FX’s ‘Shōgun’, a ten-episode series based on the 1975 novel by author James Clavell, has been largely predicted to garner numerous Emmy Award nominations thanks to its authentic representation of 1600s Japan and the struggle of Lord Yoshii Toranaga, played by Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, to maintain and even gain power despite opposition and treachery from rival feudal lords. The Toranaga character is inspired by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established the first shogunate in 1603 and is largely credited with unifying Japan and establishing a peaceful era that lasted for more than 260 years.

Now that the full season has aired (the finale aired on April 23rd), it’s clear to audiences and critics alike that the aspiration to bring authenticity to the screen and to Western audiences has been a monumental success. Ninety percent of the cast and crew for the show were Japanese, a priority for the producers to ensure that every moment reflected the desired end goal of bringing Clavell’s sweeping story to Western audiences through the eyes of the Japanese. During Awards Focus’ coverage throughout the season, we’ve been impressed by the dedication and attention put on every camera angle, every piece of dialogue, every set piece, every costume, etc., to ensure the promise of authenticity was fulfilled.

At Disney’s FYC Fest event held at the Directors Guild of America Theater on June 11th, Sanada, who also received his first producer credit for ‘Shōgun’, joined co-creators, executive producers, and writers Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, producer Eriko Miyagawa, executive producer (and daughter of James Clavell) Michaela Clavell, and fellow actors Tadanobu Asano (Kashige Yobushige) and Anna Sawai (Lady Toda Mariko) for an evening in which invited attendees and media were treated to a screening of the pilot episode of ‘Shōgun’, followed by a panel hosted by writer and podcaster Joanna Robinson. Additionally, Awards Focus was able to speak to the cast and creators at the “red carpet” event that preceded the screening.

Through the interviews and panel, there was a clear kinship and appreciation among the ‘Shōgun’ team of actors and creators, formed over the long COVID-interrupted production (production began in 2018) but, more importantly, over a shared responsibility to tell the story the right way. No moment during the red carpet interviews showed that kinship and love for each other more than when the entire ‘Shōgun’ team broke out in song to serenade Anna Sawai, who happened to be celebrating her birthday. Sawai, who was equally stunning in her dress by designer Shushu/Tong as she was in her many kimonos from costume designer Carlos Rosario, blushed in appreciation. One of the kimonos from the actual production was on display for attendees to see, along with other costumes and props from Disney’s slate of FYC events.

First to speak to Awards Focus were Producer Eriko Miyagawa and Executive Producer Michaela Clavell whom appropriately started the theme around authenticity.

Awards Focus: What did you want to convey most to Western audiences?

Erika: I think ultimately the commitment to authenticity, which on the surface feels a little bit scary because it feels like it’s going the opposite direction. But I feel like ultimately that commitment and the work really made it a better show and something truly interesting for audiences to watch. And I think everybody to know that it’s authentic allows everybody to relax, watch it and consume it.

Awards Focus: After so many years, what made you want to bring ‘Shōgun’ to the screen again? The original miniseries that aired in 1980 was a massive television hit.

Michaela: We, being the [Clavell] estate, had been approached many, many times to actually make it again (a previous television miniseries adaptation aired in 1980). But when this opportunity came with FX, we could sense their passion to make the book itself, to make the authentic story. And one of the things John Landgraf (Chairman of FX Networks) said was, look, we want to make this from the point of view of the Japanese. The original (1980 series), which was beautifully done, but it was done in a time that was quite different and quite old fashioned by today’s standards. But we really did feel it was authentic to do it again. Now with all the CGI, with all the technology, from the point of view of Toranaga, this time gave us all a tremendous opportunity to do justice to the Japanese sense of the story. And that’s why my father wrote it. He wrote it to introduce the culture and the history to a Western audience. He was fascinated by Asian cultures in general and particularly this era in time. So, it was worth taking that chance and to bring it to a whole new generation.

Awards Focus: What has been audience’s reactions to this new version of ‘Shōgun’?

Michaela: People have been so generous and so appreciative of what was a very complex story and a complex production. You know, it could have been too much. There’s a lot of subtitles, as you know. I think people have been remarkably sophisticated in their response and their appreciation for all of the level of detail that everyone on the project had for it to make it authentic, to make it from the Japanese point of view, to make it right. And this is my father’s book come to life. This is it.

Next up were Co-Creators and Writers Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks. Marks also served as the showrunner for the series. A couple in real life, Kondo and Marks spoke to the current preparation for season 2 as well as their favorite moments from the current season.

Awards Focus: Congratulations on the renewal for two more seasons. Any thoughts on where the story may go?

Justin: Honestly, most of our lives since this past December has mostly been about looking towards that and writing that. So we’ve just kind of been in that world, while [Season 1] was coming out, and obviously everyone wanted to see what the response to the show was going to be before making their decision. But, in our heads, it’s been two years ago that we finished shooting this season. And, we’ve just been plotting that trajectory forward. We just got back from Japan.

Rachel: Yeah, we just got back. We had about nine days of a whirlwind deep dive into Japanese history and castles and swords and armor and geisha and everything.

Justin: We’ve been to Japan a number of times together which is what led to us wanting to do this show. But, since starting this show, because of the pandemic, we never got to have our boots on the ground experience and walking where it happened and where it’s going to keep happening. It was really fun to finally just soak that in and get some old history that perhaps can find its way into the show in surprising ways.”

Rachel: To actually occupy the real Osaka Castle and not just the stage of it, you know? I mean, it was very exciting.

Awards Focus: Do you have favorite scenes or episodes from the series?

Rachel: We do. And they’re separate.

Justin: You know, it’s my least favorite scene, but the scene I’m proudest of is, is Hiromatsu’s (played by actor Tokuma Nishioka) death. I really think that we worked so hard to build to that moment for the audience. I think if you drop that scene into episode one or something, no one would understand the depth and significance of what he was doing. And in so many ways to build to that, from the first episode when you first start to understand what seppuku is or what it isn’t, and then build on it through episodes two and four and five, so that by the time you get to the theater of what Hiromatsu performs and the commitment to that, you really feel that well that you see on their faces. And then you also just have two titans of cinema acting against each other.

And every time we turned around for coverage, too… we did the scene and then had to film the other characters watching this – Hiroto Tanai (Omi), Tadanobu (Yabushige), Shinnosuke Abe (Buntaro) this and each of their performances were so amazing, you could have cut the whole scene just off their faces.

Rachel added: Without us even expecting it, they were crying, because it was so difficult to watch.

Justin: So, I have to say, the best part of it was we finished shooting just Hiroyuki and Tokuma-san in that scene and I thought “we’re good, we got it”.  But then I looked at the monitors where all of them are sobbing and I said, “I have to go back downstairs and watch. This is not done yet.”

Rachel: My favorite scene would be in episode nine when Mariko is trying to leave the castle. I wrote the episode with Karen Puente and that scene, obviously, everything builds to that moment. And Anna’s performance is unmatched. There are no words.

Next up was Actor Tadanobu Asano, who plays the memorable allegiance-shifting character Yobushige. Much like his Yobishige character having to be dependent on an interpreter when he spoke to the character John Blackthorne (played by Cosmo Jarvis), Asano spoke to me through an interpreter. His mannerisms while listening to my questions and waiting for the translation, for me mimicked his same expressions as Yobushige in the show. And much like his character, Asano, he naturally adds a lightness and humor to an otherwise, serious set of topics.

Awards Focus: In many ways, you are the comedic relief in the show. How did you balance humor with the fact that Yobushige is often referencing a lot of serious topics like seppuku and death?

Tadanobu: He [Yobushige] actually didn’t start that way on the page. So when I took him off the page, he became the comic relief. It wasn’t actually written like that to begin with.

As far as what applies to me, my process, to get that balance was a lot of reading. I read from my character’s point of view, but I’m also reading from Blackthorne’s point of view or Toranaga’s point of view of how they view me. And I repeat that process until it becomes that reality anchored in the ‘Shōgun’ world.

Finally, I spoke with Anna Sawai, who plays Lady Mariko. While Sanada and Asano are legends in Japanese cinema, Sawai is a relatively new face to audiences having bust onto the scene with supporting roles in “F9: The Fast Saga” and Apple TV’s “Pachinko” and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters”. Her performance as Lady Mariko, particularly in the scenes from Episode 9 that Kondo spoke of, serve as a master class of fierce elegance that will likely land her an Emmys Best Actress nomination.

LOS ANGELES – JUNE 11: Anna Sawai (“Lady Mariko”) attends an FYC screening for FX’s “Shōgun” at the Directors Guild of America on June 11, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup for Disney)

Awards Focus: First of all, Happy Birthday! What has this role meant for you as an Asian actress?

Anna: We’re starting to see so many more Asian characters which is amazing, but as a Japanese woman, I’ve always felt there weren’t enough that felt authentic to our people. So to be able to tell the story of someone so going through so much, yet still finding that courage to keep going and finding her purpose meant a huge amount to me.

Asked a similar question during the panel, she added, “… one thing that I had felt was that growing up as an Asian woman, people do look at me and think a certain way of me because of the portrayal that they’ve seen in a lot of media. So I didn’t want to perpetuate this sexual Asian exotic person. I wanted her to be known for the intelligence that she had and the strength that she had and the vulnerability and all that stuff inside.”

Awards Focus: How did you get yourself into the right moindest to be able to do this physically challenging role?

Anna: You obviously do your research on the books and who Mariko is based off (Hosakawa Gracia). But I kind of went into it in the physical end. So, wearing the kimono, learning how to walk, talk and sit and everything in (the kimono), riding the horse, doing the sword fighting, all of that kind of prepared me. And whenever I would put on that kimono, I would feel like I was transported back into 1600 and that I was not myself anymore. So that really helped.

Awards Focus: Mariko’s journey really becomes the heartbeat of the show. When did you know this was going to be Mariko’s story?

Anna: I knew that she was playing a big part of the whole story of ‘Shōgun’ but I don’t know if I completely understood until I saw other people react to it. Because I am playing  Mariko and of course, she’s going to be the center for me. And I thought that that was the only reason why I felt like she was kind of that big. But now, because everyone has reacted in a certain way, I’m understanding that it wasn’t just for me. It was for many people.

Awards Focus: What has the audience and critic reaction to your performance meant to you?

Anna: Any compliment is just always amazing. Because when I was shooting this, I had many days where I felt like I wasn’t doing enough or I wasn’t doing the character right. And in hindsight, I know that it’s because Mariko was also struggling and she was also feeling stuck. And that’s why she couldn’t. I couldn’t feel good about myself. But to have the audience react in a positive way, in general It always feels good.

Awards Focus: Is there a J-pop future still, or is that now behind you?

[Laughs] It is behind me, but I think I am interested in maybe playing a role that is in the music industry. It could be a musical role. It could be about a J-pop singer. I know that industry, so I feel like I could play it.

Awards Focus: Your performance in ‘Shōgun’ should spark many new options and opportunities for you. What is it that you’re interested in doing next?

Anna: I’m just reading a lot of scripts right now. I’m just looking for something that is well written, that has a good story, that is very meaningful to me. And it’s hard because sometimes that’s not always the case. Some things are, you know, entertaining, but I don’t have that visceral reaction to it. And I want that. And ‘Shōgun’ was that for me. And so I’m just reading a lot and hopefully I’ll find the right drama.

While time ran out before I could talk with Hiroyuki Sanada, I observed that he had moved to another area of the room, away from the other cast and creators and off the red carpet to finish his interviews. This seemed like very much the same thing Lord Toranaga would have done, separating himself from the others in search of a quite space where he could quietly observe and study the chess pieces around him.

All 10 episodes of FX’s ‘Shōgun’ are available to stream on Hulu.