FX’s “Shōgun” has captivated both critics and audiences with its richly detailed portrayal of complex characters in feudal Japan. Actors Hiroyuki Sanada, Anna Sawai and Cosmo Jarvis lead the ensemble drama series which has already been renewed for seasons two and three.

The eighth episode of the first season, “The Abyss of Life,” is directed by rising filmmaker Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. A Black American director of Ghanian descent, Osei-Kuffour Jr. made waves when he directed Blumhouse’s “Black Box.”

Having spent over half a decade in Japan’s film industry earlier in his career, Osei-Kuffour Jr. is not only fluent in Japanese but also a student of Japanese film and television. The director has an immense appreciation for Japanese culture and its storytelling.

Directing the penultimate Shōgun Episode, “The Abyss of Life,” was a thrill given that the episode sees several major characters dealing with their individual desire to control their own fate versus adhering to strong traditional values that might leave their fate in the wavering hands of their feudal lord, Torunaga (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Within Toranaga’s inner circle, anxiety is building as Toranaga appears to have lost all hope of avoiding surrender. He’s both grieving the untimely death of his son Nagakado (Yuki Kura) and his betrayal at the hands of his brother Saeki (Eita Okuno). Osei-Kuffour Jr. skillfully navigates the complexities of character development and the broader socio-political landscape, delivering an unforgettable viewing experience.

As a Black American director, of Ghanian descent, Osei-Kuffour Jr. layers on his unique experiences as well as an appreciation for Japanese storytelling. Having spent over half a decade in Japan’s film industry earlier in his career, Osei-Kuffour Jr. is not only fluent in Japanese but is a student of Japanese film and television.

Osei-Kuffour Jr. spoke with Awards Focus about his previous time in Japan and his process directing this phenomenal episode, “The Abyss of Life”.

Awards Focus: What initially brought you to Japan and how has the experience working there influenced your work and career to date?

Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.: I went to Japan as an undergrad at Stanford University for the first time and I was a part of this incredible exchange program, where you spent a semester in a university in Kyoto doing an internship in your field. Ironically, it was also the first time I really had a deep experience with Japanese cinema and television.

I really fell in love with the tone and the sensibility of Japanese storytelling. A lot of the characters that I was watching on the TV dramas and contemporary live action films seemed to long for acceptance. They longed to belong and fit in. That seemed to be a recurring theme, and I really connected to that. And I felt like looking back on my years, my early years in Japan and my love for that storytelling, I felt that the reason that I probably connected as closely as I did to that sensibility is because I’m first generation Ghanaian American and as a Black American. You’re always straddling two different cultures. You’re straddling the Ghanaian experience, but you’re also straddling the Black American experience. But you don’t really fit deeply into either one. And so, I felt in many ways that Japanese directors were telling my story. So I just wanted to go back as often as I could. And I started to watch a lot more because I really wanted to borrow a lot of that sensibility in my own work and learn how to tell my own stories. And that sensibility still impacts my work as a director now, including on “Black Box”, which was my first feature, and pretty much every show I’ve worked on. I think everything I do has a sensitivity and this need to belong and fit in. That’s a theme that I always touch on in everything I work on, whether it’s my own films or the TV shows that I get a chance to work on.

Awards Focus: Is it challenging to be dropped into a series to direct a solo episode that is close to the finale and so essential to the narrative for the season? How are you able to infuse your own vision for the story and characters?

Osei-Kuffour Jr.: The first thing I learned as a television director, as I was lucky to be a part of the ABC directors program years ago, was that you’re a servant to the showrunner and the writers of the show. You’re a guest in somebody else’s house. And so the first thing you do is you study what came before you. You read what came before you. You become an expert in all of this, in all the story arcs, the tone. And you have conversations early on with the show runners about what’s not written on the page and what is expected.

The showrunners that I’ve worked with have picked me because my natural inclination towards that sensibility I describe earlier. I believe I’m very much on this show because the show’s very deep and nuanced, and the showrunners Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo had very specific ideas from scene to scene on what they wanted to accomplish and where the episode needs to go by the end.

Awards Focus: As one of only two directors on the show that actually spoke Japanese, how did you feel like your fluency of Japanese and your time spent in Japan helped you in directing this episode?

Osei-Kuffour Jr.: I will say that speaking Japanese and more importantly having lived in Japan was really helpful because I was able to develop a unique rapport and connection with all of the cast and crew members, 90% of which only spoke Japanese. Even more importantly, understanding Japanese culture, especially work culture, is actually very similar to samurai culture in the (Shogun) era. Things like understanding the need to fit in, reading the room, learning how to read between the lines, and respecting hierarchy aided me in bringing that nuance and that subtext to life a little bit more.

Awards Focus: While a couple members of the Shogun cast like Hiroyuki Sanada and to a lesser degree Anna Sawai may have been familiar to Western audiences, I imagine you’ve seen or worked with several of them before. Whom were you most looking forward to working with?

Osei-Kuffour Jr.: One hundred percent Sanada-san (Hiroyuki Sanada) whom played Toranaga and Asano-san (Tadanobu Asano) whom plated Yabushige. I grew up loving “The Twilight Samurai” that Sanada-san starred in. It’s one of my favorite films. It’s what got me into the jidaigeki (samurai)genre. So I was really looking forward to working with him. And Asano-san is a staple of independent Japanese film and a lot of the films that drew me into Japanese cinema. It was a dream. There were a few times on set where I had to kind of pinch myself because not only was I working on a show with a bigger scale, but I was also working with people that I had adored more so than any Hollywood production I’ve ever worked on.

Awards Focus: One of the most memorable scenes in the whole series that happens in Episode 8 is the seppuku (Japanese ritual where a samurai kills himself) scene in which Toranaga’s best and longest friend Hiromatsu, played by Tokuma Nishioka, sacrifices himself in order to help Toranaga’s plan to progress. This is an incredibly emotional scene where so much is being said without being said. Tell us how you set up this scene.

Osei-Kuffour Jr.: So there’s a few things. By the end of this episode, we’re supposed to, for the first time in the series, understand what Toranaga’s plan is, or at least semblance of the plan.Up until this particular scene, I wanted to create an episode where I really got the audience to lean in and examine everything, Toranaga said and did, as well as everything he didn’t say. I really wanted the audience to lean in through the entire episode and to wonder, is this a ruse or is he truly giving up? And when we later learn it is a ruse, it’s important we the audience knows it still had an emotional toll on him.

Beyond Toranaga and Hiromatsu, this episode is also about how Hiromatsu’s decision impacts every single samurai in that room. I needed to portray each character’s emotional journey throughout the episode and how it shifts dramatically when we get to the seppuku scene. The seppuku scene works because every scene up to it also works. I think the scene was already written phenomenally.

Of course, the scene also works because of the phenomenal performances my actors gave all the way up until that moment of seppuku. I really aimed to draw out an intense desperation from Nishioka-san’s performance as he’s basically saying to Toranaga, “Eff it. You need to tell me what is going on. You need to talk to me.” And he really delivered on his performance. It was it was a very, very hard scene for every single person in that room, because there was a level of vulnerability, honesty and rawness that we were trying to accomplish with not only Toranaga and Hiromatsu, but everybody.

As a director, I did not want the camera to get in the way of this moment so I chose purposefully not to really move the camera. One of my biggest references for this scene and the episode as a whole was the 1962 film “Harakiri” not just as a reference for seppuku, but also for the intentionality of where you place the camera.

Also, the crew was incredible. Shout out to the crew! None of this would have happened without this crew, especially Dan Miller, the Assistant Director and his whole team.

Awards Focus: Another memorable moment in this episode is when Buntaro, played by Shinnosuke Abe, serves tea to Mariko, played by Anna Sawai. For western audiences, the significance of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony may not be well understood. What was most important for you to convey during this scene?

Osei-Kuffour Jr.: So the showrunner, Justin Marks, made it really clear super early on that this wasn’t just a scene about tea. We weren’t trying to make a documentary on a tea ceremony, and it needed to be about something much, much more. There was a lot more emotional weight to this scene. For me, this scene is really about Buntaro taking one last chance at wooing his wife. One thing that I don’t think most people know is that Buntaro is actually one of the best tea ceremony masters in the world of Shogun, and so getting an invitation from him is a huge honor. Every single thing in that space is chosen for her. The words on the wall scroll were written and chosen for her. The flower was chosen for her. Each tea ceremony tool was chosen for her. Everything was meant to communicate to Mariko that I (Buntaro) hear you and am there for you.

There’s a lot of practice that’s needed to become an expert. And when you’re able to perform all the steps in a tea ceremony accurately, there’s this beauty. It’s almost like a dance and Mariko watching her husband perform this beautiful, elegant and difficult ceremony really shows just how thoughtful and just how sensitive this man is being for the first time in their relationship. So part of what me and Justin really wanted to do, in shooting the tea ceremony, was make it clear just what Mariko’s experience is in this moment. With all the tight, detailed shots you’re experiencing the sensitivity, the awareness, the thoughtfulness, and how she’s responding to it all in that moment.

Awards Focus: You mentioned earlier about why you’ve chosen some of the projects you’ve worked on. What’s next for you, and when are we going to see some of your work on screen again?

Osei-Kuffour Jr.: I just really love stories about belonging. I love stories about fitting in. Anything I work on has to have that because that’s what I really connect to. And I think that’s what a lot of audiences connect to as well.

I’ve been told I’ve been very good at adding emotional nuance to genre and so what I’d love continue to do in the future is character driven, elevated genre, whether it’s sci-fi, horror, etc. Some of my favorites are shows like “For All Mankind” and “The Last of Us”. I’d also love to do more Japanese stories for a Western audience, because I feel, just like Shogun, there is a unique life experience that I’ve had living in Japan. Because I’m from the States, I straddle both worlds pretty easily.

As far as what’s next, I’m working on “Welcome to Derry” which is the “It” prequel as well as Apple TV+’s “Before” which stars Billy Crystal.