FX’s highly anticipated new series Shōgun, produced by and starring Hiroyuki Sanada, is set in 1600s Japan. Inspired by James Clavell’s bestselling novel of the same name, the series follows Lord Yoshii Toranaga in a battle for power when an English pilot appears that could be an asset to Toranaga. Although the series doesn’t premiere until February 27, 2024, FX recently hosted a special sneak preview event featuring Sanada, Justin Marks (Co-Creator/Executive Producer/Showrunner/Writer), Rachel Kondo (Co-Creator/Executive Producer/Writer), Michaela Clavell (Executive Producer), and Eriko Miyagawa (Producer).
The series is mostly spoken in Japanese, and the creators took a great amount of care and attention to detail to represent the way the language was spoken in the 1600s. When asked about the importance of having a show like this set hundreds of years ago, and the sort of cultural awakening that this series might inspire for some, Kondo spoke about her initial approach to the project.
“[F]or me personally, when we came to this project many moons ago, I thought, ‘My god, this is great. I finally have a project in which I feel, as a Japanese-American woman, I have something to contribute and say.’ And very quickly we, together, learned that that was hubris. That came from naiveté, yes, but it was very, very misguided thinking,” Kondo said. “And the process itself zeroed me out, and it was an awakening to realize that I’m not necessarily Japanese. I’m Japanese American, and then, I’m Japanese American from Hawaii, which is a completely different thing in and of itself. And so, I just think it’s a very modern experience to be able to approach and re-approach and re-approach and re-approach again and to rethink things.”
One topic that was approached a number of times was the Jidaigeki, or period dialect of the Japanese language. The series was written in English before being translated twice to get it right for the period. Justin Marks explained that process: “We had to write this in English, it was translated by a team of translators in Tokyo into Japanese, and then given to a Japanese playwright, who spoke no English, to polish that Japanese in period Japanese, and then Eriko [Miyagawa] and Hiro[yuki Sanada] san to look at it and to kind of adjust and find the modernity in it and the balance of modern Japanese and Jidaigeki period Japanese.” There’s a line in the second episode that benefited from this process. The original version of a line from Anna Sawai’s character in episode two was originally good, but after the translation from modern Japanese to period Japanese, the direct translation back into English was profound.
In response to my question on exploring period Japanese language as an actor, Hiroyuki Sanada explained that as he has done Samurai movies and TV since he was a kid, modern Japanese and period Japanese is 50/50 for him. “I’m bilingual,” he said, which made everyone in the room laugh. He was able to correct and teach the young actors’ accent and rhythm to be accurate for the period. “I’m happy to have an opportunity to do that.”
After this process, filming, and with the dialogue actors had added, the dailies were then translated back into English. Co-creator Justin Marks shared the painstakingly detailed process that he and co-creator Rachel Kondo engaged in. “Rachel and I, much to the amusement of the entire post department who had to endure this, would then argue our way through every single line,” Marks said. The attention to detail went even as far as the position of the subtitles. The effort that went into accurately bringing that period Japan to life for this show is remarkable.
Having experienced Japanese talent attached to this series, such as Hiroyuki Sanada, also played a big role in ensuring accuracy. Producer Eriko Miyagawa explained that Sanada was on set every day, even on days when he wasn’t shooting and between takes, while in a costume he couldn’t exactly sit down in! From the background noises and boat callouts, to the sound mixing stage in post production.
“I remember there was a last day of our sound mix…and Hiro was still like, ‘Oh, you know, this footstep, Ochiba, the pacing is not right,'” Miyagawa said. “Because, obviously, when you’re wearing a kimono and you are this high class princess, there is the right type of footstep and the pace that comes with it. So he was fighting until the very last minute, and that’s what is up there today.”
Miyagawa, who had been working on post-production for Shōgun via Zoom from Japan, explained that FX had a “tremendous amount of respect and curiosity towards our history and our culture” while they were working on this series. Sanada also spoke on this topic, and how representation has improved within the last twenty years.
“I’m so happy to make this project. I’m so happy to be here. It was a miracle project for me. First time as a producer, and then I can say everything about our culture and then correct everything as a producer…because FX and everyone respect our culture, and I felt that from the beginning. That’s why we could hire a Japanese samurai drama specialist. [There were] many, many specialists on set,” Sanada said. “So as a Japanese [person], I wanted to introduce to the world our culture correctly. That was always my dream, but I think this time we could make it because they are respecting, you know, other cultures to make drama. I’m so happy to be a part of this one. And then I saw the show today.“
Sanada explained that from the beginning, FX tried to hire all Japanese actors for Japanese roles, and shared that that he feels happy to be living in this generation, where the door is opening wider and wider towards Asian creatives in Hollywood. With Shōgun specifically, Sanada talked about the important ways the series shares Japanese history and culture.
“[The] important thing is, you know, not showing the samurai fighting or violence or something. Samurai spirit is most important to introduce to the world. And also, the model of ‘Toranaga’ is a big hero in Japan and for the Japanese because he stopped the war period…and then he created the peaceful era for about 260 years, until the opening of the country. So that’s the biggest point for me, why he is a hero,” Sanada explained. “But, you know, the meaning of this release now, I think, is very important to the world. You know, what he has done is very heroic, and then this is a universal hero….He could stop the war for a while. So, we need that kind of hero now.”
The reverence and pure joy that Sanada exuded when talking about Shōgun spoke for itself. The panelists were also so happy to see final product of the showand for the world to see it next year. The Q&A made me so excited to see the rest of the series, as the first two episodes are remarkable. From the beautiful visual effects, to the clever writing and the amazing acting ability demonstrated by the cast, this show will likely be a can’t miss event that invites the viewer to explore Japanese culture, history and language.
Shōgun premieres February 27, 2024 on FX.
FX’s Shōgun, an original adaptation of James Clavell’s bestselling novel, is set in Japan in the year 1600 at the dawn of a century-defining civil war. Producer Hiroyuki Sanada stars as “Lord Yoshii Toranaga” who is fighting for his life as his enemies on the Council of Regents unite against him. When a mysterious European ship is found marooned in a nearby fishing village, its English pilot, “John Blackthorne” (Cosmo Jarvis), comes bearing secrets that could help Toranaga tip the scales of power and devastate the formidable influence of Blackthorne’s own enemies — the Jesuit priests and Portuguese merchants. Toranaga’s and Blackthorne’s fates become inextricably tied to their translator, “Toda Mariko” (Anna Sawai), a mysterious Christian noblewoman and the last of a disgraced line. While serving her lord amidst this fraught political landscape, Mariko must reconcile her newfound companionship with Blackthorne, her commitment to the faith that saved her, and her duty to her late father.
Jorgie is a pop culture fan and contributor at POCculture.com. He loves learning about visual effects, production, film, and art, and how they all come together to make films like Star Wars.