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‘Shōgun’ Is Challenging Hollywood’s Most Revered Stereotype

‘Shōgun’ Is Challenging Hollywood’s Most Revered Stereotype
‘Shōgun’ Is Challenging Hollywood’s Most Revered Stereotype

Most American audiences have probably never seen Hiroyuki Sanada without a sword in his hand. The illustrious Japanese actor has, since making his international film debut in 2003’s The Last Samurai, practically cornered the Hollywood market on playing yakuza bosses and samurai warriors. Look, there he is, facing off against Hawkeye. There he goes, defending John Wick. And, oh, who’s that guy Brad Pitt just brushed past aboard a bullet train? Sanada, again with a blade.

It’s no surprise, then, that he wields a pair of katanas in his newest role as the star of FX’s Shōgun. “It’s in my DNA,” Sanada told me last month, grinning as he recounted his decades-long career of playing samurai. But his latest character, the imposing Lord Yoshii Toranaga, is possibly the actor’s most demanding one yet in Hollywood. Modeled after Tokugawa Ieyasu, the real-life figure who helped unify Japan, Toranaga is clever but stubborn, intimidating but warm—as dramatic a departure for Sanada as the show itself is for American television.

An adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 novel, Shōgun is a lush, big-budget update to the 1980 NBC miniseries that broke ratings records and helped usher in an era of American interest in Japanese culture. But that earlier series also kept its Japanese characters at arm’s length, never subtitling the language—a method that prioritized the perspective of John Blackthorne, the English protagonist who washes up on Japan’s shores.

FX’s version, which airs a new episode every Tuesday, is a lot more immersive and sophisticated—while also breaking records for an FX series on Hulu, where it streams in the U.S. Instead of following only Blackthorne (played by Cosmo Jarvis), it tracks multiple characters across feudal Japan in the year 1600, tracing the schemes of the many lords vying for power. At the story’s center is Sanada’s Toranaga, whose political influence appears to be waning. As he strategizes against his enemies, he sends Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), the skilled highborn daughter of a disgraced house, to translate for Blackthorne and draw him into the growing conflict. With three storylines involving intricate alliances and betrayals, Shōgun demands that its audience pay close attention.

It also demanded the same diligence from its co-creators. Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo wanted their scripts to be as authentic as possible, but that meant more than just translating their teleplays, written first in English, into period-accurate Japanese dialogue and precise subtitles. It also meant ensuring that they weren’t trafficking in lazy tropes such as overemphasizing the experience of a foreign protagonist, or oversexualizing the female characters. Clavell’s novel certainly perpetuated these ideas, which led scholars of Japanese history, as well as critics in Japan, to object to the NBC miniseries. As a result, Marks and Kondo had to dismantle their own storytelling beliefs and, Kondo told me, “learn how to ask better questions.”

After all, even those knowledgeable about Japanese history and culture have come to expect reductive portraits of the country in pop culture. That’s why Michael Wert, an associate professor of East Asian history at Marquette University and the author of Samurai: A Concise History, had some assumptions about what Shōgun would look like when we spoke before the series aired. “We’re going to see lots of close-ups of kimonos and tea bowls … We’re going to get waves crashing on the beaches,” he told me. “We’re going to get Buddhist statues and forests in the mountains … We’re going to get seppuku, and it’s going to be aestheticized.”

Certainly, Shōgun’s 10 episodes have their fair share of these moments. Its premiere begins with Blackthorne’s ship emerging out of the fog as the ocean sprays over the jagged rocks surrounding a small fishing village, and many scenes—including one of the first to feature Sanada’s Toranaga—hinge on the possibility of seppuku, the ritual suicide that samurai perform.

Yet the drama goes beyond delivering expected iconography; it deploys conventional images only to complicate them. Along with Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai, Shōgun has taken one of the most influential hero types in popular culture and further unearthed its contradictions. It illustrates the samurai story as less of a romantic ideal and more of a gateway into nuanced considerations of life, death, and loyalty. Or, as Marks put it to me, Shōgun became a chance to indulge in what came before while also “making new clichés”—to write what may one day feel mainstream but for now is undeniably different.

Like American cowboys and medieval knights, samurai are historical figures that have become prominent character archetypes. Depictions of them exemplify cultural exchange—the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa found much inspiration in American Westerns for his samurai films—yet they hold a rather curious place in Hollywood. They’re not negatively represented but are instead revered, usually appearing as unassailable symbols of duty and morality. When we spoke, Kondo admitted she was “undergoing mild panic” trying to explain to me how she and Marks went about depicting the samurai. Writing and rewriting Shōgun was, she felt, a Herculean task. No, Sisyphean. Or maybe it was a Gordian knot?

There is a lot of history to untangle, after all. The samurai were a class of people whose role changed dramatically over time. Before the 1500s, they were essentially mercenaries, skilled but largely poor and selling their services to make ends meet. From the late 1500s to the mid-1800s, they served as nobles who also governed on a local level. By the end of the 19th century, however, the class had all but disappeared, having been banned—along with the feudal system they oversaw—by Emperor Meiji.

Their relatively rapid evolution as a status group led to them, and their practices, taking on an “utterly mystical existence” for Japanese storytellers, explains Henry Smith, a professor emeritus of Japanese history at Columbia University and the editor of Learning From Shōgun, a 1980 essay collection about the influence of Clavell’s novel. Famous historical incidents involving samurai have spawned countless Japanese film, TV, and stage adaptations. Across Japanese cinema, samurai are morally complex figures, vessels through which filmmakers can reexamine cultural values: Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai shows their bravery and their desperation as hired muscle. Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri interrogates the flaws of “Bushidō,” the warrior code—a concept that didn’t actually become law until the 19th century.

Much of that context has been ignored in Western depictions of samurai, however, in favor of an almost exclusively venerating portrait—an odd effect of the popularity of Clavell’s Shōgun. The original novel, which Clavell set specifically during “a turning point in the history of the samurai,” Smith told me, for maximum drama, includes an array of complex samurai characters who question their beliefs and double-cross those they serve. But after the miniseries was a hit in 1980, positive stereotypes became the norm in subsequent Hollywood productions.

In The Last Samurai, Sanada’s character, despite being wary of Tom Cruise’s protagonist, is shown to be tough, unbreakable, and wholly dedicated to his lord. In 2013’s much-maligned 47 Ronin, samurai are one-dimensional devotees of Bushidō. Hollywood often borrows samurai culture—their code and the idea of their swords as their souls—as an exotic outfit, a shorthand for, say, illustrating the intentions of the Bride in Kill Bill or the importance of the lightsabers in Star Wars. “There’s this reverence, which is done out of respect,” Wert explained, “that is nonetheless a kind of kids-glove” approach.

Remaking Shōgun therefore necessitated studying its role in this history. As Marks, Kondo, and the show’s predominantly Asian American writers’ room worked on adapting Clavell’s plot, they questioned their beliefs about how scenes should operate. Some of the characters’ interiority and depth had been, Marks explained, “strongly implied in the book, but got lost in the noise of 40 years of the cliché of the stranger in a strange land.”

For the FX series, they follow Japanese characters into their own lives away from Blackthorne, clarifying who they are beneath their warrior identities. Mariko’s husband, Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), is an excellent samurai willing to sacrifice himself for his lord, but he treats his wife horribly, contradicting the very idea of an honorable fighter. Sanada’s Toranaga may appear to be coolly calculating, but in high-pressure moments, he acts on impulse, losing the kind of composure expected of a warlord. His relationship with his son Nagakado (Yuki Kura) is also instructive: In their scenes together, Toranaga waxes poetic about heroism and leadership, trying to temper Nagakado’s thirst for war. But the young man, enthralled by his father’s stories of samurai, grows only more brash, itching for violence.

Beyond the characters, there’s the show’s consideration of seppuku. Clavell had originally framed the samurai as a “death-seeking warrior,” but as Smith points out in Learning From Shōgun, the reality of the samurai standard involved being able to face death “not with yearning, but with indifference.” That’s a lesson Marks learned as he worked on the series’ scenes of seppuku. “If I dissect the Western gaze, [seppuku] starts to speak to a fixation on death … It took us months to start to understand seppuku as an expression of life,” Marks said.

The goal in showing seppuku at all, then, wasn’t about explaining it to American viewers or adding shock value, but about exploring what it means to see death as a practical option. Sometimes that meant moving a scene from the novel to later in the series, when the act of seppuku would feel less like a contrived plot point and more organic to a character’s development. Other times, it meant inventing new scenes completely, emphasizing the emotions around the ritual rather than painting it as an idealistic concept being coldly executed.

The result is a show that never treats samurai sensationally. Instead of exoticizing them, the series makes clear that Blackthorne’s bewilderment about the warriors’ practices is a weakness, evidence of his uncivilized nature. His point of view is not the dominant one; the subtitles allow the story to expand beyond him, immersing the viewer in the nuances of the Japanese language and culture. As such, the drama renders its Japanese characters as full human beings, flawed and fascinating in their own ways.

That’s all Sanada could have hoped for as someone who has regularly been tasked with doing more than just acting. Having spent decades training and working in Japanese cinema under what he called “golden-age professionals,” Sanada has often been an unofficial cultural adviser on Hollywood projects. After The Last Samurai wrapped filming, he helped editors check for errors, noting scenes in which extras could be heard speaking Chinese, not Japanese. On the set of HBO’s Westworld, he fixed inaccuracies, adjusting how a kimono was worn, determining which props looked period-appropriate. These jobs required balancing accuracy with entertainment value, and Sanada told me he often worried he’d said too much.

For Shōgun, he had no such concerns, even as he once again spent his hours off-camera consulting, this time in an official capacity as a producer. The work felt different with this project, he explained; knowing that the show aimed to meticulously produce not just an aesthetic authenticity but also a narrative one gave him comfort. By the time he was in full costume and makeup ready for filming, he told me, “I was relaxed. I felt freedom.”

In most Western pop culture, samurai seem to find a similar kind of pleasure and liberation in following a strict code and pursuing excellence. As counterintuitive as that may sound, and as historically inaccurate as it may be, Hollywood’s stories about them endure in part because they remind audiences that there existed people who believed, as Kondo put it, “that there’s a right way to do something, that there’s something higher to ascribe to.”

Yet capturing them on-screen requires understanding that in Japan, the image of the samurai is “always changing,” Smith noted, in large part because they themselves “were a very important part of explaining [Japan’s] transformation.” A new Shōgun adaptation, he said, should provoke people to think about what has and hasn’t changed from previous portraits of both Japan and samurai—to consider how established narratives can be molded, by modern stakes and ideas, into something familiar yet fresh. In other words: Conventions can exist, but they don’t have to remain static. Unlike the many swords Sanada has wielded, rules can always be bent.

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