearly uncovered when the castle guards insist on searching the litters, but Blackthorne steps up to do what he does best: shouting in English at people who don’t speak English. He acts outraged that the guards are violating noble women’s privacy, screaming about virtue to the baffled castle guards, as Mariko frantically tries to explain that he’s an outsider and doesn’t understand their customs.

As ridiculous as the spectacle is, it’s enough that the guards wave the party through just to be rid of them. When Mariko later questions about him about the English’ ideas of purity, he’s very quick to dismiss the notion. “Foul slatterns and trollops everywhere in London.” It gets the two talking about their cultures attitudes towards sex, and then about their families. Mariko struggles to say something nice about her husband, finally settling on “he is a strong and admired warrior.” Blackthorne has a son and a daughter, although he’s also at a loss to describe them. As a sailor, he likely doesn’t see them often.

Their conversation is cut short by flaming arrows sailing through the forest. The Japanese Christians aligned with the Portuguese are attacking Toranaga and Ishido’s men alike. And when Toranaga’s identity is revealed during the fight, Ishido’s men turn on him, even as both are fighting off the Christians. The main characters manage to escape in the chaos, but each set of adversaries send men to warn both Ishido and the Portuguese forces in the harbor.

As those forces close in, what’s left of Toranaga’s group make their way to their ship, as the Christians close in. Mariko’s husband stays ashore to fight them off, and she can only watch in mute horror as, the more men he strikes down, the more come to take their place. For his part, he seems more invested in having won Toranaga’s respect than how his wife feels.

That fight only leads to another one, as now Toranaga’s ship has to sail out of harbor with hostile forces on all sides. Blackthorne finally proves to be useful for something other than shouting, as he notices a line of fishing boats, who shouldn’t be there in the dead of night. They’re one adversary or another, blockading the harbor. He also quickly realizes the only ship in sight that only maybe wants them dead is the Portuguese Black Ship. He calls out to Rodrigues, and arranges a parley between he and Toranaga.

Toranaga had ordered the Black Ship not to leave port, once he found out Rodrigues was secretly trading with the Chinese. Now he’ll allow the Black Ship to leave harbor after all if the larger ship ferries him to safety. Rodrigues isn’t impressed; he was planning on leaving anyway. So Toranaga raises the stakes. In exchange for safe passage, he’ll invest a considerable sum in the Chinese silk trade and split the profits with Rodrigues. And he’ll allow the Portuguese to build the first Christian church in Edo, but only if they convince the two Christian Japanese lords aligned with Ishido to shift their loyalties.

The one sticking point is Blackthorne. The Portuguese want him to stay; Toranaga refuses to relinquish his guest. The friars show him evidence that the English sailor is a pirate and marauder and not the simple trader he pretends to be, and Toranaga relents. Blackthorne watches the Black Ship sail off with much the same expression Mariko had watching her husband make his last stand. Not happy about it, but serenely aware that nothing they do can stop it. 

Except Blackthorne’s not one to take things lying down. The sailors on Toranaga’s smaller ship remained on board, so he yells at them in English until they pursue the Black Ship across the harbor. His ship can’t make it through the blockade on its own, but it can follow in the larger ship’s wake. Except the Portuguese aren’t having it. So we get a race through the harbor, with our English pilot having to stay close enough to the Black Ship to clear the blockade, but far away enough that they can’t retaliate, and even if the resolution ends up being straightforward, it’s a terrific action setpiece, the kind that this type of show is built on.

But it’s not action alone that makes a show work. What makes “Tomorrow is Tomorrow” a terrific episode is that, apart from the first and last scenes, we barely stop for breath as the characters make one narrow escape after another, leaving a fight only to find themselves in another fight, and yet along the way, we get complicated political intrigue, shifting alliances, some meaningful interactions, and insight into what makes these characters tick. A lesser show would pause the action for exposition and character development, but Shogun does it all at once, and as complicated as the story is, we’re right there with every twist and turn.

With our leads finally free from Ishiro, it feels like in retrospect that the first three episodes were table-setting. We now have a pretty clear idea of who these people are, where they’re going, and what’s at stake. Whatever Toranaga’s grand plan to rule Japan might be, it starts tomorrow.

Stray thoughts:
• Blackthorne objects strongly to being bled by a doctor for injuries sustained at the assassin’s hands, calling the doctor a “warlock.” But bloodletting was standard medical practice in 1600s Europe, and would be for a few more centuries. George Washington was bled to death in 1799  by doctors who were trying to treat a case of pneumonia.

• The flaming arrows vastly improve the first battle scene, as all that fire means that the set is adequately lit. Not so for the harbor escape, a thrilling scene that would have been much improved if it were easier to see.