The Inverse Interview

Shogun Finally Gives Hiroyuki Sanada the Role He Deserves

The team behind the samurai epic explains why now is the right time to revisit the classic story.

The Inverse Interview

It’s a familiar scene in many Hollywood movies and shows set in feudal Japan: a white foreigner is given a katana and is taught by a samurai how to use it, often in an inspiring montage set to soaring music. He embraces the traditional weapon and proceeds to master it, maybe even eclipsing his humble Japanese teacher. It’s the kind of scene Shogun showrunners Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo were wary of using in their FX samurai epic.

“One of the cliches we wanted to get around is the classic scene of putting a stranger in a strange land, putting a weapon into that character’s hand. We’re just so sick of that scene,” Marks tells Inverse.

“I turned to him, I’m like, ‘How many times have you filmed this scene in the course of your career?’ And he’s like, ‘So many times.’”

No one is more familiar with this scene than Shogun star and producer Hiroyuki Sanada. Though his Hollywood career stretches back more than two decades, and his career in Japan and Hong Kong goes back even further, Sanada has spent much of that time clad in a kimono and playing second fiddle to white protagonists wielding samurai swords. But in Shogun, Sanada is both lead and producer. And it was Sanada that Marks and Kondo, who were keenly aware they were tackling a story they were unfamiliar with, would most frequently turn to for advice. So when they set about shooting that dreaded training montage, they asked Sanada about it.

“We were shooting it, and Hiro was acting in his capacity as producer,” Marks says. “I turned to him, I’m like, ‘How many times have you filmed this scene in the course of your career?’ And he’s like, ‘So many times.’”

Hiroyuki Sanada in Shogun.


The result, in Shogun, is a scene that doesn’t adhere to stereotypes. Instead, there’s a comedic spin on the training sequence centering around the show’s white protagonist, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis). “Our actors were really game to do where it was like this is just the futility of it. No one’s going to master anything in a montage,” Marks says.

It’s one of the many minor changes Marks and Kondo have made to their adaptation of Shogun, based on the 1975 James Clavell novel. The novel, set around 1600 and loosely based on the historical exploits of English navigator William Adams, was a blueprint for the “stranger in a strange land” story that’s proliferated through Hollywood. The story follows Blackthorne (Jarvis), who’s shipwrecked in Japan and finds himself embroiled in a treacherous plot centering around Lord Toranaga (Sanada), a powerful daimyo whose political rivals seek to destroy him.

Clavell’s novel spawned a 1980 miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune that was said to have helped popularize sushi in the United States, while its iconic book cover featuring a white man wearing a kimono has been a staple of many parents’ nightstands. “Speaking for myself, what I was familiar with was the silhouette of the book. And the silhouette of that cover was something I had complicated feelings towards,” Marks says.

Kondo, Marks’ wife and producing partner, didn’t feel the same hesitation when the project came to them through Marks’ TV deal with FX. “I saw the book on our coffee table, and I said, ‘Oh, this is perfect. As a person of Japanese descent, this is my opportunity. I would love to speak to my culture,’” Kondo tells Inverse.

Cosmo Jarvis is the “stranger in a strange land,” John Blackthorne.


Marks and Kondo realized their limits as people who didn’t grow up surrounded by Japanese culture and history. “Both Justin and I had to learn to just say, ‘OK, if this is not our story, if this culture doesn’t belong to us, how do we approach it? Who do we invite into the process who knows how to speak to this culture best?’” Kondo says.

The answer was Hiroyuki Sanada. Sanada had been working as a child actor since the ’60s, but he became best known to international audiences for his roles in Hollywood productions like The Last Samurai, Lost, Westworld, Avengers: Endgame, and most recently, John Wick: Chapter 4. Sanada first boarded Shogun as the star, but quickly became a producer as well. It wasn’t an empty title; Marks and Kondo wanted to make him a real collaborator. “You’re talking about an actor who, for the last 25 years in the United States, has been kind of this surrogate or a default ambassador to his own culture,” Marks says.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to make an authentic samurai drama in Hollywood.”

Authenticity was of the utmost importance to Sanada, who eagerly lent his knowledge and expertise to the production. “I wanted to introduce our culture to the world correctly,” Sanada tells Inverse. “So when they asked me to [produce], I thought it was a great opportunity to make an authentic samurai drama in Hollywood.”

Sanada ensured Shogun was made with a Japanese crew who were experts in historically accurate wigs, costumes, props, and even “masters of gestures.” Each department had a consultant who was an expert in samurai movies. Sanada even brought over young actors from the Japanese film and TV industry, many of whom had never starred in an English-language production before.

“A lot of this is for, in his words, the younger generation,” Kondo says. “All the younger actors, a lot of them signed on to work with him. His journey has been 25 years of building, building, building quietly.”

Anna Sawai signed on after seeing how nuanced her character, Lady Mariko, was.


Despite all the work he had to do behind the scenes, Sanada managed to turn in one of his best, most fully realized performances in Shogun. As Lord Toranaga, he’s simultaneously shrewd and sympathetic, guarded and vulnerable. Though Blackthorne is the de facto protagonist, Sanada’s Toranago feels like the real hero, the respected nobleman the story revolves around. Sanada has the easy charisma of someone who knows they’re the star and, perhaps because he knows how much work was being put into making the show authentic, he could relax in front of the camera. “In front of the camera, I felt relaxed and free,” Sanada says. “I can concentrate on acting in the moment and just have fun.”

The rich stable of Japanese characters, all with their own schemes and motivations, is part of Shogun’s appeal. Tadanobu Asano, sorely underused as Hogun in Marvel’s Thor movies, gets to flex his muscles as the crass, brutish warlord Kashigi Yabushige. Anna Sawai, recently seen in Apple TV+’s Monarch, plays an enigmatic noblewoman whom Sawai was happy to see not reduced to submissive stereotypes. “For me, Mariko really felt like a character that I hadn’t seen in the past,” Sawai tells Inverse.

“The audience can follow Blackthorne [in] watching Japanese culture, and learn with him.”

The goal for Marks and Kondo was to adapt Shogun with a contemporary brush that would dial down the exoticism of the original story, and flesh out the Japanese perspective. “I think the Western eye watching this show might have certain expectations going in, and then we can just say, ‘No, we’re going to hit you with a range of characters that are very different from what we’ve seen in these types of stories before,’” Marks says.

Through these rich, complicated characters and keen dedication to authenticity, the team behind Shogun more than justifies telling a story that’s been told before. More so than the Game of Thrones comparisons, which Marks and Kondo have been flattered by, the hope is that Shogun will immerse audiences in this time and place in Japanese history.

“The audience can follow Blackthorne [in] watching Japanese culture, and learn with him,” Sanada says. “That’s a big journey for the audience as well, I think.”

Shogun premieres its first two episodes on FX and Hulu today. New episodes will be released weekly on Tuesdays.

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