James Clavell’s 1975 bestseller, Shōgun, an epic historical novel set in the year 1600, certainly has the ingredients of a potential white-savior narrative. Its protagonist, John Blackthorne, is an Englishman who, despite initially having no knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, gains the trust of a powerful feudal lord who makes Blackthorne a high-ranking samurai. Along the way, the newcomer becomes romantically involved with the lord’s translator, a noble Japanese woman of “beauty and brilliance and courage and learning.” Such a setup has all the trappings of a colonialist fantasy—but Clavell’s novel is much more nuanced than that, and a new, compelling miniseries adaptation takes even greater care to center its Japanese characters. Its first two episodes premiere on FX and Hulu on Feb. 27.

In the novel, Blackthorne is a ship pilot whose trading vessel is captured off the coast of Japan; he and his scant, starved crew are barely alive onboard. Once he recovers, his main goals are to establish trade with the Japanese people and to disrupt Portuguese and Catholic Church interests in the region. A powerful lord, Yoshi Toranaga, takes an interest in him; he’s head of the Council of Regents, who jockey endlessly among each other for power. Many among Japan’s ruling elite believe that Toranaga wants to become Shōgun, “the ultimate rank a mortal could achieve in Japan.” As relations deteriorate among the Council members, war looms, and Toranaga becomes a target.

Toda Mariko, Toranaga’s vassal, serves as Blackthorne’s translator; she’s Catholic, but very loyal to Toranaga, and she has a complicated, traumatic past. She’s also trapped in an abusive marriage, and as she and Blackthorne spend time together, they grow close. She teaches him some of the complexities of Japanese culture. At one point, for instance, she tells him about the country’s frequent earthquakes and tsunamis: “Perhaps that is why we love life so much….Death is part of our air and sea and earth.”

Blackthorne would seem to check all the white-savior boxes, but fortunately, Clavell isn’t interested in telling that kind of story. For one thing, Blackthorne is something of a dolt, especially at the novel’s outset, and although he can think on his feet, he has no real agency; the best things one can say about him is that can pilot a ship and that he knows how to use a cannon, both of which make him valuable to Toranaga, who uses him for his own political ends. However, Blackthorne is rarely, if ever, the smartest person in the room, and although he saves Toranaga’s life more than once, it’s by acting on impulse, rather than intelligence. Blackthorne’s relationship with Mariko is meaningful for both of them, but it’s very hard to make the case that he rescues her from anyone or anything. Clavell’s novel also features large sections in which Blackthorne does not appear at all. Shōgun is a story of feudal Japan, in which a flawed Englishman is just one character among many.

The much-watched 1980 miniseries adaptation of Shōgun centered on Blackthorne, who was played by Richard Chamberlain as a standard-issue hero. This new version, by contrast, retains the novel’s ensemble quality; as such, most of the dialogue is in subtitled Japanese. The compulsively watchable series’ creators are Justin Marks (who previously created the brilliant Starz SF-thriller series Counterpart) and his spouse, Rachel Kondo, a writer and producer whose short story “Girl of Few Seasons” was a juror favorite of the 2019 O. Henry Awards. They deliver a streamlined but impressively faithful adaptation that clearly relates a highly detailed plot, full of secrets, lies, betrayals, and intrigue, as well as moments of shocking violence. The sheer scope of the miniseries is remarkable, with quiet scenes of Mariko composing poetry, a horrific tableau of gory cannon-fire destruction, positive and sympathetic portrayals of sex workers, fascinating discussion of Council voting procedures, a tense sea chase, and an apocalyptic earthquake. There’s never a dull moment, which is saying something in an age when miniseries often seem padded.

There are also excellent performances from the large and talented cast. Persuasion’s Cosmo Jarvis does a fine job playing Blackthorne as a self-involved man who rarely comes off as heroic, even when he does objectively heroic things. Pachinko’s Anna Sawai offers an intense turn as the tough-minded but troubled Mariko. Secondary cast members are quietly great, as well, including Moeka Hoshi as consort Usami Fuji, whose life is marked by unspeakable tragedy. The true star of the show, though, is Lost’s Hiroyuki Sanada, who rivetingly portrays Toranaga as an almost supernaturally brilliant strategist and inspiring leader. Viewers will find it easy to understand why armies would follow Toranaga into battle—and not some guy like Blackthorne.

David Rapp is the senior Indie editor