Shogun Director Reflects On Hiding Toranaga's Big Secret In One Of The Acclaimed FX Series’ Most Intense Episodes

 Hiroyuki Sanada in FX's Shogun.
Hiroyuki Sanada in FX's Shogun.

SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Season 1 of Shogun. If you have not yet watched all of the episodes, proceed at your own risk!

“The Abyss Of Life,” the eighth episode of Shogun Season 1, brims with intrigue. Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) is backed into a corner following the betrayal of his estranged half-brother, and he informs Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira) of his formal surrender to the council of Regents… but does he truly plan to just give up? That question lingers amid funeral proceedings for Toranaga’s son, an illness that sees him keep a distance from his inner circle, and an extreme act of loyalty committed by Toda Hiromatsu (Tokuma Nishioka).

By the end of the acclaimed season, of course, we know that Toranaga is executing a master plan that has kept him five steps ahead of everyone else – but when reflecting back on “The Abyss Of Life,” one recognizes a meticulous and wonderful performance by Hiroyuki Sanada.

At the end of last month, I had the fantastic opportunity to do a deep dive into the episode with director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, and one of the subjects we specifically discussed was Toranaga’s closely guarded secrets and Sanada’s performance. The filmmaker gave a lot of credit to the actor, explaining that he was an active presence behind the scenes and has a talent for minimalism in his work. Said Osei-Kuffour,

Sanada-san us incredible to work with, and he is very involved as a producer on this show. And he’s very, very supportive of every director on the show. He was a joy to work with, but a lot of it is him. He's a phenomenal actor. His strength is subtlety; his strength is this inner life. And I think a lot of the great contemporary Japanese actors have that quality about them, which is what drew me to Japanese cinema.

Breaking Down Toranaga’s Secret Plan

Leading into the final two episodes of Shogun Season 1, Lord Toranaga puts on the guise of being a defeated leader – his family betraying him and his clan decimated by an earthquake – but he has carefully orchestrated plans, and his actions have the effect of getting his colleagues and enemies in precise positions in order for him to ultimately declare victory (a chess simile feels too obvious here). His capitulation looks entirely real when Hiromatsu, his closest ally, commits seppuku instead of surrendering, which not only convinces the council of his fake intentions, but shakes the faith of Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) to the extent that he forges a side deal with John Blackthrone (Cosmo Jarvis).

Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour told me that he has early conversations with Hiroyuki Sanada about his character’s machinations and getting all of the key players to play their part:

We had conversations early about what's going on from scene to scene and how he is using his condition to manipulate his clan members. This whole episode is kind of supposed to feel a little bit like House of Cards. And his performance is supposed to create an effect that galvanizes each clan member to do certain things as we learn at the end of episode.

As noted by the director, the audience is partially clued into Lord Toranaga’s secret strategy by the end of “The Abyss Of Life,” most notably through his instruction for Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) to travel to Osaka… but there is also still a great deal to reveal in both “Crimson Sky” and “A Dream Of A Dream.”

“Doing Nothing Is Doing Something.”

Part of being meticulous means not doing too much, and in the helming of his Shogun episode, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour put an emphasis on that. The director told me that while working with Hiroyuki Sanada and his co-stars, he made a point of having them embrace pauses and let the audience project all of their thoughts on the atmosphere amid the silence:

When we did a few rehearsals, and I think he does this naturally, but for every actor in every scene, I really emphasized leaning into the silence, and allowing the silence to have weight and just knowing that doing nothing is doing something and people will read something. But I think Hiroyuku Sanada does that naturally, and a lot of our cast do that naturally.

Based on the novel of the same name, the ten episode first season of Shogun aired on FX between February and April, and it’s become an acclaimed phenomenon as one of TV’s best on-going epics (Season 2 is now in the works). If you wish to revisit the show, all you need is a Hulu subscription – and be sure to stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more from my interview with Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour.