FX's 'Shogun' adaptation keeps focus on Japanese culture: 'The only way I would accept a story like this being told through a Hollywood lens'

Actor-producer Hiroyuki Sanada ensures that Japanese culture is authentically portrayed in the new series.

Hiroyuki Sanada appears in FX's "Shōgun. (Kurt Iswarienko/FX)
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For actor and martial artist Hiroyuki Sanada, FX’s forthcoming epic historical drama Shōgun, an adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 novel, presented an incomparable opportunity to showcase authentic Japanese culture in a Hollywood landscape. Sanada did not take this responsibility lightly. In fact, Shōgun was more than just a starring role or the first time he’d be credited as a producer — it was the chance for him to be a bridge between East and West.

“Finally, after 20 years I got the title ‘producer,’” Sanada told Yahoo Entertainment. “So I thought this [would] be a good chance to introduce our culture to the world correctly. I was so excited.”

Sanada has crafted a legendary career in his native Japan and then Hong Kong, appearing in a slew of action films. He landed his first major Hollywood role in 2003’s The Last Samurai alongside Tom Cruise, has twice worked with Keanu Reeves — first on 2013’s 47 Ronin and again on 2023’s John Wick: Chapter 4 — and even joined forces with Brad Pitt for 2022’s Bullet Train. The Japanese martial artist is also no stranger to the American television, having nabbed recurring roles on shows including Lost and Westworld.

Rina Sawayama, left, and Hiroyuki Sanada
Rina Sawayama, left, and Hiroyuki Sanada in John Wick: Chapter 4. (Lions Gate/Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

The 63-year-old actor first realized his potential of bridging the cultural gap between Japan and Hollywood when he finished work on The Last Samurai. Soon after, he moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles.

“I [wanted to] break the wall, and make a bridge to the next generation ... and then keep shooting,” he explained. “I thought, ‘We cannot change history with just one movie or TV show. Continuing is important.’”

Shōgun, however, was unique in that it marked the first time in Sanada’s career that he’d be able to take on a leadership role behind the scenes.

‘This East meets West project is a dream’

“We came so far. This East meets West project is a dream. I really enjoy both producing and acting, and when I watch the monitor, and when the young actors [give] a great performance. ... I feel like a parent,” he said. “I was so happy watching the other Japanese actors doing well. I want to continue this kind of thing, if it's possible. ... Maybe [my] next mission is [to] keep [producing] and [introducing] Japanese talent and crew to the world.”

The 10-episode limited series, which is spoken primarily in Japanese with English subtitles, is set in feudal Japan in 1600. Following the death of Japan’s ruler, a council of regents is put in control until his heir, who is a child, comes of age to take over. Lord Toranaga (Sanada), a masterful warrior, artful strategist and member of a feared family, is clearly at odds with others on the council — particularly Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira) — who are actively advocating for his impeachment. After Toranaga learns that a ship carrying English “barbarians” has docked, he takes free-thinking pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) under his wing, in hopes that his presence will cause upheaval in Japan and help him stay in power. Through it all, Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), a prisoner to her own demons, remains dedicated to Toranaga and his cause — stifling her romantic feelings for Blackthorne in the process.

“I love this character. You know, mysterious and powerful, but a family man as well. So not only cool [and] powerful but a human being patient,” Sanada said of portraying Lord Toranaga. “I try to be simple and deep.”

Screenwriter and Shōgun showrunner Justin Marks and his wife, short story writer Rachel Kondo, who joined the project as his co-creator, endured a lengthy development process that culminated in a 10-month shoot in Vancouver, Canada. Collaboration across cultures and crews, Marks told Yahoo Entertainment, was crucial in ensuring that this project accurately and respectfully portrayed Japanese culture.

“We knew that to build this show, it would require a collaboration ... unlike anything we'd ever seen before,” Marks said. “It was something that we wanted; that we invited, because we knew that at some point, it would allow this process to hijack itself away from us, which would be, just speaking as an audience member, the only way I would accept a story like this being told through a Hollywood lens.”

‘Two cultures, two worlds’

Their commitment to Asian representation was apparent even prior to production. In fact, the pair made the conscious decision to have the Shōgun writers room consist primarily of Asian American women.

“It was definitely intentional in some ways, but I will say that we are all Asian Americans,” Kondo, who is of Japanese descent, said of their writers room. “None of us were Japanese native-speaking. None of us were Japanese nationals. ... So there's already that distance between the subject matter and characters we're aiming to explore. Also some of us in the room are biracial or bicultural, and a lot of times we can feel like [that] might be an impediment. ... [But] these are writers who occupy the space between two places. Between two cultures, two worlds, two lands, and it ended up being part of the strength that they offered.”

Having Sanada on board as a producer enhanced the project in more ways than one. Marks recalled asking Sanada, who has “been doing this for a lifetime,” on how he thought previous Hollywood depictions of Japanese culture fell short.

“‘What have we done wrong? What mistakes have we made that you've [witnessed] along the way? How can we not make those same mistakes as a production on this show?’ Marks said before explaining the ways Sanada informed production. “He says, ‘Well, here's what you need to do, we need a movement adviser to coach even the Japanese cast [on] how to move ... how they bow, what door they need to come in.’”

Ultimately, Marks said, subverting the Western gaze when they could and prioritizing representation in every aspect helped make Shōgun the best it could be.

“There’s a conversation about representation on set when it’s about doing what’s right, and that’s absolutely a valid part of it. But the thing that I feel gets constantly missed [with] all the great intentions about representation is that we do it because it makes the show better, and it makes the show shoot faster,” he said. “So you need these experts on set in order to save money [and] in order to get it done. ... These are the ways you have to learn that you have to consult with the people who've done this their entire lives.”

Shōgun premieres on FX and Hulu on Feb. 27.