‘Shōgun’: How a Decade of False Starts, Endless Translation Debates and One Star-Turned-Producer Made a Classic Story Relevant to a 21st Century Audience (2024)

In 2018, FX Productions sent screenwriter Justin Marks a copy of James Clavell’s historical doorstop “Shōgun.” For FX, it represented a fresh start for a beleaguered project, from which writing teams had come and gone; Marks was a rising talent, coming off two seasons of his buzzy spy drama “Counterpart” and the 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book.”

The book sat glaring up at him from his coffee table for days. “It’s like 1,200 pages,” Marks says. “It was the hardest of passes.” It wasn’t just the length; it was the subject matter, or Marks’ impression of it, from the book’s reputation and from its famed 1980 miniseries adaptation: his notion of a story about a white European arriving in a strange land. “The silhouette of a character who kind of looks like me, wearing clothes that do not belong to people who look like me,” he says, “was troublesome for me as a storyteller.” But it wasn’t simply that the project seemed problematic; in a world where “Shōgun” had inspired entertainments like “The Last Samurai,” the 2003 blockbuster in which Tom Cruise plays a Westerner traveling to Japan, the original text might feel redundant.

“There had been so many works derived from ‘Shōgun,’” Marks says, “that I felt it was just something I’d seen before.”

His wife, Rachel Kondo, a short-story writer, picked up the book in his stead. Soon enough, she says, “it was eight hours a day for three weeks” of absorption in Clavell’s world. She thought she’d have a natural connection to the material as a Japanese American, but instead, she realized, “This is a completely separate culture, and a very nuanced, complex one, that we had to relearn — or learn how to learn about.”

That made the leap worthwhile for Marks and Kondo, who came on board as his co-creator, and fueled them through a yearslong development process followed by a punishing 10-month shoot — a period during which both of their children were born. (“What we like to say about our process is that when we started, we were in our 30s; we were childless, young, vibrant — our whole lives ahead of us,” Kondo says with a laugh via Zoom from Maui. Marks says their home in Hawaii is “where we recover after long productions.”)

“I think in the beginning, they told us six months,” says series co-lead Anna Sawai. “And then they were like, one more, one more. We were calling it the never-ending show. We were doing a lot of outdoor exterior shots in the rain, in kimono, with a wig that goes down to the hip. I wasn’t feeling myself fully during those 10 months.” Her co-star Cosmo Jarvis adds: “​​It was never-ending —but it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling. Because there was always something to study. The shoot was kind of like an obstacle course. The kind of obstacle course that people volunteer to do.”

Marks and Kondo, certainly, had put themselves forward for the challenge. And their process of relearning may make this “Shōgun,” at long last, a formidable answer to, and update of, that which came before.

FX has been on a hot streak, enjoying a recent Emmys sweep in the comedy categories with its hit “The Bear,” but “Shōgun” offers the chance to prove that large-scale event series can still draw eyeballs (and, perhaps, awards attention) to the network. FX reintroduced the format for the contemporary era with the “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story” franchises, but “Shōgun” is a huge, pricey swing that can’t necessarily be repeated if it hits big. As TV begins to contract from its 600-shows-a-year Peak TV apex, “Shōgun” is also an opportunity for the industry to take another stab at the lavishness of “Game of Thrones” — and a potential (largely) foreign-language breakout in the wake of Netflix’s South Korean super-smash “Squid Game.”

It’s a very different landscape from the one in which “Shōgun” first aired. Clavell’s bestselling 1975 novel already gave rise to one extremely famous limited series, from back when they were just called miniseries: NBC’s 1980 broadcast of “Shōgun,” told through the eyes of Richard Chamberlain’s Englishman-abroad Blackthorne, earned the network its highest weekly Nielsen ratings in its history. It was an Emmy-winning cultural phenomenon that can only be compared to the other miniseries of its era — 1977’s “Roots” especially. And coming ahead of the 1980s economic boom in Japan, it helped catalyze an American obsession with Japanese culture.

Which would seem to make an update a slam-dunk. Yet the journey from this project’s announcement nearly 11 years ago to its Feb. 27 debut on Hulu and FX required painstaking effort, and a willingness to rethink it from the ground up.

Marks and Kondo’s “Shōgun” began as a collaboration between two then-corporate siblings. Fox announced in March 2013 that its partner FX Productions was developing “Shōgun” to broadcast on the network. For Fox, it was a ratings play, a desire to reach the kind of record-breaking mass audience that NBC had commanded in 1980. For FX, “Shōgun” was the ultimate marquee title; in the aftermath of “American Horror Story’s” success, it wanted to make the event miniseries part of its core identity — and few titles in the space were more valuable or successful. (Since Disney’s 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox, FX and Fox no longer are part of the same company.)

Yet there was a certain lack of an organizing idea — a problem for any project, but a major one for a source text that had inspired genuine fanaticism.

Gina Balian, the FX executive who in 2012 had been poached from HBO to start a miniseries department, says, “When you’re taking on an adaptation of something that’s already been adapted, there has to be a reason why.” In 1981, The New York Times Magazine wrote of Clavell’s “Shōgun” that readers “have commonly reported becoming so engrossed in the novel that their jobs and marriages pale by comparison”; the series, the previous year, had a similar effect, with flashes of extreme violence becoming watercooler zeitgeist moments. “It just took a while to find the right voice for the show,” Balian says — one that might catalyze some equivalent level of fan devotion without repeating what had come before, as early attempts at a script did. “The first version that was brought in,” Balian recalls, “had a much more Blackthorne-centric point of view.”

‘Shōgun’: How a Decade of False Starts, Endless Translation Debates and One Star-Turned-Producer Made a Classic Story Relevant to a 21st Century Audience (2)

In other words: It was precisely what we’d seen before. (The original miniseries, for instance, didn’t even provide subtitles when Japanese characters spoke their own language, under the thinking that Blackthorne’s lack of understanding should be the viewer’s own.) But “Shōgun,” despite its seeming intractability and the logistical challenges it presented, remained a compelling concept — if only a concept.

Creator Ryan Murphy’s anthologizing of “American Horror Story” led to his O.J. Simpson-focused “American Crime Story” in 2016; the O.J. series had been announced as a Fox project in 2013, at the same time as “Shōgun.” Add in the 2014 premiere of Noah Hawley’s ongoing “Fargo” anthology, and FX was now the defining home for stand-alone series. And network chief John Landgraf sought more and bigger. Balian says: “One of the things that John Landgraf was interested in was ‘What’s an epic story for this brand?’” Finally, in 2018, five years after Fox first announced the idea, FX ordered 10 episodes of “Shōgun.”

During that time, the world had begun to shift —toward a version of historical storytelling that focused on subjects themselves, not just through the eyes of white Westerners. “We got more comfortable with needing to tell it as much from the Japanese side, casting Japanese-speaking actors,” Balian says. “We evolved as the project evolved.” Marks and Kondo’s openness, after they boarded in fall 2018, about what they did not know — their desire to learn the culture — made them an elegant fit. They convened a writers’ room that was, Marks says, “predominantly Asian American female, and we came to it as a collective that we thought would work from a modern sensibility.” The group was happy with early drafts, but “what we learned as we began to scrutinize our scripts,” Marks says, “was that we had only just begun the journey.”

Then came yet another interruption, due to the impossibilities of filming during COVID. During a year and a half of production delays as the filming moved from its initial location of Japan to British Columbia and the show sat on pause, Marks and Kondo worked through the scripts. They then presented them to consulting producer Mako Kamitsuna, who, Marks says, responded to early drafts with “I can’t give a note on this, because a Japanese person wouldn’t even think this way in this period of time.”

“We would go through every script, scene by scene, line by line, and she would have copious notes on everything we had worked on already,” Kondo says. The drafts needed wholesale reimagining to account for social structures the creators had never experienced. “It started this process of let’s just take what we’re so proud of and consider nothing sacred,” Marks says. “Let it all go, and build it back up again.”

What made it to the screen preserves the story, but shifts its focus away from the interests of the 1980 version: Set in Japan in 1600, “Shōgun” is rooted in the real history of the period, but follows a fictional feudal lord, Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), on a quest to consolidate power in a moment of profound cultural change — to become the shōgun, the military leader of the nation. He is aided by his translator Lady Mariko (Sawai) and newfound ally John Blackthorne (Jarvis), here depicted as, if not quite a helpmeet, then someone with a great deal to learn. Alliances knit together and come apart as rival warlords announce themselves; in the midst of it all, Sanada gives Toranaga gravity and authority — a bit like Ned Stark on “Game of Thrones,” before he lost his head.

‘Shōgun’: How a Decade of False Starts, Endless Translation Debates and One Star-Turned-Producer Made a Classic Story Relevant to a 21st Century Audience (3)

The drama lies less in spectacle or violence for its own sake than in the collision between cultures. Watching, for instance, Mariko calibrate her translations of Blackthorne’s speech to tell Toranaga what he needs to hear is every bit as gripping as any of “Shōgun’s” fight scenes.

Which is the point — the series brings out the novelistic qualities within Clavell’s work. It’s a mission undertaken with humility. In describing their work on the show, Kondo, whose background is in literary fiction, says: “It’s a very Blackthornian journey.” She’s referring to the Englishman who must rapidly forget his way of doing business to survive in the shogunate. “He had to zero himself out — he had to understand, ‘It’s not about my placement in the story. It’s about the story.’”

To get there, they needed help. The project had been so slow that Sanada, for instance, had to do a single day of shooting in London in 2019 so that FX could retain its legal rights to the “Shōgun” property. “We shot just myself on the horse in front of the fire,” he says. “And then we kept the rights to the novel, then waited for the next chance.” But once Marks and Kondo boarded the project, production setbacks — what Marks calls “the navel-gazing that COVID allowed us to have” — gave them time to run the script through multiple levels of translation. Their completed English-language scripts were translated into Japanese, then sent to Japanese playwright Kyoko Moriwaki “to add a little bit of literary flair,” says Kondo. Then Eriko Miyagawa, a Japanese-speaking producer, translated the dialogue back, so Marks and Kondo could see how it had changed. “Eriko, myself and Justin spent months reviewing every line of this show, litigating sentence inversion. There would be punctuation debates,” Kondo says.

“It’s couples therapy in grammar form,” Marks says.

The process allowed them to fine-tune each line, as it is spoken and as it appears in subtitles, down to each character. And even the subtitles — which had been deemed an unnecessary distraction from our English-speaking heroes in the previous version — came in for special attention. “I hope people notice we worked very hard to move the words higher on the screen, to get them closer to the actors’ eyes,” Marks says. (They also used the font from Greedo’s subtitles in “Star Wars,” in order to make the show feel, as Marks puts it, “a little more science fiction” — a subliminal attempt to infuse the show with genre propulsiveness.)

Once production began, the cast became key collaborators, not just for their forbearance in waiting out a lengthy shoot. The showrunners enlisted Sanada, a Shakespearean actor whose English-language work includes “Bullet Train” and “John Wick: Chapter 4,” as a producer as well as to play the lead. “At video village, we had to get a stool without a back that he could sit in, in full armor. He was there on set every day checking every costume, every background,” Marks says. “He was able to exert a will, which is to say, ‘I’ve done this for my entire life, I’ve seen every mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen on this.’”

Sanada, now 63, had moved to Los Angeles in 2004 after filming “The Last Samurai,” hopeful that a new era in representation was beginning. “My mission was that if there is a wall between East and West, let’s break the wall and make a bridge,” he recalls. “That was my motivation and mission.”

Yet most productions he’s worked on since haven’t had anyone advising on Japanese culture, even as they depict it. Here, Sanada fell into that work on top of his on-camera duties, but actively producing was no mean feat. “In front of the camera was the most relaxing time for me,” Sanada says with a laugh. “To just focus on my role and not worry about any of the costumes or writing.” But the opportunity to help vet every aspect of “Shōgun” was rewarding, especially in light of a previous version that hadn’t privileged the point of view of its Japanese characters. “It was the ’80s,” Sanada says. “So it was different — more Westernized, easy to understand for the world. But now, there’s a sushi restaurant in every town.” (Indeed, the ’80s rise of sushi as mainstream American cuisine might be credited to the original “Shōgun.”) “We have to make it authentic in every detail.”

‘Shōgun’: How a Decade of False Starts, Endless Translation Debates and One Star-Turned-Producer Made a Classic Story Relevant to a 21st Century Audience (4)

That extended throughout the production: Costume designer Carlos Rosario recalls Marks’ instruction that the Sengoku period, a time of upheaval the series depicts, was “a time of transition,” and so he had room to draw across influences. (To wit: Soldiers wouldn’t actually have been in uniform at the time, but it helps the viewer understand the story if they are.) And within closely researched, authentic templates, the costumes were able to tell stories — as in the case of Mariko’s sartorial evolution from a history of family scandal and disgrace to a woman standing entirely on her own. “She was a bit lost — her costumes at the beginning of the show are monochromatic, lifeless. It’s inspired by winter branches. Then, slowly, you see the camellias coming through — more patterns, more colors, which represents her finding her voice.”

As played by Sawai, Mariko and her journey toward self-expression present a series of minor-key delights. She holds complicated feelings for the two men in her life, Toranaga and Blackthorne, but these feelings aren’t allowed to grow outsized and demonstrative. “I never watched the miniseries, and I was told not to watch it,” Sawai says. Even without having seen it, though, she had a sense of what road a lesser “Shōgun” might go down: “I didn’t want to sexualize all of the female characters.” (Visits to a teahouse where men can procure affection, on this series, are treated with a light and elegant touch, not a “Memoirs of a Geisha” leer.) The Mariko she found is tough and unflappable. In the audition process, “I think I was trying to play it too aggressive in the beginning,” Sawai says. “I was trying to show that I was strong, but they didn’t want that — they wanted the core to be strong, but everything else to be peaceful.”

Even Vancouver’s vegetation got stress-tested for accuracy. “It turns out the Pacific Northwest environment is actually a very good match,” Marks says. But producers informed him that native ferns — ones that seemed to evoke Japan for the casual viewer, because they’d been featured in the New Zealand-shot “Last Samurai” — weren’t indigenous to Japan. “So we’d be respectfully kind of blocking them with bushes that our greens department would bring in, to get it right.”

Clavell might have appreciated this lack of sensationalism.The late novelist, a prisoner of war in Singapore during World War II, was fascinated by the history and cultures of Asia, and worked doggedly to nail the details of the story he was writing. “He actually read for two years on the history of the period before he ever began the novel,” says Michaela Clavell, his daughter and the manager of his publishing rights. “He was thoughtful about the period, and knowledgeable about the period.” His vision got as full an airing as television in 1980 could allow. “TV was very limited as to what they could show, what they could do,” Clavell recalls. “And it was groundbreaking for the time.”

Television’s newfound freedom to dig in, to embrace a sort of totalizing accuracy, can at times overwhelm. Jarvis, who plays Blackthorne, looked through papers found on a 17th-century merchant vessel. “They were really hard to read,” he says. “1600 English wouldn’t have been understandable to us today. It ended up with me having to realize that the only thing that I really needed was the script.”

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That script is nourished by the study, much like Clavell’s, of a real moment in Japanese history, complete with narrative lines structured around a social hierarchy that feels like new information for a Western viewer and also elemental to the story. “They had done so much research with regard to the status of different Japanese characters in relation to their society during that period,” Jarvis says of the showrunners. “The months of prep time that they and all of the departments had done before we even showed up was encouragement to step up to the plate. You have no other choice.”

“What we had to come to learn was that by approaching authenticity, it just made the storytelling better,” Kondo says.

That process took as much time as it needed to — making, for Balian at FX corporate, the delays look like a blessing in disguise.

“I’m glad it’s now,” she says. “I’m glad we didn’t make the version of 10 years ago. Because the level of thoughtfulness and responsibility toward representing another culture was at the forefront of everyone’s thought. You’d like to think that you would have gotten there 10 years ago, but I don’t think we would — and 10 years from now, there’ll be other things.”

As for what lies ahead for “Shōgun” in a world where successful limited series such as “The White Lotus” often expand into further seasons, “it’s hard to shut the door,” Balian says. “I don’t think we would take that off the table, but there’s a lot of things that would have to fall in line. It’s not an easy show to mount.”

Marks is noncommittal about the idea of making more. “We tell the story of the book, all the way to the end,” he says. “Are there more stories to tell? Yeah, it’s not a spoiler to say the show doesn’t end with the Red Wedding.” (Which is to say, everyone doesn’t die.) “The way television works these days, it’s always going to be a question mark.”

Given how difficult the project was, there are real-life considerations as well. “It’s a tough one. It takes a human toll,” he adds. “When you keep repeating it, the show has told you what it wants to be. Having said that, I don’t know if there was ever a person on this show that could tell what it wanted to be, because every day it would tell us ‘more,’ and get harder and harder every day.”

“If they want more, this is based on Japan’s history, so they can make more,” Sawai says. “But sometimes it’s better shorter! And if Justin and Rachel aren’t doing it, I don’t know who can.”

For now, there are 10 episodes waiting to unfold, transporting in a way TV rarely gets to be. “We hope people will give it a chance, and will say, ‘Wait a second, this is more work than I’m used to,’” Kondo says. “I hope that invigorates people: ‘I have to actually sit down and focus, and open myself up to something completely new.’”

“Shōgun” premieres February 27 on FX and Hulu in the U.S. and on Disney+ and Star+ internationally.

‘Shōgun’: How a Decade of False Starts, Endless Translation Debates and One Star-Turned-Producer Made a Classic Story Relevant to a 21st Century Audience (2024)


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