'Shogun' exemplifies FX's fearless authenticity in storytelling

ByNzinga Christine Blake OTRC logo
Thursday, March 14, 2024
'Shogun' exemplifies FX's fearless authenticity in storytelling
Bringing "Shogun" to life was a decade-long journey, with authenticity serving as a guiding principle from the casting, language choice and production.

The UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report recently made headlines for its findings about the box office success of diverse films. Can the same success be found with TV audiences around the globe? The streaming numbers of FX's new, epic limited drama series, "Shōgun," which boasted a record-breaking 9 million views, could certainly offer a compelling case for the power of authentic storytelling.

To shed light on the decade-long journey behind the updated masterpiece, series regulars and executives with FX stepped into ABC's On the Red Carpet Storyteller's Spotlight.

MORE: 'Shōgun' cast on bringing Japanese culture to the world

FX Entertainment Co-President Gina Balian, who has been praised for leading the charge on bringing the limited series to life, spoke about the genesis of the updated classic, which she was familiar with, but from a different lens.

"I first was familiar with "Shōgun" as a child," she said. "It was something that I remember my parents watching, but what I remembered of it was a certain way this story was told. I remembered this big romance. And I really remembered Richard Chamberlain."

Upon joining FX to build a new limited series division, Balian was notified by an agent that James Clavell 's estate was interested in producing an updated miniseries of the book, "Shōgun." When she received the book, she realized the original miniseries in the '80s was very different from the book.

"It was so much more from other people's points of view," she said. "I thought, 'Wow, we had an opportunity to be true to the book.' And so, the original miniseries, I never went back and rewatched it. The book was the Bible and the inspiration for what we accomplished."

MORE: FX's 'Shōgun' honors ancient samurai traditions

Balian notes that authenticity was a guiding principle throughout the production, from identifying the team, to adapting the book into the limited series, to the casting and language choice.

With the show, creators and executive producers Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks saw an opportunity to bridge cultures. They approached the adaptation with great responsibility. Kondo, a lover of historical romances and period dramas, talks about the lack of seeing people who looked like her growing up. Being part of the team that brought this show to the world meant a great honor to her. She also believes that working on the production with Marks, her American husband, helped to bridge the cultural gap.

Series stars Hiroyuki Sanada expressed his excitement when he was offered the job because of the power that the portrayal of his character, Toronaga, could represent in modern times. He explained that Toronaga was modeled after the historical figure, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

"He created the peaceful era after the war period, and then [the ] peaceful era continued 260 years until Japan opened the country to the world," Sanada said. "That's why he became a hero in Japan. And then I thought, you know, nowadays, so many things happening. So I felt that we need that kind of hero now, especially for now. That was the biggest motivation [for me]."

MORE: 'Shōgun' on FX reimagines the classic Japanese story in a fascinating way

Anna Sawai, who plays the role of Catholic samurai Mariko, acknowledged the cultural legacy and impact the original miniseries had, but also shared the need to ensure the updated version would be done in an authentic way.

"It meant so much that we were going to do this right in our language," she said. "And when I heard that they were remaking it. I was kind of worried because it seemed like we already have that. But when I talked to Justin, he told me how he really wanted to show a version that we haven't seen in the past. It made me really hopeful.

As a Japanese person, Sawai expressed how incredibly proud she is of the work they have done and hopes this series reshapes the perceptions of Japanese women.

Cosmo Jarvis, who plays the character of John Blackthrone, was not familiar with the original miniseries, but was excited to join the production because it seemed adventurous and believe it would be a great learning opportunity.

"I hope people walk away from it having had a unique experience and having gotten to know a bunch of endearing characters and hopefully it will inspire further self-education and exploration of Japanese history," said Jarvis.

Collectively, the cast and executives all expressed a sense of unity and camaraderie.

For Sanada, he felt a great sense of pride that eastern and western productions came together to learn from each other.

Balian attributed time as being a huge part of making the experience meaningful in their approach to being fearless in their authenticity.

"Part of the process of making something over so much time gives you actually the opportunity to learn," she said. "And I think that's what we did. You know, I think if we would have made this 10 years ago, would have been a different version. I'm so glad, frankly, that it took a long time, because I think it gave us more of an opportunity to ask ourselves difficult questions. And as culture started to ask themselves more questions as the company started to ask itself more questions. We did too and that, I think, was a big part of making this show."

Disney is the parent company of FX and this station.