For Anna Sawai and Hiroyuki Sanada, the Success of ‘Shōgun’ Is ‘So Surreal’

In 2017, when exec producers Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo approached Hiroyuki Sanada about starring in the new version of “Shōgun” they were developing, the actor agreed on one condition: that the production hire Japanese professionals with experience in making samurai dramas. Seven years and one producer credit later, Sanada is now on the other side of one of the most critically acclaimed drama series of 2024.

“I’m so happy,” he said. “I’m proud of our team.”

“Shōgun” is the second miniseries to be adapted from the James Clavell book of the same name, following NBC’s Emmy-winning 1980 version starring Richard Chamberlain. The new series begins in 1600, when an English seafaring pilot named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) lands in feudal Japan.

Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in “Shōgun” (Photo Credit: Katie Yu/FX)

Initially, Blackthorne plans to make the Japanese his allies and recruit them into England’s war against the Portuguese. But the more time he spends in this new country, the more he gets sucked into the political maneuvering of Lord Toranaga (Sanada) as he plots against the ruling regents, and the more he falls for his translator, Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai).

Whereas the first “Shōgun” adaptation was praised in the United States but met with mixed reactions in Japan, the reception for FX’s new epic has been warm in both countries. In its first six days of streaming, the first episode racked up 9 million views globally, making it the No. 1 scripted series in the world and the biggest debut ever for FX.

The 10-episode show has also pushed Sanada, a celebrated actor, producer and martial artist in Japan who has appeared in several U.S. productions over the past 20-plus years (including “The Last Samurai,” “Avengers: Endgame” and “John Wick: Chapter 4”) to the very center of the Hollywood spotlight. The same is true for Anna Sawai, whose previous projects include “F9” and “Pachinko.”

“It’s been so surreal. I don’t know how everyone was feeling about it, but I was not expecting it to be this talked about,” said Sawai, who was particularly surprised by the way American audiences have embraced a series that is 70% in subtitled Japanese. Still, the most gratifying reaction has come from Japan, the country where she spent much of her childhood.

Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko in “Shōgun” (Katie Yu/FX)
Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko in “Shōgun” (Katie Yu/FX)

“That means a lot to me because I know the feeling of being Japanese and watching Western productions make a Japanese-themed project and being like, ‘It’s not really authentic or accurate,’ or ‘It doesn’t feel real to me,’” she said. “But this one, people see their own culture being reflected in a very accurate way. It’s been amazing.”

Credit for that authenticity goes in no small part to Sanada, who was on set every day, working closely with showrunners Marks and Kondo and the largely Japanese crew, plus the Japanese artists who collaborated with every single department, from stunts to hair and makeup.

“I checked everything — decoration, props, costumes. Fixed them,” he said. He followed the Japanese translation of the script through its elevation into poetic, 17th-century parlance by the Kyoto-based playwright Kiyoko Moriaki. He watched rehearsals and offered actors and directors suggestions before putting on Toranaga’s armor and performing his own scenes. “It does require collaboration and creation,” Sanada said. “It was like a dream.”

For Sanada, the success of “Shōgun” comes at just the right time in Japan, breathing new life into jidaigeki, a type of historical drama that he said has been lagging in recent years. He has signed on to exec produce and resume his role as Toranaga for two more seasons, though a start date for Season 2 production has not yet been announced. Beyond “Shōgun,” he’d be game to work on other historical stories, specifically those about Kabuki and Noh theater. “If the story includes our culture, a historical thing, maybe I want to produce as well. But if not, I want to enjoy acting.”

He’s open to where that might take place — in Japan, in the U.S. (he’s currently based in Los Angeles), somewhere else — and what the roles would look like. “[I want to do] whatever I’ve never done before,” he said. “Changing the image is also good. [It’s] refreshing for myself, refreshing for the audience.”

This story first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

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