‘Shogun’ Episode 7 Recap: Death Wish

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Few cinematic genres have had as fruitful a conversation with one another as the samurai film and the western, so it’s only fitting to use an epigraph from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to sum up the central conflict in this week’s episode.

It begins in full “print the legend mode,” as the director Takeshi Fukunaga brings us a dreamlike flashback depicting the aftermath of Lord Toranaga’s first victory in battle, achieved before he’d have been bar mitzvah’d. The rogue warrior whose forces he defeats calls for the young Toranaga himself to serve as his second in the ritual of seppuku. An overhead shot shows us the lad preparing to strike the deathblow from a point of view that feels a million miles away, less a bird’s-eye view than a god’s.

But looks can be deceiving. Ask Saeki (Eita Okuno), Toranaga’s estranged half brother, upon whose support the lord of Edo is counting if his fight against Lady Ochiba and the Regents is to be successful. He’s happy to tell Toranaga’s adoring son, Nagakado, that his pops severed the head of the rebel with a single stroke at the tender age of 12. No such thing occurred — Toranaga hacked away nine times like a miniature ax murderer before finally decapitating the man.

But Saeki isn’t doing this to flatter his older brother. He’s doing it to taunt him. He knows Toranaga’s sense of honor will make hearing exaggerated accounts of his exploits uncomfortable. And he knows that by elevating Nagakado’s image of his father, he can send it crashing back down all the more easily. So he tosses in the tale of how young Toranaga soiled himself when he was sent away as a hostage. That’s not the kind of story that makes it into the legendarium.

It’s also not the kind of story you tell if you plan to ally yourself with the boy who fouled his breeches. Indeed, despite initially giving every appearance to the contrary, Saeki has no intention of taking up his older brother’s cause. He announces that he has accepted Lord Ishido’s offer of membership on the Council of Regents, and has been dispatched to summon Toranaga to his impeachment and execution. It takes everything the lord has left in him to prevent his Nagakado from blindly accepting Ishido’s order to commit seppuku over the cannon attack he ordered in Episode 4.

The Toranaga of decades past wasn’t fit to deliver the coup de grâce to the rebel lord, and the Toranaga of today refuses to do the same to his country. He could defend himself, issue the order for Crimson Sky, make war on Osaka, declare himself shogun — but he won’t. “No one has the right to tear the realm apart,” he tells his assembled vassals as he agrees to surrender to the Council.

There’s just one problem with Toranaga’s pacifism: It’s not just his own execution to which he’s marching. His household, family and many of his vassals will be expected to follow him in death. “Behold the great warlord,” Blackthorne sneers when he understands what’s happening. “Brilliant master of trickery, who tricked his own loyal vassals into a noiseless smothering.” He turns to those lords and warriors and addresses them in their own language, “You’re all dead.” (He spares a parting expletive for the Crimson Sky plan.)

Blackthorne isn’t the only person sworn to Toranaga’s service who’d prefer not to go gently into that good night. Elsewhere in the episode, Yabushige makes a failed attempt to broker a separate peace; Ishido sends his emissary’s severed head back in a box.

But one character take matters even more directly into his own hands. Acting in concert with the courtesan Fuji, Nagakado leads a small band of assassins into the teahouse where Saeki is enjoying Fuji’s services. But the fight that ensues ends in disaster when Nagakado slips and falls before his own attempt to chop off an enemy’s head, braining himself on a rock in the teahouse’s garden. Even Saeki, who’d betrayed Nagakado’s father and was seconds away from dying by the youth’s sword, feels the sting of the loss. “Where is the beauty in this?” he says, staring down at the corpse.

Perhaps he might ask Buntaro and Mariko. This unhappy couple is morbid in the extreme. Buntaro wants nothing more than to kill Blackthorne for warming his wife’s icy heart in a way he never could. Buntaro came dangerously close to taking out Blackthorne when he interrupted a friendly sparring session between the Anjin and Lord Yabushige, but opted to submit the issue to Toranaga later as a formal request.

(For his part, Yabushige remains the show’s wild card, as apt to ostentatiously bathe in the presence of Saeki’s soldiers as he is to boil one of Blackthorne’s men alive. You never know with this guy!)

Even as her husband aims to punish her lover, Mariko desires above all to kill herself, finally following the rest of her family. Like Buntaro, she puts this request directly before her liege lord.

Toranaga denies them both, going so far as to slap the ceremonial blade from Mariko’s hand. It’s enough to make you wonder if Fuji’s madame, Gin (Yuko Miyamoto), is right when she notes that it’s out of character for a seasoned warlord like Toranaga to leave his forces so vulnerable to those of his brother. If he truly planned to meekly submit to his own death, why would he be so forcefully averse to Mariko’s?

Maybe there’s more to the future than meets the eye. That’s certainly Gin’s belief. After Mariko brokers a brief meeting between the madame and Lord Toranaga in exchange for Fuji’s services with Saeki, Gin uses her time to ask for the construction of a special red-light district in Toranaga’s burgeoning city, Edo. When he protests that he has no future to offer her, she doesn’t buy it. Surely the great Toranaga has one last legend in him.

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