‘We’re Trying to Do Something That Hasn’t Been Done’: Shōgun Stars Talk Blockbuster New Miniseries

‘We’re Trying to Do Something That Hasn’t Been Done’: Shōgun Stars Talk Blockbuster New Miniseries

When James Clavell’s historical epic novel Shōgun was adapted back in the 1980s, it was something of a revelation, inciting not only blockbuster television ratings but an increased awareness of Japanese history and culture in Western society. Nearly 50 years later, Shōgun is hitting TV screens again in 2024, and it’s poised to have a similar revolutionary effect.

In an interview with Lifehacker Australia, Shōgun star Anna Sawai said it was the new version’s consideration of the Japanese perspective and avoidance of stereotypical tropes that made her want to sign on.

“When I got the sides for the audition, it just felt like it was going to be the same thing where, you know, there was a Japanese woman and she falls in love with a white guy, she’s going in a bath with him and I was kind of worried,” she recounted.

“But then after talking to Justin [Marks, executive producer], he really wanted to give more Japanese perspective or at least show it more. With the women, he didn’t want to sexualize them or anything, he wanted to really portray their inner struggles. So, for me, it felt like okay, this is going to be the first thing that, as a Japanese person, I’m going to be able to proudly tell my Japanese friends that they’re going to love.”

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Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranaga (Image: Disney+) Shogun

Set in 1600, Sawai stars as Lady Mariko, an intelligent highborn woman who is a close advisor to Yoshii Toranaga, a lord who is appointed as one of five regents on a council to lead Japan until the deceased ruler’s young son comes of age. However, Toranaga’s opponents seek to depose him, so when a mysterious English sailor washes ashore, he sees an opportunity to use the foreigner’s knowledge to his advantage.

If this sounds like the makings of a genre-bending political epic like Game of Thrones, you wouldn’t be wrong. Shōgun has the potential to be the next big event television series, but Sawai had trouble pinpointing anything that serves as a good reference for the series.

“I feel like it’s its own thing…” she said. “We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done.”

“I don’t think there’s anything that would be a sound comparison, really,” her co-star Cosmo Jarvis agreed. “I honestly can’t think of anything that’s delivered in the way that this story is delivered.”

Unlike the 1980 series, in 2024 Shōgun is told through the point of view of multiple characters, Sawai and Jarvis being two of the major ones, along with Toranaga, who is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, both an actor and producer on the series.

For Jarvis, his character of John Blackthorne, the man who washes up on Toranaga’s territory, was “ripe for dramatic exploration.” All the characters in Shōgun are connected to real historical figures, and Captain William Adams served as the reference point for Cosmo Jarvis’ character.

“He accomplished some pretty astounding things around that era in Japan. It must have taken a fairly unique temperament to have achieved the things he did – negotiating Dutch trading rights in Japan at a time when the Catholics weren’t allowed the same privileges, things like that,” he said.

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Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne (Image: Disney+) Shogun

The actor added that his research for the role stemmed from both historical facts and some family history of his own.

“[I was getting] familiar with the geopolitics of 1600, with regard to England and the Catholics, and the Portuguese and the Spanish and all that conflict. It’s involved in the story, but it’s not a main character, but it was useful to become familiar with because I didn’t know anything about that.”

“And then seamanship,” Jarvis added. “Learning about how they made their way with such relatively primitive equipment at that time and how they managed to cross those huge distances and the massive risks they took. My father was a merchant seaman, so I asked him a lot of questions.”

Sawai acknowledged that while she did research Mariko’s real-life counterpart, Hosokawa Garasha-san, most of her characterisation came from the page.

“I obviously read books on Hosokawa Garasha-san, and we learned how to do calligraphy and I would look at the letters that she had left, but this wasn’t going to be Hosokawa Garasha-san’s story 100 per cent. It is James Clavell’s fiction novel whose characters are inspired by historical figures, and so I think I looked at the script a little bit more,” she explained, adding that there were some obvious differences between their stories.

“Hosokawa Garasha-san’s relationship with her husband is completely different to Mariko and Buntaro’s, so [for] things like that I had to put [history] aside and really focus on what was on the screen.”

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Anna Sawai as Lady Mariko (Image: Disney+) Shogun

As Sawai alluded, Mariko’s character exists far beyond typical female stereotypes. She is a noblewoman but carries the burden of hailing from a disgraced family line; she is a Christian convert in a time of religious uncertainty in Japan, and she serves as not just an advisor to Lord Toranaga but a translator between him and his English-speaking subjects – including Blackthorne. This resulted in substantial preparation on Sawai’s end.

“I had to re-learn everything from walking, sitting, standing, talking – it’s periodic Japanese,” Sawai explained. “There was nothing that I could do without thinking about it. I had to always talk to the Japanese supervisors, and my lady in waiting who was also my mannerism coach, so everything was just specific.”

It’s this attention to detail and care from the actors that permeates not only their performances but every aspect of the execution of Shōgun. And that alone makes it worth watching and will no doubt secure the series a place in the water cooler conversation.

Shōgun debuts with its first two episodes on Disney+ today.

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