Scott D. Pierce: New ‘Shōgun’ isn’t just a white man’s take on Japan

The 10-part FX/Hulu remake is simply spectacular.

PASADENA, Calif. — Not long ago, a close friend of mine was walking down the street in Park City when someone driving by yelled a racial slur at him and told him to go back where he came from — because my friend is of Japanese descent.

My friend is from Kansas. I’m certain the racist who yelled at him didn’t know that. And I wonder if the racist’s attitudes are in any way influenced by the way Asians have long been portrayed in American television and movies.

That’s something the producers of FX’s astonishing remake of “Shōgun” were cognizant of as they worked on the 10-part miniseries — of “not making the mistakes of the past when it comes to maybe earlier depictions that Hollywood has done of stories set in Japan or set in other cultures,” said showrunner Justin Marks. “That was the thing that kept us up at night.

“Well, night shoots kept us up at night. Lots of night shoots. So that’s what kept us up during the day.”

“Shōgun,” based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, is the epic tale of John Blackthorne, the English pilot of a Dutch ship that washes up on the shore of Japan in 1600. The first Englishman to reach Japan, Blackthorne is quickly caught in the middle of a struggle between warlords to control the country. And he’s up against the Portuguese and the Catholic Church, who want to keep Japan as a trading partner for themselves.

The 1980 miniseries centered on Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain), and the Japanese characters were supporting players. In this retelling, Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is the entry point for the story, but he’s just one member of an ensemble cast, and most of the focus is on the Japanese characters. Which makes sense, since it is a story based on Japanese history.

As has so often been the case in Hollywood, in 1980 the non-white characters were depicted as borderline barbarians. In the remake, Blackthorne thinks the Japanese are barbarians; they think he’s a barbarian — and they have the better case.

The 1980 miniseries was a product of its time. The female characters were little more than caricatures — a situation that also has been corrected in the remake.

Another big difference is that Japanese speakers speak in Japanese, with subtitles. Unless you speak Japanese, you have to pay attention to “Shōgun” — you can’t sit on your couch scrolling on your phone or you’ll miss more than half of what’s happening.

Marks argued that, 44 years later, there is a “different audience standard” that will accept “using subtitles not as a device to hold us further apart from another culture in another language … but to bring us closer to their inner thoughts, and who they are, and what they feel” so that the story could be “a lot more layered maybe than anything that could have been done before.”

(Colin Bentley | FX) Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in “Shōgun.”

Clavell’s daughter, Michaela – who is also an executive producer — agreed. “The book is a very complex group of thoughts and stories, and I think that because the viewership is so much more sophisticated, as is the technology, that [executive producer] Rachel [Kondo] and Justin were able to write the complexities of the stories and the characters from the Japanese point of view, as well as Blackthorne’s point of view.”

Scripts were written in English, handed over to a historical researcher, and then on to Japanese translators. Then they were passed on to dialogue polisher Kyoko Moriwaki, a Japanese playwright, TV and movie writer. And then it was re-translated into English for the subtitles.

Hiroyuki Sanada, who stars as Lord Yoshii Toranaga — arguably the pivotal character in this adaptation — said Marks and Kondo were open to actors’ suggestions for changing some of the dialogue on the set. It was a bit awkward even to the Japanese actors, because the story is set four centuries ago so the language is “period Japanese,” said Anna Sawai, who stars as Lady Toda Mariko, “and that’s not how we talk today.”

“(Katiue Yu | FX) Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige in "Shōgun."

Canada plays the role of Japan

Sanada is also a first-time producer on “Shōgun.” “I had a team to make it authentic as much as possible,” said the 63-year-old actor. “I was so lucky and happy.”

The miniseries has been in development since 2018, and the original plan was to shoot it in Japan. But then the COVID pandemic hit and “the one real casualty was our ability to plausibly shoot this in Japan anytime over the next couple of years,” Marks said. “And so British Columbia became the next best feasible solution.”

According to Sanada, Vancouver “has everything. The big studio, and then just 30 minutes’ drive, forest, river, harbor, beautiful lake. So perfect for shooting [a] samurai drama.” In a way, more perfect than Japan “because in Japan, it’s hard to find the best place to shoot samurai dramas, because the poles and the wires are everywhere. And buildings, of course.”

An authentic Japanese village and harbor were built in Vancouver. “I think it was better than shooting in Japan,” Sanada said.

(Katie Yu | FX) Cosmo Jarvis (second from right) as John Blackthorne in Shōgun.

It’s very, very violent

Although Marks said, “I really don’t like violence,” there’s a lot of it and it is sometimes absolutely horrific. (This includes bloody battles, ritual suicides and beheadings.) It’s handled with taste and not shown onscreen, but a baby is put to death in the first episode.

Marks’ view is that the violence in “Shōgun” is depicted “responsibly and realistically,” and Kondo agreed. “We’re not going to shy away from the fact that it exists, and it happens much too often,” she said. “But it’s never going to be something that we celebrate.” That’s an accurate description of the miniseries.

“To be fair … the time itself was very violent,” Clavell said. “But I think there’s nothing gratuitously violent in ‘Shōgun.’”

The miniseries also contains adult language, and there is some brief nudity and sexual situations.

(Katie Yu | FX) Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in "Shōgun."

Be a little bit patient

“Shōgun” is simply spectacular to look at — the costumes and sets are amazing. And the narrative is gripping … once it gets going.

The first episode is dense and, unless you’re paying close attention, confusing. But give it a chance and the engagement grows from Episodes 2-10.

The series debuts Tuesday, when it will air its first two episodes on FX (7 p.m. Dish and DirecTV; 11 p.m. Comcast) and stream the episodes on Hulu. A new episode will air on each of the next eight Tuesdays through the finale on April 23.

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