Shōgun Had One of 2024’s Most Powerful and Romantic Scenes

Several weeks have passed since I finished Shōgun but I can’t stop thinking about this pivotal moment.
Shōgun: Mariko
Anna Sawai stars as the proud and honorable Mariko in Shōgun

Even though several weeks have passed since I finished Shōgun, I’m still thinking about it. Based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel — a fictionalized retelling of the events that led to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 17th century Japan — the TV series is filled with memorable performances and moments, including what is arguably one of the most tense, heart-wrenching, and — dare I say it — romantic scenes of the 2024 television season.

The following contains significant spoilers for Shōgun.

Although Hiroyuki Sanada has understandably received widespread acclaim for his performance as Lord Yoshii Toranaga, Shōgun’s heart and soul belongs to Toda Mariko, played by Anna Sawai. A strong, proud, and intelligent woman, Mariko must constantly maintain a very delicate balancing act throughout the series.

While fiercely loyal to Toranaga, who took her in after her dishonored father was forced to execute their family, Mariko is also a Catholic convert who seeks to obey the Church’s leaders. And though some sparks clearly fly between her and John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an ambitious Englishman seeking to make his fortune in Japan, Mariko is stuck in a loveless marriage with one of Toranaga’s most esteemed warriors, a stern man named Hirokatsu (Shinnosuke Abe) who despises Mariko for her father’s shameful actions.

All of these things come to a head in the series’ ninth and penultimate episode, “Crimson Sky.” Mariko, along with Blackthorne, arrive in the city of Osaka to surrender to Lord Ishido, Toranaga’s chief political rival. (To delve into Shōgun’s politics would require a whole nother post.) Ishido is essentially holding members of Toranaga’s family hostage, though he claims it’s for their protection given all of the political unrest.

Under orders from Toranaga, Mariko attempts to leave Osaka with his family, only to be stopped by Ishido’s soldiers. After an unsuccessful skirmish — during which she displays her skills with the naginata — Mariko announces that she will commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide) to protest their unlawful and dishonorable detainment. Since she’s a Christian, though, taking her own life is a mortal sin, so Mariko requests that Lord Kiyama (also a Christian and one of Ishido’s chief allies), serve as her second. (In the seppuku ceremony, a person’s second was tasked with beheading them to end their agony.)

When it comes time for Mariko’s seppuku, however, Kiyama is nowhere to be found. Terrified but undaunted, she moves forward with the ceremony. (One interesting historical detail: Mariko ties her knees together as part of her preparation, something Japanese women did in order to protect their dignity in death.) The scene grows unbearably tense as Mariko removes her rosary and prepares to kill herself, an act that will confirm her loyalty to Toranaga and shame Ishido, but also damn her soul to hell.

Just as Mariko draws her knife and prepares to go through the agonizing act alone, Blackthorne steps out from the shadows and announces that he will be her second in lieu of Kiyama. “Hell is no place I haven’t already known,” he comforts her before grabbing a katana; “Let it from your mind.” She hands him her rosary, gives him some final instructions, and then he stands over her, blade at the ready.

While Ishido does arrive at the very last second with the necessary permits to leave Osaka, thus sparing Mariko’s life, that’s almost beside the point.

The scene is significant not just because it’s arguably the first time that Blackthorne doesn’t try to impress his English and Protestant sensibilities onto the situation. (Up until now, Blackthorne has constantly railed against what he considers to be primitive and pagan Japanese culture.) Nor is it significant for its political ramifications, with Mariko’s devotion and sense of honor furthering Toranaga’s cause by highlighting Ishido’s tyranny.

Rather, it’s most significant for its deeply emotional aspect. As strange as it sounds, Blackthorne’s willingness to kill Mariko so that she can fulfill her duty to Toranaga while also sparing her agony and even saving her soul at risk of his own is the series’ greatest display of love. Not surprisingly, Mariko and Blackthorne consummate their relationship that same evening, fully giving into the desire that’s been growing between them all this time.

Sadly, their love is not to last. Later that night, Ishido’s treachery rises once again as his ninja attempt to capture Mariko. In protest, Mariko sacrifices her life, thus ensuring Toranaga’s eventual victory and sealing Ishido’s fate. As for Blackthorne, Mariko’s death allows him to finally accept his situation in Japan and later, even offer to make a similar sacrifice of his own — an act that would’ve been unthinkable for him earlier in the series.

If a second season of Shōgun occurs — which looks increasingly likely — then Sanada and the rest of the series’ production will have their work cut out for them. Powerful scenes like this one between Mariko and Blackthorne have set the bar for season two very high, indeed.

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