“I’ve found a new voice. Now we use it.” – Maeve.
It’s Shogun World! Finally, the much-teased glimpse into the Delos Corporation’s take on Edo period Japan is here, as exhilarating and vibrant as the frequent bursts of arterial spray that stain its grounds. It’s new and exciting, and… oddly familiar. After the complexity and exposition-heavy brilliance of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’, ‘Akane No Mai’ is a much more punchy and direct hour that perhaps masks that we’re no closer to any resolution of the main story strands as we reach the midpoint of the series. It’s an episode that feels like a diversion, but one that adds another sweet layer of icing to its familiar themes even if it risks over-egging the pudding.
Before we say konnichiwa to our exciting new location however, we checked in with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) in the present timeline. The clear up of the kaput hosts left floating in the bay has been carried out. There is no further verification of his claim that he killed them all, but Delos security head Strand (Gustav Skarsgård) and tech whizz Costa (Fares Fares) have made another troubling discovery: a third of the hosts fished from the water have had no programming. “How did all these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare?” ponders Strand in ripe fashion, “If we can figure that out, we’ll figure out how the story turns.” No shit, Sherlock.
Back to the gleaming sword we last saw flashing towards Maeve (Thandie Newton) at the end of episode three. It belongs to ronin Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, channelling Toshiro Mifune as Yojimbo most impressively). Our motley band is captured and escorted into Shogun World proper, Maeve’s attempts at using her controlling powers failing due to her choosing English, confirming this to be the reason it failed with the Ghost Nation earlier in the series. A worried Lee (Simon Quarterman) quavers that Shogun World was set up for those who found Westworld a little tame, a statement to have lovers of Far East cinema rubbing their hands.
And so it proves as we’re dropped into an exact replica of Hector and Armistice’s raid on Sweetwater, only with swords. Every other detail is present and correct, right down to a new cover version of ‘Paint it Black’ and a tattooed female psychopath. The moment where Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s Armistice meets her dragon-inked counterpart Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto) is a comic highlight of the episode. This clever approach is not merely a nod to lazy Hollywood storytelling (“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” shrugs Lee), but acknowledgment of the way Western and Eastern cinema have cross-pollinated down the years. As of Akira Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford for his samurai epics, so were Sergio Leone and John Sturges influenced in turn. It makes perfect sense that the two worlds share so many narrative similarities.
The undoubted strength of this episode however lies in the dynamic that’s quickly and confidently sketched between Maeve and her opposite number, geisha Akane (Pacific Rim and Norwegian Wood’s Rinko Kikuchi). Madame Akane is the mother figure to young dancer Sakura (Kiki Sukezane), to which Maeve can of course relate. In a scripted narrative an emissary from the Shogun appears to take the girl to his lord. Akane goes off-message by burying a hidden dagger in the emissary’s eye. This leads to a ninja attack which the group repel but at the cost of Sakura being kidnapped and taken to the Shogun, during which Maeve discovers superpowers! No longer does she need to speak out loud to control the hosts, she now has the power of telepathy over them, which messily demonstrates by making one of her attackers Glasgow kiss a spike.
Maeve, Akane and Lee unconvincingly disguise themselves as Chinese diplomats and enter the Shogun’s garrison. It’s not long until they’re rumbled, and the Shogun kills Sakura before making Akane dance – as the translated episode title ‘The Red Dance’ suggests, this isn’t the wisest move – and Akane’s trusty dagger comes into play again as she lops off his head from the jaw up. Maeve goes full Carrie again, and slaughter ensues. Director Craig Zobel deserves real credit for his handling of the fight scenes this episode, not only in mirroring the raids in Sweetwater, but the combat here takes the show-runners’ love of Japanese cinema and blends influences like Kurosawa, Miike Takashi’s modern samurai bloodbaths and cult classics like Lady Snowblood, in a fluid, dynamic way that avoids Tarantino-like pastiche.
On a level of pure enjoyment, ‘Akane No Mai’ is one of most successful episodes of the two seasons thus far. Aficionados of Japanese cinema especially will love it; and the weaving of narratives between the two parks should satisfy those who enjoy the more ruminative aspects of the show.
However, we occasionally switch over to the other thread of the episode; that of Dolores. There must be a real barnstormer of an episode for the avenging farmer’s daughter due soon, as Evan Rachel Wood, so great in the first season, has been seriously short-changed in these five episodes. Again, her scenes this episode are merely an illustration of her ruthlessness, as she follows scenes of tenderness with poor, stupid Teddy (James Marsden, completely emasculated this season) with a heartless judgment on the lovestruck cowboy. In the absence of the Man in Black this week, Dolores channels the Men in Black and has Teddy’s mind erased, telling him that he’s just too pure a soul for the carnage ahead. Harsh.
Annoyingly, these scenes aren’t entirely redundant, as writer Dan Dietz uses the parallel stories of Maeve and Dolores to highlight the differences approaches of the two women. Dolores seems to have allowed her Wyatt persona to dominate (although perhaps this was the one closes to her own all along) and will crush anyone beneath her heel to achieve her aims, even those she loves. Maeve on the other hand, is an infinitely more compassionate soul, and willingly risks her own quest to help another she’s only just met. Although, being doppelgängers, Maeve and Akane may share more than narrative similarities.
Newton really comes into her own again this episode, although the telepathy is stupid – obviously, some science-based handwavium coding is going on – but it feels one step too far removed from plausibility. Her brisk, taciturn side is eroded by the presence of another’s maternal instincts, and the double-act with Quaterman’s Lee has been played just right and has never become the annoyance it threatened to be.
It’s unlikely we’ll spend too much more time in Shogun World, but the detour was spectacular, gory fun. The nagging sense remains that it’s a distraction from a thinness in the story now all the world-building of season one is out of the way, but what a distraction it was. I’m fully expecting a Dolores-heavy episode next week, and it needs to be a belter, or her thread is threatening to become dangerously frayed.