How Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo Made ‘Shōgun’ an Instant Classic

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Justin Marks, Rachel Kondo Made ‘Shōgun’ a ClassicRobby Klein - Getty Images

It took showrunner Justin Marks and writer Rachel Kondo roughly five years to make Shōgun. The couple behind the show's fictional power struggle joined the FX series in 2018, overseeing a massive retooling of prior scripts and a dedication to cultural authenticity. They had two children together during the lengthy production cycle, weathering Covid-19 delays and the construction of a tiny feudal Japan in British Columbia. The result? A masterfully produced drama that's easily the year's best TV show so far.

"This show has taken so long to do that it's been part of our lives, and so it never feels over, in a certain way," Marks tells Esquire about Shōgun's finale. "We're relieved that, at least, it's not like pitchforks or something. That would be worse."

The series follows Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga, a powerful feudal lord at the turn of the 17th century who is vying to become the ruler of Japan. While battling his rivals with political maneuvers, Toranaga's motivations become intertwined with John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), a marooned Englishman, and Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a Japanese noblewoman on a path of revenge. The story is adapted from James Clavell's popular 1975 novel of the same name, with updated scripts and storytelling from Kondo and Marks.

After this week's finale, the series ends just as its popularity hits its peak. The premiere drew in 9 million viewers in its first week, according to Variety, exceeding Hulu's previous record-setting debuts for The Bear and The Kardashians. Viewership remained high as episodes aired weekly, which is a major accomplishment for a series that's mostly subtitled. Still, Shōgun's season finale marks the end of Marks and Kondo's planned miniseries. After such an involved and prolonged production, would the couple ever return to create more stories in feudal Japan?

"It's hard, but I will say that if there were any stories of any kind to be told, they would have to be just as good as the book, and I don't know if those stories exist," Marks explains, following a deep sigh. "Do you hear the exhaustion in his voice?" Kondo chimes in, laughing. "The thought of jumping back into it is a lot."

Below, Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo dive into what made Shōgun such a special series, the painstaking process of upholding the right amount of authenticity, and how they surprised audiences with multiple shocking character deaths.

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Marks and Kondo at the 2024 Academy Awards.Gilbert Flores - Getty Images

ESQUIRE: I know the book doesn't depict the Battle of Sekigahara, but walk me through the decision not to end this adaptation with a big battle scene, knowing how important the event is in Japanese history.

MARKS: I felt the same when reading the book. It was getting kind of thin in my right hand, and I thought, When are we going to get to that battle thing? What Clavell was teaching us as readers—and what we hope to do for the audience—is that if you were reading this book thinking that it was going to end there, you haven't been reading the right story. This has always been about Mariko and the fact that Toranaga was the only person who really saw her and used her to proper effect. The journey of the show, for Blackthorne, is a journey to understanding her and why she had to do what she did. When you put everything on top of it, it does feel relevant to being Toranaga's dream, looking to the future. But even the way we chose to do it, we wanted it to feel a little unreal. I didn't want to feel like we could definitively tell whether that is going to happen, because who could say? We can read a history book and we know it did, but that version of the battle is really just what Toranaga has seen all along and has worked his way towards.

KONDO: It just didn't feel germane—almost like you're tacking it on at the end. It's a show about people. I know people fight battles, but that just didn't feel right for the show.

MARKS: Which is good for us because if I were to think about the three and a half weeks of production meetings that it took us simply to shoot Nagakado's funeral in an authentic fashion, which lasts for about two and a half minutes on screen, I couldn't imagine what Sekigahara would've taken for us.

KONDO: We'd still be shooting it.

The series has received a lot of praise for its authenticity. What does it mean to you to receive that recognition?

MARKS: I'm just so happy for the crew that the hard work is seen. Caillin Puente, who's a writer and producer on this show, was in a lot of ways the keeper of the instruction manual for how we did this. We had about a 900-something-page instruction manual to make this, and it was a cumulation of notes, mistakes, lessons learned, and all the kinds of things we did over the course of production. I really wanted it to feel like—even if you're not an expert on Japanese history—that you would feel at least the volume of work that went into it. Every good bit of world-building, when it comes to a historical epic, deserves to be treated like it was crafted just for me to understand.

KONDO: The metaphor we like to use is we were figuring out how to build a car while we were driving it. Because we didn't know how to tell this story. We didn't even know we didn't know how to tell the story. Everybody just had to reframe how they thought about what they knew, how they had to learn from Japanese consultants and experts, and then how to infuse their own sensibilities into everything. Then we finally felt our rhythm.

MARKS: The challenge very often when you're pursuing something historically is that you feel like the only way to do it is to just become subordinate to it. I kept saying, throughout—and it was printed on my wall—that the research is not what entraps us. The research is what frees us as artists. The best example I can think of departmentally is Carlos Rosario's costume department. He just consumed and consumed and created things that were from scratch from his heart. If we're doing our job right, we take and amass all that information and then create with it and have a point of view. We're not Japanese. We're not a time machine. We have to sort of impose this Western way onto it.

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"This has always been about Mariko and the fact that Toranaga was the only person who really saw her," showrunner Justin Marks says.FX

When I spoke with Anna Sawai last week, she mentioned that everyone is actually speaking a more period accurate Japanese that is very subtle—kind of like Shakespearean English. What were the challenges of localizing the script to make it more authentic?

MARKS: Too often in movies and TV, I find we treat the subtitles as an afterthought. It's crazy because you spend all this money and time on sets, costumes, and actors, and then half of the interface when you're watching something that is subtitled is reading these words on screen. We said that means that it deserves half of our attention—if we're going to do it right—which was a long, painstaking process of translation.

KONDO: We wrote the scripts in English, sent it to a team of translators in Tokyo, then it was sent to a Japanese playwright who specialized in period drama. It was then reviewed by Eriko Miyagawa, Hiroyuki Sanada, and discussed with each actor. They added their flair. Then, Justin and I took at least a year to have the spoken Japanese translated back into English so that we could kind of marry or better present what was actually spoken versus what was in the script.

MARKS: It was like a game of telephone. The words were carefully curated. It's why I feel like subtitles, just speaking broadly compared to a dub, is such an important thing and so much better as an experience. The way that a dub these days tries to match lip flap, and then it's not even the words that we wrote as writers. Hopefully the future of any show is to get it written in the way that it is with the level of detail, love, and art that went into Shōgun.

Were you surprised by how willing audiences are to watch a show with subtitles in 2024, versus when you started working on the series?

KONDO: In hindsight, it all seems very well-timed. But even when we started out, I feel like the world wasn't as primed then. And that was a handful of years ago.

MARKS: I got to thank Netflix for this in a lot of ways, by bringing more international storytelling to broader audiences. It's opened up the floodgates for not just a willingness to watch shows that weren't just recognizable western stars, but also to watch it in a different language and to use that as a way of exposing audiences to more stories. Frankly, everyone's living in a world nowadays where we turn on the subtitles, even if it's in English.

I always have subtitles on.

MARKS: A lot of people do it! Look, it's not a mystery, and don't blame it on sound mixers, but the reason is because these flat-screen TVs have bad speakers and that's it. We can't hear a word people are saying unless you get a Sonos bar or something. Maybe that's what's going to do it—bad speakers are what's going to make international storytelling possible because of subtitles.

Shōgun received a lot of comparisons to Game of Thrones in the press. Was that a series in your mind at all when you were writing?

MARKS: We loved Game of Thrones. That was the last event TV for us, where we tuned in every Sunday night and it was so exciting. But that's also like saying we love Disneyland, right? For us, in the writers room, we always talked Succession. That was just coming on at that time. That's how old this show is for us. But we were obsessed with it. We loved it, and we saw what we were doing with Shōgun as a comedy. I was laughing constantly reading the book. It's a satire, for sure. How can you watch Nagakado slip on a rock and not think it's a comedy? That's really what we were after.

KONDO: A dark comedy.

MARKS: We talked a lot about Uncut Gems when we were writing Yabushige. To the extent that Game of Thrones allows all of us in the business to tell big-scale stories that don't take place in our world, it was groundbreaking. Everyone owes something to Game of Thrones. But I don't think that FX ever believed we were doing a Japanese Game of Thrones any more than we were trying to. And I don't think we did. I don't mean that as an insult. I simply mean, as respect to Game of Thrones, who could do that again? My fear is if people hear it's Japanese Game of Thrones, that they think they've seen this story before, and I don't think they have.

A lot of shows nowadays like to say that their big, surprise moment is their "Red Wedding scene," to borrow a phrase from Thrones. But a lot of shows, in my opinion, aren't that surprising. I'd like to toot your horn because there were a lot of deaths on Shōgun that genuinely shocked me.

KONDO: That is a huge compliment, that we were able to surprise you. As people who are really trying to tell 10 contained short stories, when you are able to figure out how to both surprise your viewer or your reader while making them feel that what you're showing them is actually inevitable, then that's how you've cracked the code to the specific story.

MARKS: Mariko's big death was a shock to us, reading the book. So, we knew that was our "Red Wedding," I guess, as we read it. By the way, kudos to all fans who have read the books for not spoiling it for everyone. I remember that when the Red Wedding happened, someone back then on Twitter said, "It's really a testament to the strength of fandom of Game of Thrones that it's been on for three years and no one ever spoiled it." I didn't know it. I hadn't read the books. When I saw it, it totally blew my mind. So, good on them. But with Nagakado, with Hiromatsu, too, these were writers room inventions. Matt Lambert, who wrote episode 7, just had it out for the guy.

KONDO: He would say, "Maybe we could kill him in this episode. What about this episode?" We were all like, "Come on, Matt, we're not killing Nagakado."

MARKS: Caillin Puente had a list. She had notches that she would keep under her desk of the number of times Matt pitched Nagakado's death. When it finally landed in episode 7, I was like, "I guess we are going to kill him." It just kind of worked because he disappeared from the book. He exits, stage left. Same with Hiromatsu in a lot of ways. There were a separate group sequence where generals did what they did in episode 8, but not Hiromatsu. We said, "No, let's get the emotional connection right."

shogun nagakado
We were all like, "Come on, weFX

You had two children together while making Shōgun. How did you juggle everything?

KONDO: How much time do we have? Because I would like to speak to this. We started the writer's room when I was pregnant initially and had a baby in the writers room. That was a lot, but not as much as having a baby.

MARKS: To be clear, not in the actual writers room.

KONDO: Yeah, she wasn't born there, but almost. [Laughs.] Then, to have a baby two months before production was just a whole other level of insanity. It just goes to show that so much time has been committed to bringing Shōgun into life and we poured everything we had into it.

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