Movie Collectors Guide #9

James Clavell's Shogun

September, 2003

Brian Florian

Paramount, 1980, Color


Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

English Dolby Digital 5.1

English Dolby Digital Mono

9 Hr 7 min,  Not Rated

Directed by Jerry London

Starring Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, and Yoko Shimada.

DVD Released September 23, 2003







Video Quality:






MPEG Flags









One worth having

While I'm normally not a big fan of TV shows on DVD, particularly when the show has not even finished its run on television, in the case of a miniseries as significant as "Shogun", I was more than enthusiastic when I heard it was coming to DVD.  Paramount has delivered an exquisite edition of this classic, with all nine hours spanned over four discs, plus a fifth devoted to extra material.  Clearly a must have for any collector.


The screen adaptation of the critically acclaimed book of the same name by James Clavell, Shogun tells the tale of John Blackthorn, an English ship's pilot (navigator) who gets stranded in Japan during the 17th century.  Having discovered the Portuguese secret of Magellan's pass, the local Jesuits become very interested in Blackthorn while he gradually adapts to the radically different culture.  In time he earns the favor of Toranaga, one of five members of the region council, ultimately becoming a Samurai under him.

Of the countless efforts to turn a great book into film, precious few succeed on any level, let alone take on a literary status commensurate with their muse.  Shogun is one such few which transcends all the pitfalls and is remembered as a tremendous epic piece of motion picture art.

Though mostly deserved stigmas exist about anything "made for TV", its a prejudice which does not apply to Shogun.  The production values are consistently high, from settings to filming to acting.

Though Richard Chamberlain will of course always be remembered as the face of the Shogun saga, more credit is perhaps due Yoko Shimada for her pivotal roll in the picture as well as Toshiro Mifune's engaging performance as Toranaga.  John Rhys Davies, veritably launched by Shogun, has gone on to be a staple of important projects from Steven Spielberg's works, to the other James Clavell mini series Nobel House, to the instant classic Lord of the Rings.

Of particular note is the artistic direction of the piece.  A 1.33:1 frame does not lend itself to the sweeping landscapes nor any sort of interesting juxtaposition during dialogue.  Yet careful examination of the film reveals clever use of a very long depth of field to give the feeling of space forwards and back, rather than side to side.  It is sad to think that no one may ever appreciate the full visual spectacle, as DVD in its current form cannot do justice to a fully exposed 35mm Academy aperture.  The music also deserves credit for conveying the flavor that is Japan, without being too overt.

But perhaps the best reason to own this piece after all is the story, presented with a depth only nine hours of screen time can achieve.  We look at a culture so vastly different through the experiences of a foreigner, and learn as he learns.  At no time is the language barrier glossed over.  The movie tediously and deliberately spends a lot of precious time playing out the translations and interpretation which has to be done for the Blackthorn character.  In so doing, we feel the alienation that he feels.

A masterpiece.  A must have.  No serious DVD Movie collection should be without it.


There is a making of documentary divided into 13 segments with a running time of over a hour.  It is comprised of precious few behind the scenes visuals and interviews done in recent years, interwoven with footage from the movie.  It is well edited and sufficiently interesting to warrant a watch.

While a feature length commentary track would be insane, there is a selection of scenes on disc 5 presented with commentary by director Jerry London.

There is a "set" of features collectively called "Historical Perspectives".  These are very short segments on Samurai, The Tea Ceremony, and Geisha.  While interesting, they are so short as to be a bit of a tease and feel hastily put together using only footage from Shogun and some sound bites from several scholars.

Oh yes, there is also the trailer for the Indiana Jones Trilogy DVD, coming in November.

The Transfer

On the whole, the print from which the master was sourced is surprisingly good, with little to no wear and tear such as overt scratches or dirt in evidence .  Yet it is somewhat schizophrenic in nature, as you can be witnessing a scene with pristine visual quality which suddenly on one cut goes washed out or excessively grainy.  While that in itself is somewhat characteristic of old material poorly cared for, in the case of Shogun, it happens so sporadically that you tend to notice more than if the whole thing were mediocre.  Still, you have to work with what you've got, and frankly, it looks darn good.  The picture is of course in its original 4:3 Television aspect ratio.  As evidenced in the interviews, the makers were concerned with just finishing the mammoth project as another TV movie, unaware it would become such a classic, so lets not give them any grief for not framing it as Super35.

There is some obvious effort to smooth things out in terms of dynamic range and color.  For the most part, there is consistency in this regard with half decent blacks and grays with a color channel that is not all over the place.

As far as actual video quality goes, there is at times noticeable edge enhancement. In the case of the Japanese paper walls and doors, you might mistake it for part of the frame work but trust me, it is an aberration.  Beyond that there is some video noise, and overall we have to describe it as rather soft.

MPEG Flags

We only pulled the MPEG PIC data from disc one, as the other three are bound to be commensurate with it.

Very nice to see is that there was not a single video mode error.  From our experience, this suggests an un-tampered transfer from the telecine master.  There is only an average number of film mode errors for the running time of the first disc (39 2-2 and 63 3-3), all of which lasted for only 2 MPEG PICs.

For an explanation of MPEG Picture Flags, please see the section "How the information is stored on disc" in Part 5 of our DVD Player Benchmark.

The Audio

You get two flavors of English here:  a new 5.1 remix and "restored" mono.  While I normally count myself as a purist, here I don't mind opting for the 5.1 as it really is not that much of a reinterpretation.  For the most part it consists only of redistributing the musical score back to its native stereo, all the while keeping the rest of the soundtrack in the center. Naturally, ambient cues (wind, waves, earth quake rumbles, etc.) break out to all channels, something that can only add to the efforts of the original sound artist.  Whether 5.1 or mono, the track is surprisingly clean, with virtually no hiss or distortion such as mic preamp clipping.  However, there is a noticeable lack of dynamic range which is not a fault, given that the original track was intended for tiny TV speakers.  Rather its just an observation of what to expect.

Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity
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