FX’s ‘Shogun’ Tells a Familiar Story With a Wider Lens

The new TV adaptation of James Clavell’s bestselling 1975 novel aims for an authenticity that the previous version lacked

FX/NBC/Ringer illustration

In 1975, author James Clavell published Shogun, a historical fiction novel set in feudal Japan. To say that the bestselling novel was a hit would be an understatement. In Learning from Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, a 1980 collection of essays examining the book’s educational significance, professor Henry Smith wrote: “In sheer quantity, Shogun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.” As The New York Times Magazine described this cultural phenomenon in 1981, “Shogun readers have commonly reported becoming so engrossed in the novel that their jobs and marriages pale by comparison.”

The novel’s success was just the start. In 1980, Shogun became an Emmy-winning TV miniseries, which drew more viewers than any other miniseries to that point except for Roots. In 1990, the book was even adapted into a Broadway musical. Now, nearly half a century after Shogun was first published, FX is reviving the story for a new generation.

Created by Justin Marks (Top Gun: Maverick) and Rachel Kondo, Shogun is a 10-episode limited series that has the daunting challenge of re-adapting this sprawling, epic tale—whose original text spans more than 1,100 pages—while telling it in a meaningful new way. “We wanted to take the spirit of James Clavell, the spirit of this book, and be true to it, because it’s just a masterfully plotted story, the foundations that we were given,” Marks tells The Ringer. “We wanted to bring it into the modern age—which is something that Clavell himself would’ve done today—by taking and updating what works about it, which is this great story, this great romance, this great political drama.”

Set in 1600 at the end of the Sengoku period, Shogun depicts Japan as the nation endures radical change. During a peaceful interlude in an era of constant civil war, the Taikō—the grand chancellor for the Emperor and true wielder of power in Japan—has recently died, leaving behind an heir who is too young to succeed him. Until the heir comes of age, the Taikō has installed the Council of Regents, composed of five high-ranking and powerful daimyo, to rule together and ensure the succession of rulership. But feeling threatened by the cunning, experienced Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), the other regents begin to plot against Toranaga and jeopardize this period of peace as they each seek to consolidate their own power. Amid this volatile political landscape, English ship pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) and his Dutch crew are wrecked near a small fishing village. As Blackthorne adapts to his new life in a foreign land, his fate becomes entangled with Toranaga’s, as well as that of Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a Catholic noblewoman who is assigned to be his interpreter.

When the original adaptation aired on NBC over five nights in 1980, Shogun was unprecedented on TV. Shot entirely on location in Japan, the miniseries opened up a new world and culture to American viewers, while displaying acts of graphic violence and sexuality that were rare on TV at the time. Starring Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne, Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga, and Yoko Shimada as Lady Mariko, NBC’s Shogun told its story through Blackthorne’s narrow point of view. Dialogue spoken in Japanese wasn’t even subtitled on screen, extending Blackthorne’s sense of isolation and disorientation to the audience while sacrificing the perspectives of most Japanese characters.

“An advantage that they had was, at that time, there was a novelty to the approach,” Marks says of NBC’s original miniseries. “There was less of a familiarity with an international world that we lived in, so there were a lot of things that they could coast on. We don’t have that luxury. We live in a far more intersectional world. … At the same time, we had a tool in our arsenal as a modern-day show that I don’t think they had back then, which is a willingness for audiences to engage with stories in the language that they’re supposed to be told.”

In FX’s Shogun, all Japanese dialogue is subtitled, as the audience is no longer confined to Blackthorne’s experience and understanding. Given how much dialogue is spoken in Japanese throughout the series, translating the original English-language scripts was a unique and laborious operation, including a step that involved bringing in Japanese playwright Kyoko Moriwaki to add a bit of “literary flair,” as Kondo recently explained to Variety. “It’s a shockingly long and involved process,” producer Eriko Miyagawa tells me. “It’s translated and then it’s checked by historians, and then dialogue needs to be polished so that it’s period and also natural, what actors might say as opposed to direct translation of English. And then that goes through a couple times, and then it comes to us on the set with the actors, and then it gets polished more, and then that goes back to Justin [Marks].”

The use of subtitles obviously enables a greater understanding of the show’s Japanese characters that would otherwise be inaccessible to non-Japanese-speaking viewers. But it also adds some fascinating new dimensions, as viewers can now see the nuances in how bilingual characters choose to translate from one language into another. A key component to the political conflict at the heart of Shogun is the religious war that foreigners have brought to Japan’s shores, as Portuguese Catholics and European Protestants attempt to convert the local population and profit in the process. Interpreters like Lady Mariko or Father Martin Alvito (Tommy Bastow) are forced to quickly weigh their personal motivations against their duty to accurately translate for their lords, providing greater insight into their characters as they reveal where their true loyalties lie and what values they stand for.

But the more apparent challenge in adapting Shogun for the modern audience lies in the simple fact that this story, at its core, is about a white European arriving in Japan, and was written by a white Australian-British author. Any present-day adaptation inherently runs the risk of becoming yet another white savior narrative, such as 2003’s The Last Samurai, which starred Tom Cruise as the titular samurai and featured Sanada in a supporting role. That concern wasn’t lost on Marks when he joined the series as showrunner.

“There’s a silhouette [on the cover of] this book,” Marks says. “And the silhouette is a guy who looks a lot like me wearing clothes that don’t belong to his culture, and it’s a problematic silhouette. I mean that on two levels. There’s the representational aspect, which is probably not for me to speak to. But I can speak to the creative aspect, which is, I’ve seen that story a billion times before, and I’m tired of that story as an audience member. So, if you’re going to get me to sign up for this show, what is this show going to have to do?

“One answer to that is that we disperse the point of view, which has actually brought it closer to the structure and narrative of the book,” Marks continues. “To have Toranaga, Mariko, and all these other characters featured prominently as well. … You think you know what kind of story you’re getting when it comes to the shape of these characters, and then we work to subvert that and to undermine that.”

While Shogun boasts a fantastic cast that portrays a wide range of rich supporting characters (including Tadanobu Asano as the deceitful Kashigi Yabushige), the series homes in on the perspectives of Blackthorne, Toranaga, and Mariko. By focusing on the stories of this trio—or “the braid of the three main characters,” as Kondo describes it—and their distinct roles in the central conflict, Shogun can effectively explore themes such as honor, duty, loyalty, and class through different lenses and experiences. “A lot of our characters don’t have agency in the classic sense, and so how do you use limitations?” Kondo says. “How do you use strictures? How do you use those things to become your empowerment, and become how you make a statement about what you believe in and what your life is?”

Although Blackthorne still serves as our primary guide through the world of Shogun, as the Englishman learns the customs and traditions of Japan, Toranaga is the show’s central figure and true star. It’s no easy feat to follow in the footsteps of the late, great Mifune, who frequently collaborated with the masterful filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, but Sanada’s imposing performance as the regal Toranaga stands on its own. More than 20 years after the 63-year-old actor made his first major Hollywood appearance in The Last Samurai, Sanada assumes an additional role as a producer for Shogun, giving him a greater opportunity to contribute behind the scenes.

“[For] The Last Samurai, I put some notes for the production and then they asked me to join the post-production—checking sound or VFX, everything—to make [a] better way to introduce our culture,” Sanada tells me. “And at that time I felt this kind of thing was very important for the future, to introduce our culture correctly to the world. Every time I took a role in a Hollywood film, I tried to make [it] authentic as much as possible, but I felt a limit to say something as an actor.

“This time [in Shogun], first time ever after 20 years, I got the title of producer,” Sanada continues. “So finally, I could make a team. We could hire Japanese crew from Japan who [are] expert for samurai movies: Wigs, props, costume, master of gestures. Every department had a consultant from Japan. … So this is a big change for me, for [the] industry. This is going to be a big step to the future.”

Shogun was filmed on location in Vancouver over a grueling 10-month shoot, but the show’s commitment to authenticity creates a stunning and intricately detailed rendering of Japan during this unique period in its history. From consulting Japanese experts who specialize in gestures or movements to administering a boot camp for actors to learn samurai sword fighting, the production seems to have spared no expense when it comes to creating as convincing a portrayal of feudal Japan as possible. “Every single thing we had to fight for because it’s not in your typical budget spreadsheet, these kinds of positions or these kinds of requirements,” says Miyagawa. “It’s really constantly pushing and pushing and pushing to make sure we have everything that we need to achieve what we want to achieve.”

As Marks explains it, within the space of production and television, there are typically three meetings that precede every episode’s production: Tone, concept, and production. But during the creation of Shogun, a fourth meeting was added in between—the “Shosa Meeting”—where the series creators got together with the directors, assistant directors, and the Japanese keys from every department to go over all of the period elements that would help imbue that desired level of realism and authenticity. Details as minute as how a character would enter a particular type of room would be discussed, and shooting plans would then be adjusted to account for any changes that required reconfiguring.

“One of our writer-producers, Caillin Puente, had to pull together a bible about 840 pages long that was like stereo instructions for how to make this show, and how not to make the show, as we began to learn from past mistakes,” Marks says. “It really was this grand group effort in the way that you would want it to be, but it also comes with the messiness, and that’s part of what was fun with doing it. Collectively, we had to espouse a willingness to make mistakes, to be open to being called [out] for those mistakes, and to adjust as you make them.”

Sanada says that from the very beginning, he and Marks discussed how they sought to set their adaptation apart from the original TV miniseries and the novel in telling the story through more of a Japanese lens, “not only through Blackthorne’s blue eyes.” And while those efforts shine through in the show’s attempts to emphasize the perspectives of characters like Toranaga and Mariko, along with the many collaborations with Japanese producers, historians, and experts, Marks acknowledges that this American production still has its limitations.

“Truly, at some point, you have to admit, no matter what your efforts at authenticity are, we’re still telling this story through our mechanism, through our gaze as Westerners, as Americans,” Marks says. “And so we try to just observe it, see it, use Blackthorne as that lens when possible, and then let it stand and speak for itself.”

It seems that with each iteration of Shogun, beginning with Clavell’s novel in 1975, a step has been taken toward introducing Japanese culture and history to an American audience. As Smith wrote in 1980’s Learning from Shogun, “it would appear that the American consciousness of Japan has grown by a quantum leap because of this one book.” NBC’s miniseries contributed to that expanding interest in Japan by recreating Shogun in a new visual medium. While there’s always going to be a limit to how much one can learn about Japan’s real history from any work of fiction, this story became an entry point for many Americans who suddenly wanted to study the rise of the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, or learn more about the first Englishman to reach Japan and the ways of the samurai.

Shogun is now being reborn into a world that has seen nearly half a century of change since the last TV version, including globalization and the advent of the internet, and the standards for authenticity are higher than ever. The FX series’s creative and production teams have taken that challenge in stride, using this cross-cultural collaboration to not only reflect the clash in cultures that the story concerned in the first place, but also to serve as a model to the industry and the world at large. “I wanted to play this role and introduce [Tokugawa’s] story to the world, and as an actor, and as a producer as well, I felt we had a great team, [an] East-meets-West dream team,” Sanada says. “Even [with the] different cultures, languages, religions we had, we could work together, respect each other, learn [from] each other, and create a show no one [has] ever seen.”

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