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‘Not only through blue eyes’: Hiroyuki Sanada on bringing ‘Shogun’ to life


By Christy Choi, CNN | Interview by Julia Chatterley, CNN

(CNN) — With “Shogun,” Hiroyuki Sanada wanted to get things right.

“Sometimes (Hollywood) misunderstands our culture,” the actor, one of Japan’s biggest movie stars, told CNN. “So, I wanted to…introduce the world correctly.”

He plays Lord Yoshii Toranaga on the acclaimed FX miniseries, an adaptation of James Clavell’s best-selling 1975 novel of the same name.

The epic historical drama is set in feudal Japan in 1600, with Toranaga (based off the real-life shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu), fighting for his life as his enemies unite against him.
He described his character as mysterious and strategic. “But also, a human being and family man as well. Not a stereotypical samurai.”

While Sanada, 63, has been acting for close to six decades, this is the first time he’s taken on a producer role. He has relished in the opportunity, hiring Japanese experts in samurai drama-making, costume, hair and makeup, to even a “master of gesture” to work together with Western crew members, creating a meticulously crafted world rooted in authenticity.

Each department had its own Japanese consultant, and Sanada took it upon himself to coach the show’s younger actors in what he describes as the “Shakespeare Japanese” dialogue of the period.

“This time we put more Japanese lenses to the script,” he said, comparing the 2024 show to a previous adaption, a 1980 TV series which, like the book, focused more closely on shipwrecked Englishman John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis).

“Not only through blue eyes,” he added. “So maybe that’s one of the reasons for people (to easily) understand, enjoy the show.”

Indeed, there’s more of an emphasis on telling the story from a Japanese perspective — most of the cast was hired from Japan, and the majority of the dialogue in the show is in Japanese with English subtitles.

“In this day and age where the reach of a television show is very global, we’re trying to scratch at something that isn’t being made specifically with one culture’s audience in mind,” said Justin Marks, the series’ co-showrunner and executive producer in an interview released by Disney (FX’s parent company).

“With Rachel (Kondo, co-showrunner and writer) and I being American, coming to it with a Western sensibility, at no point did I think we could realistically deny our gaze and what we were bringing to this. What we tried to do with that gaze was find a way to transcend culture.”

The miniseries has proved popular. About a week after its debut, Disney reported that the first episode garnered 9 million views globally across its streaming platforms Hulu+, Disney+ and Star+, making it the company’s top scripted general entertainment series premiere globally.

“Shogun” is yet another example of increased Asian representation in Hollywood, and a changing landscape where more diverse storylines have been brought to screen.
“Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan swept the 2023 Oscars including winning the award for Best Picture, and Netflix’s Beef starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun was awarded six Emmys earlier this year.

It’s uncertain whether “Shogun” will get a season two (the show ends where the novel ends), but when probed, Sanada said that there still is “real history” to reference. “So who knows?” And as “Shogun” is one of six novels in Clavell’s “Asian Saga,” fans might hope for a related production in the future.

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