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Behind the scenes of FX’s ‘Shogun’: The unseen army recreating authentic feudal Japan

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Against the backdrop of early 17th century feudal Japan in the FX series “Shogun” lies an unseen army who has meticulously crafted the show's historical richness and authenticity.

As the highly anticipated series braces audiences for a journey back to feudal Japan — a time of samurai, political intrigue and cultural complexity — the knowledge and passion of the production’s unseen army, made up not of warriors, but of advisors, consultants, historians and experts, come alive in each scene.

Based on James Clavell's 1975 historical novel of the same title, “Shogun” is set in Japan in the year 1600 at the dawn of a century-defining civil war. It revolves around English navigator John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), who shipwrecks on the coast of Japan, bearing secrets that could help Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a feared lord of the expansive Kanto Region, tip the scales of power.

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From the details of clothing to the intricacies of tea ceremonies, co-creators and executive producers Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo emphasized the extensive efforts and necessity of on-the-ground expertise to accurately bring the complex story to life on screen.

“I would like to think that we came into it all wise and knowing about how to do it. And the truth is, neither of us did,” Konda tells NextShark, acknowledging that their approach stemmed from understanding the changes in the world since the book was written.

As both creators grew up in the aftermath of the novel's popularity, Marks, a white American screenwriter, expressed his conflicted feelings about the iconic silhouette on the “Shogun” book cover, highlighting the representational challenges of a character wearing clothing from a culture not his own. The duo, who sought to engage with the audience's hunger for novelty, ultimately found themselves challenged to navigate the feudal Japanese culture, similar to the author and to Blackthorne in the series.

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While reading the text, they discovered that Clavell had posed similar profound questions about cultural encounters, self-discovery within different cultures and the realization of having limited agency over foreign cultures throughout his own journey.

“Part of that journey is to let go spiritually of this desire, to come in and be that ‘savior’ trope of like ‘I'm going to be here and I'm going to teach a little bit about me and they're going to use it and we're all going to become friends.’ And well, he finds that's not quite what he expected in any way, shape or form,” Marks explains, adding that the narrative's departure from the white savior trope created a story that can also be effectively harnessed for the TV adaptation.

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By recognizing the success of the book and its previous adaptations, Marks and Kondo structured the telling of the story for a more modern and intersectional audience. They noted being conscious of the need to offer something new and different while being extremely faithful to the source material.

According to Marks, they worked closely with a professor from Kyoto University who served as a day-to-day adviser, particularly in detailing the historical events leading to the Battle of Sekigahara. This collaboration resulted in an 840-page instruction manual, meticulously covering various aspects from traditional attire to the customs of entering rooms.

“If I'm going to give you 10 hours of my time as an audience member, like I want it to show me something I have never seen before. And the only way you can really get to that is by getting to authenticity to some layered truth to the world,” Marks explains.

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Although Marks and Kondo initially pondered on the necessity of the presence of certain experts on set, they soon realized the value of real expertise to enhance the efficiency of the production. For instance, the producers had experts on obi — a sash used in traditional Japanese clothing for women — flown in from Japan to perform and teach the very specific and artistic practice of tying it around women's waist over their kimono, another traditional Japanese garment.

According to producer Sanada, who previously starred in “John Wick: Chapter 4,” they even had well-known theater actors on set who created the original stage and performed the play in front of the cast and crew.

“It was luxury,” he says. “It's very rare, even in Japan. We had so much fun, and we then tried to make it as authentic as possible with the team.”

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Aside from serving as producer and garnering help from Japanese experts, Sanada’s precise acting as Lord Toranaga enhanced his own personal motivations for joining the series. He was able to grasp the mentality of feudal Japan, understanding values such as royalty, service for people, sacrifice and patience. He emphasizes the relevance of these principles in present time and hopes that viewers will pick up on such values in order to contribute to a better world.

The duality of Sanada’s roles also extended to considering the show's impact on the Japanese film industry and Asian representation, a key factor that also drew actress and singer Anna Sawai to the role of Lady Mariko, a poised and mysterious highborn woman loyal to Toranaga.

“I've seen so many [Japanese] films, and maybe Western audiences don't really notice the details, but for me, a lot of times I would feel a little bit like we were misportrayed,” Sawai shares. “It was really important to me that if we were telling a Japanese story that as a Japanese person, I could proudly say that we were doing it authentically and accurately.”

As a first-time participant in a period piece, Sawai faced initial challenges adjusting to the pace but eventually felt deeply connected to Mariko. Learning everything from wearing a kimono to horseback riding, calligraphy, tea-making and the use of periodic Japanese, she fully immersed herself in the character's world.

“Mariko had become a part of me to the point that like on weekends, I would still feel like her a little bit,” Sawai says. “I didn't want to go out. I didn't want to meet people. I just wanted to be alone, and kind of soak myself in the loneliness. So towards the end, it became hard mentally because I felt like I really felt the weight of her.”

Emotionally impactful scenes, particularly those involving Mariko's relationship with her father, left a lasting impression on Sawai. She hopes the series further sparks interest in authentic Japanese storytelling and opens doors for more Japanese storytellers.

Similarly, producer Eriko Miyagawa aimed for viewers to be captivated and develop curiosity toward stories set in unfamiliar worlds.

“I really hope that people are hooked, and also raise a level of curiosity and openness towards stories that take place in a world that they're not familiar with, that might be told through a different language,” she says. “I hope they'll be entertained and hooked and further expand their curiosity for the bigger world.”

Episode 1 and 2 of “Shogun” is now available to stream on FX and Hulu.

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