‘Shōgun’ Recap, Episode 4: ‘The Eightfold Fence’

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By Sohaib


The Eightfold Fence

Season 1

Episode 4

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Katie Yu/FX

After three episodes of sword fights, sweeping landscapes, and political maneuvering, Shōgun finally pulls out the missing piece of its historical-epic puzzle: romance. But as with every other element in the show, Shōgun is going to earn its love story. It would be too easy — and too steeped in white-savior cultural bias — for Lady Mariko to fall for dashing English ship pilot John Blackthorne, and, to be frank, the writers so far have portrayed him as anything but. Blackthorne is uncouth, dirty, crass, and bullheaded. But he also represents something undeniably attractive to Mariko: freedom to pursue your own perceived destiny. Centering that as the key to a relationship takes much more work than heart-shaped eyes catching love at first sight, and “The Eightfold Fence” puts in the storytelling effort to make their union count.

Ajiro is set to be the base of operations for Yabushige, Nagakado, and Blackthorne to train a gun regiment for Toranaga, but in some ways it’s just another prison for Blackthorne. As Hatamoto, he must abide by his oath to Toranaga, which means adjusting to his newfound status: He must live in a Japanese house, he must accept as his consort Fuji, who will run his household affairs, and he must dedicate his time to training Yabushige’s army for Toranaga. When he attempts to row out to the Erasmus to retrieve his pistols and retake ownership of the vessel, Mariko informs him that his ship is now Toranaga’s property, as are the Dutch sailors he arrived with. What goes unsaid but seems understood here is that Blackthorne is also Toranaga’s property.

This is devastating for Blackthorne, who revealed to Mariko in the last episode that the call of the sea was so powerful that he abandoned his family back in England without hesitation. These new rules threaten his independence, as he now can’t even suffer insomnia in peace. Fuji, fulfilling her duties as consort, follows Blackthorne through the house, even in the dead of night. “It’s not customary for one’s consort to sleep while he’s awake,” Mariko states to Blackthorne, sending Fuji away. When Mariko reveals that Fuji has just lost her husband and child, Blackthorne asks why she isn’t grieving. “We grieve those we have lost by continuing their fight,” Mariko offers, to which Blackthorne responds, “Rubbish. A child has no fight.”

This prompts Mariko to open up to Blackthorne for the first time, invoking the episode’s title. She describes to him the concept of the “eightfold fence,” a coping mechanism taught to young people in Japan that allows them to retreat, emotionally, into a walled-off area inside the self. “Do not be fooled by our politeness. Our bows, our rituals. Beneath it all we can be a great distance away. Safe and alone,” she tells Blackthorne. She then hands him the pistols he was previously barred from retrieving from the Erasmus.

If retreating behind the eightfold fence is key to survival, then Yabushige and his uncontrollable moods are certainly in danger. He’s outraged when he learns Toranaga resigned from the Council of Regents (“I apologize for my bad manners … I assume it’s proper for you to commit seppuku at once”), elated at the military display put on by his troops on the shores of Ajiro, and disgruntled as Toranaga departs immediately for Edo instead of relishing in the work done to prepare the small fishing village for his arrival. The face acting of Tadanobu Asano continues to be a source of joy, but the character’s lack of control is likely to keep him in the hot seat. With his assistance in helping Toranaga escape Osaka castle, albeit unwittingly, Yabushige’s salvation lies with either a strong Toranaga (who already doesn’t trust him) or a forgiving Ishido (which seems unlikely). Worried about picking the losing side, his constant declarations of allegiance to both are losing credibility. In short, he just can’t help wearing all three of his hearts on his sleeve.

Thank god he’s got his nephew Omi in his corner, then. As the young leader of the fishing village, Omi is a bit more cunning than his uncle. When Yabushige bemoans the sake Toranaga left without drinking — “Ishido probably thinks I’ve betrayed him. I look fully committed to this losing cause” — Omi is ready with a plan. The regents only need to appoint a fifth member before they can impeach Toranaga and sentence him to death, and in the meantime, isn’t this gun regiment loyal to Yabushige first? If that’s the case, then as soon as Toranaga is killed, Yabushige can gift the gun regiment to Ishido, who then can likely use it to attack the Catholic regents in his ascension to power.

It’s a good reminder that Toranaga’s maneuver hasn’t solved anything; he’s just bought himself some time. Toranaga so far has excelled at sidestepping every trap laid out for him, but he hasn’t revealed any long-term plan outside of preparing a new gun regiment in case war breaks out. We know from the pilot that Toranaga is a master at concealing his three hearts, and perhaps he’s employing his own eightfold fence to avoid tipping his hand. In any case, he’s off in Edo for most of this episode, tending to affairs. We’re not told exactly how much time has passed in these first few episodes, but when everyone arrives in Ajiro, the light snow coverage on the thatched roofs of the houses is beginning to melt; since Ajiro is in the mountains, light snowfall is a good indicator that it is now fall and no longer the rainy season of the first episode. After being away from his seat of power for months, it’s time for Toranaga to visit home.

The gun regiment training starts with a confrontation in Blackthorne’s courtyard. Omi refuses to let Blackthorne bring his pistols, which Blackthorne finds hypocritical, seeing as everyone else carries swords everywhere. After some posturing, Fuji tells Blackthorne to let her hold his guns. As Omi approaches her, she draws on him, saying, “Please be on your way.” Fuji is taking her duties as consort seriously, and Blackthorne realizes that he perhaps has been unfair to her. Later, he will gift her one of the pistols so that she can protect herself, and in turn, she will deliver Blackthorne her father’s swords so he can be adorned as a proper Hatamoto. First, however, Blackthorne must prove himself useful to Yabushige’s army, and Omi begrudgingly leads the way.

The training field shows off Shōgun’s impressive scale. Most of this episode takes place in quiet conversation, so revealing the large group of soldiers unpacking crates of guns and the ornate field office of Yabushige, Omi, and Nagakado is a nice reminder that we’re still in the middle of a sweeping historical epic. Add live cannon fire (that echoes so loud in the valley it startles villagers back at Ajiro), and now we’re cooking with gas. Or, at least, black powder.

The cannons are key to Blackthorne’s status: As a naval man, he doesn’t know any infantry tactics, and since the Japanese soldiers have been training with guns for 50 years, his basic firearms knowledge is useless. But English naval cannons are new to Yabushige and company, who’ve never seen anything so destructive and accurate. Blackthorne nails wooden targets off in the distance as Mariko takes diligent notes, giving way to a cannon-training montage that spans a few days. During this time, Mariko smiles while watching Blackthorne work — his enthusiasm for cannons is contagious — but he also makes her laugh while practicing Japanese on horseback as they ride back to the village. Her interactions with Blackthorne are unfettered, and compared to her terse exchanges with Buntaro, it’s clear that there’s something different here. On the official Shōgun podcast, actor Anna Sawai mentions that Blackthorne is maybe one of the only men Mariko has met in her life who “sees her as a human being, that he’s not looking at her as a woman who should be silenced and ignored.”

That doesn’t mean he’s totally off the hook. Mariko has the Erasmus’s logs, and inspecting them, she notices an entry describing a place “burned to hell.” When she confronts Blackthorne later at the shore, he tries to convince her to let him and his men build a navy for Toranaga. She instead chides him for thinking that his enemies (the Portuguese) will ever be Toranaga’s enemies. The logs don’t just reveal that Blackthorne has engaged in piracy — they also detail how this piracy was specifically sanctioned by the queen of England as an act of war against the Portuguese. In the midst of this confrontation, an earthquake rumbles beneath their feet. Mariko tells Blackthorne not to be worried — it is only a “baby” earthquake — but also to be prepared for more: “It’s why our houses are built to go up as quickly as they come down. Because death is in our air and sea and earth. It can come for us at any moment,” she explains, adding, “Before you meddle with our politics, just remember: We live and we die. We control nothing beyond that.” These lines speak to the darkness within Mariko that Father Alvito hinted at in episode two, and it’s the first time that Blackthorne has seen this side of her, piquing his interest in getting to know more about who Mariko is behind her eightfold fence.

The next day’s cannon drills are interrupted by the arrival of Ishido’s men led by Nebara Jozen, who informs Yabushige that the council has summoned him back to Osaka. This is bad news: If he returns, he’ll surely be asked to commit seppuku. If he refuses, he’ll be labeled a traitor who sided with Toranaga and sentenced to death, anyway. He buys himself time by promising Jozen a cannon demonstration, but Nagakado remains suspicious. Toranaga’s son feels like he has a lot to prove to live up to the Minowara bloodline — something Omi takes advantage of as they talk that night about the Jozen problem. When Nagakado claims something should be done, Omi nudges him by declaring that they’re about to lose their advantage. “Then tomorrow, we’ll have no choice but to reveal our tactics to the enemy,” Omi says to Nagakado, who reassures Omi that he’ll handle the situation without input from Toranaga. It’s a sly move: While Yabushige has earned the distrust of both Toranaga and Nagakado, Omi has seemingly found a way to help Yabushige while forging a bond with Nagakado.

That same night, Mariko finds Blackthorne at the hot spring, and after some awkward covering up, the two sit back-to-back and open up to each other some more. Mariko reveals that her family name is notorious throughout Japan, and that long ago a great injustice was done to her. In a flashback, we see her grieving in the snow, but she doesn’t fully reveal what happened or the nature of the resolution she desired — only that Toranaga promised her it would be fulfilled owing to this service. It’s clear she’s in distress about her past and has carried it for many years, prompting Blackthorne to invoke their conversation following the baby earthquake about how houses in Japan crumble and are rebuilt over and over: “If I see it, I fail to see its ruins. I see only a house,” he says. “And here I see much woman, and one who owes me no explanations.”

It’s clearly the right thing to say, prompting Mariko to ask Blackthorne about London and a dream date scenario for them. After an audience with the queen and taking in a play, he pitches a long walk along the Thames, where “you can almost forget yourself, all your troubles and past, and all the ways life seems to leave you wrecked.” Mariko answers, “And then you are free.” It’s notable that even in London, water is where Blackthorne finds his sense of freedom; in this exchange, he personifies the conduit to a new life, free of the burdens of society.

Later that night, as Blackthorne is sleeping, Mariko comes to him in the dark. She wakes him, disrobing and placing his hand on her face before they tumble together to the tatami mat. The next morning, she tells Blackthorne she’s glad he enjoyed the courtesan that Fuji and she hired for him, prompting confusion from him as well as, perhaps, viewers who in this moment found themselves second-guessing what they saw in the extremely dim light of that scene. (I’m still only about 95 percent sure myself.) Of course, she says this in Portuguese in front of Fuji, who isn’t able to confirm or deny the story, but at the very least, it allows Blackthorne and Mariko deniability if they want to ignore the events of the night before.

At the cannon demonstration the next day, things seem to be well arranged to show off what these English cannons can do. Jozen and his men arrive on horseback, lined up in their decorative battle armor and looking out at the wooden targets in the distance. This moment is key to Yabushige’s salvation: If the demonstration goes well, perhaps Jozen can tell Ishido how Yabushige has a new bargaining chip. At the same time, Jozen’s presence is a blow to Nagakado, who has struggled to prove his worth as Toranaga’s heir, his eager impulsiveness the opposite of Toranaga’s quiet strength. His father’s approval is the only thing on his mind, and yet he seems to lack any understanding of what might earn it.

That foolishness is what prompts him to ride out with his sword held high, proclaiming, “Nebara Jozen! Your presence here is intolerable. You have offended my father’s name. I demand compensation!” He instructs his men to move back, and cannon fire absolutely shreds Jozen, his horses, and his men. It’s a terrifying and gory display, and while Nagakado and his soldiers prepare to finish off Ishido’s men with their swords, Yabushige confronts Nagakado, threatening to inform his father. Nagakado, in fact, is proud of his work. He wants Toranaga to know it was him who took action, even though he’s surely misjudged what his father wants.

“It is war,” Mariko says, fearfully. But not everyone is shocked at the violent massacre. Just beyond Yabushige’s shoulder, Omi is smiling. Maybe Nagakado should have taken the advice he tried to give Toranaga at the beginning of the episode: “An ally with ambition is no ally.”

• The horse viscera in the final scene is extremely brutal. Shōgun is typically about restraint, but this provides a good reminder of why so many characters want to avoid an all-out war.

• Though it definitely wouldn’t be canon, it’s hard not to want a spinoff buddy-cop show starring Yabushige and Blackthorne. Both Tadanobu Asano and Cosmo Jarvis are having so much fun onscreen that it feels like a crime they don’t get to be silly together more often.

• When Blackthorne tries to thank Fuji, he says “Gozirimasuru” instead of “Gozarimasuru” (essentially “Thank you very much”), and it’s great seeing his mispronunciation pop up as a typo in the captions so English speakers can follow along with his flub.

• The official podcast hosted by Emily Yoshida has a great breakdown of the eightfold fence and its origins in the Kojiki. I highly recommend listening if you’re curious about its context in the show.

• The podcast also has an interview with historian Frederik Cryns, who made the call that Blackthorne would show off his cannon skills in this adaptation. In the original novel and TV series, he instructs the Japanese army on how to use rifles. But rifles had been in Japan for 50 years before the story takes place (as is noted in this episode), and Cryns points out that Portuguese cannons at that time were much smaller and less accurate.

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