Classic ‘East meets West’ tale Shōgun gets new adaptation

IN feudal Japan, political intrigue can do as much damage to a lord as a swift strike from a samurai’s sword. English navigator John Blackthorne (played by Cosmo Jarvis) quickly discovers this as he is shipwrecked in Japan and enters its complex society, where he must navigate a web of alliances.

At the heart of it all is warlord Yoshii Toranaga (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), who is deeply embroiled in power struggles and life-threatening politics. The two characters become unlikely allies in the FX original seriesShōgun, which is an adaptation of James Clavell’s historical fiction novel of the same name, published in 1975. The novel had already been adapted in 1980 as a nine-hour TV series starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune.

The new show premiered on Feb. 27 on Disney+, where it will have a total of 10 episodes.

Joining Jarvis and Sanada is Anna Sawai, who plays interpreter Lady Toda Mariko, a character that serves to bridge the two leads but also finds her own place as a woman from a disgraced noble line.

Though people may think Shōgun is yet another “East meets West” tale, its original novel’s legacy as a cultural landmark was the inspiration for the show to set its own bar, according to its creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks.

“For us in the West, the landscape was changed by this book. It is a grave responsibility for us as writers to approach this iconic tome, and what we ended up finding out was how we could update it for today,” Ms. Kondo said at a press conference on Feb. 20 that was livestreamed online from Tokyo.

Mr. Marks added that while James Clavell’s Shōgun really helped bring wider cultural awareness of Japan in the 1970s, the world’s cultural climate today allows for a “true East meets West effort.”

“What jumped out at us, with the collaboration of our lead actor and producer Hiroyuki Sanada, is that we need to have a production that is ‘East meets West.’ I don’t think we realized just how many departments and advisors we would hire from Japan to do it right. The standards have [been] raised telling these stories today so we wanted to be authentic as we could,” he said.

For Mr. Sanada, who nurtured a long career in Japan and is now a sought-after Japanese actor in Hollywood (The Last Samurai, 47 Ronin, John Wick: Chapter 4), Shōgun can be the standard for international productions.

“I think it will be a huge step for people in the film industry. Our teamwork was the most important secret weapon for this dream project — every day we checked every detail on set, the decorations, how to wear kimonos, the look of each extra. If people work together, no matter how difficult, we can make miracles. This is a great message to send to the world,” he said in Japanese.

Cosmo Jarvis, as the principal Western character in the cast, saw Mr. Sanada as an “omnipotent presence on set.”

“He was always around, guiding particularly the more junior actors and creating a good environment to work,” he said. “I would frequently confer with him about things Blackthorne should be learning as an outsider in Japan.”

Meanwhile, Anna Sawai said that, as a Japanese-New Zealand actress that grew up watching a lot of Western media, there is still has a lot more work to do to bring representation of Japanese women beyond “the sexy lady or the submissive lady or the one that does action.”

“I joined this project because I wanted to see more depth, to see myself in these characters,” she added.

Set in the 1600s, a pivotal moment in Japanese history, the series aims to show respect for the culture as well as build a world of intrigue and complex human drama.

Another motivation for Mr. Sanada is to bring his character and real-life historical figure Lord Tokugawa’s achievements to light.

(Tokugawa Ieyasu was the first shōgun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled from 1603 to 1868. He was known as one of Japan’s “Great Unifiers.”)

“Human beings do not seem to change, but he created a very peaceful world for many years and that kind of hero is what is needed now. That was the driving force for me to take this role,” he said.

For showrunners Mr. Marks and Ms. Kondo, influences like jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) and revered director Akira Kurosawa inspired them, so their intention was to delve into “the psychology of the characters and the experience of what it was like to be alive at the time.”

“There are lessons we still fail to learn time and time again, like the lesson of encountering other cultures with the spirit of generosity, to listen first and act later. These are themes and ideas that Shōgun grapples with, that we also grappled with throughout production,” said Mr. Marks.

Shōgun is out now on Disney+. — Brontë H. Lacsamana

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