Stealing the Shōgun

Stealing the Shōgun

March 4, 2024

The Writers Room

Writers and executive producers Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks discuss their ambitions for Disney+ drama Shōgun, an epic tale set in 1600 Japan, and explain how they pushed for authenticity throughout the series.

First published in 1975, James Clavell’s historical novel Shōgun tells of the epic saga behind Pilot-Major John Blackthorne’s integration into the struggles and strife of Feudal Japan, beginning with his shipwreck on the edge of an unfamiliar world and his rise from mistrusted foreigner to valued advisor and Samurai.

The novel was adapted for the screen in 1980, when a five-part series debuted on US network NBC. Now, more than 40 years later, Clavell’s story has been dramatised once again for a new audience – in a show that boasts spectacular costume and production design and a host of standout performances to give this epic story the scale and authentic detail it demands.

The new series, also called Shōgun, opens in Japan in 1600 at the dawn of a century-defining civil war. Lord Yoshii Toranaga, who is played by series producer Huroyuki Sanada, is fighting for his life as his enemies on the Council of Regents unite against him. But 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 then 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 amid 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.

Produced by FX Productions for US streamer Hulu and Disney+ worldwide, the 10-part drama also stars Tadanobu Asano, Hiroto Kanai, Takehiro Hira, Moeka Hoshi, Shinnosuke Abe, Tokuma Nishioka, Yasunari Takeshima, Yuki Kura, Fumi Nikaido, Tommy Bastow, Yuka Kouri, Yoriko Doguchi and Ako.

Here, showrunner Justin Marks and executive producer Rachel Kondo, the husband-and-wife team who created the series together, tell DQ about adapting Clavell’s novel and their dedication to authenticity when producing the Japanese- and English-language series.

Huroyuki Sanada in Shōgun, which is based on James Clavell’s 1975 book

What were your guidelines when adapting the novel and the real history for the screen?
Marks: It was really important that we found a reason why this story needed to be told again today. This moment in Japanese history, where many cultures were coming to Japan to, in classic colonialist fashion, insert themselves and assert their own will, was a really interesting period to explore from a more intersectional lens, from this place that actually Clavell himself was exploring it from, which is this idea of how do we encounter other cultures and how do we encounter ourselves in those cultures, and can we really belong to another culture? And if we can’t, how do we find our place? All of those questions I thought were really interesting and worth [asking] again.

Kondo: We had this book and we’re all living in the after-effects of its success. So after reading the book, we realised our responsibility was to almost ask the same questions he asked, just through our lived experience of this day and age.

How did you use the source material during the scriptwriting process?
Kondo: We had a wonderful blueprint in the book. We had a guiding light and a source of inspiration that we went back to time and time again. James Clavell was a master plotter; a man of great talent when it came to plotting and character development. We had all of that to uphold the process for us.

The series also stars Cosmo Jarvis and Anna Sawai

With three main protagonists, and many more characters, how did you keep a grip on where the perspective of the story lay?
Kondo: It always came back to the braid, the braid of our three main leads – the character of Mariko, the character of Blackthorne and, of course, Lord Toranaga. Their woven story and individual stories, those were always the point we returned to. It’s always their story.

When you’re writing the script or even just taking on the project, you must be thinking about the ambition and the scale of the show you’re hoping to produce. What were some of the things at the front of your mind?
Marks: Well, hopefully we weren’t thinking about it. If we knew what we were getting into when we got into it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten into it. It’s a lot. It makes your knees weak when you get out there on the day and see what you’re about to do. There’s really an incredible appetite today when it comes to stories like this being told in a way that we haven’t seen before. For too long, stories like this might have been told in a fashion where our historical research just stops at our shores, and what we were really looking to do was reach across to our partners in Japan through our producer Hiroyuki Sanada, who also happens to be our star, and Eriko Miyagawa to hire Japanese crew to come to British Columbia and work with our Canadian crew to hopefully render something more authentic than we’ve seen before.
Forget about the scale of what we’re shooting on any given day, the scale of prep is just so far spread out because of the raw volume of meetings you have to do, in two languages, for weeks and weeks, if not months and months, before shooting certain scenes. There’s a Noh theatre performance where these Noh actors were brought in from Japan and we put on a show for the whole crew, a live show, and recorded it, with our actors in character. There was months of preparation to get it right. When you’re doing that, you’re not relying on your own instincts. You’re relying on the knowledge of the Japanese producers around you to do that.

Shōgun streams on Hulu in the US and on Disney+ internationally

In terms of that authenticity, is there something we should look out for that you’re most proud of or something that was very hard to achieve that stands out for you?
Marks: There’s a moment in episode two when Mariko is offering Blackthorne a bath. Her ladies-in-waiting shuffle in behind her and the lead lady-in waiting, Setsu, is performed by Akiko Kobayashi, who is also one of our show movement advisors for women. She is the definition of why you can’t fake what we’re trying to achieve. The way she moves [in that scene] across that Tatami [mat] is only done after a lifetime of practice to be able to move that way. You can’t just teach someone in two weeks how to look like that. When you’re looking at that, you’re looking at the real thing, and it’s just a throwaway detail right behind one of our actresses in one frame. But I think it speaks to the level of precision we were after.

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