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FX 'Shogun' series takes a new approach to an old story


When "Shogun," James Clavell's bestselling novel, was adapted into a powerhouse NBC miniseries back in 1980, the hero of the story was Englishman John Blackthorne. The people he met when he landed in Japan in search of riches are viewed and portrayed, as he often puts it, as savages.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Done them no harm. Look at the way they all smile and bow. They're not bloodthirsty heathens, are they, pilot? Are they?

DETROW: In the 2024 adaptation of "Shogun," the Japanese characters are fully formed. The show elevates their stories as much as it does the story of Englishman John Blackthorne, and that was a deliberate decision on the part of "Shogun" co-creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, who have been familiar with the story since childhood.

JUSTIN MARKS: Generationally, the book was kind of the one that we remember as being on our parents' nightstands. You know, and I think that because of that, it has a very long-cast silhouette that you can't get out of your head.

DETROW: Another deliberate decision that the married collaborators made was to ensure that everything about the production felt authentic.

MARKS: And that started with our star and producer and partner on the project, Hiroyuki Sanada. He really had an amazing number of insights as to, you know, what we could try to do.

DETROW: The authenticity that Kondo and Marks were striving for extended to making sure all of the Japanese in the series was subtitled.

RACHEL KONDO: It's so fun to talk about all of this because it sounds very intentional and very structured and organized in hindsight. I think it's important to mention that what we wanted to do was something new. What we wanted to do was to present something that people hadn't seen before, but that by nature means there is no template. And so this process was, I would say, quite chaotic and quite daunting. And as Justin has put it in the past, we were building the car as we were driving it.

MARKS: To be clear about the language on this show, we wrote this show in English, and it's adapted from a book that was written in English. And what we began to learn as we got deeper into it with Hiro Sanada, Eriko Miyagawa, two of our Japanese producers, was that there are a billion conversations that you need to have over the course of translation, not just from English into Japanese, but from English into period Japanese, where it almost kind of feels to the Japanese ear maybe more like Shakespeare would feel to the English-speaking ear. And so when you do that, there are a thousand nuances and things that you have to consider. We began to see that as we translated it.

First, a team of translators just directly translated it into Japanese, but it wasn't quite performable. So then that Japanese was given to a Japanese-speaking playwright who spoke no English, whose expertise was this period piece prose. She would give it back to our producers, who would then - Hiro and Eriko would, you know, carefully scan it and make adjustments, give it to the actors who would add their own flair and their own details, perform it. And then we would, instead of putting the subtitles on screen in post-production that we intended and wrote, we would always make sure that it was translated back by Japanese-speaking assistant editors, like a game of telephone, to see what had come out on the other side. Very often, that was exactly what we intended because we hope, you know...


MARKS: ...There was this trust process that goes through. But then sometimes there were certain ideas that emerged that just, you know, came about as a bit of the, like, kismet or magic of translation. And it turned into something, you know, greater than we could expect.

KONDO: Yeah. The best example of this is Justin and I wrote Episode 1, the pilot. And at the end of that episode, the character of Mariko is called to Toranaga's quarters to just - to have a discussion with him. And he is asking Lady Mariko, you know, will your faith system kind of put you at odds when it comes to your duty to me as your liege lord? And her response that we wrote was, if I were just Christian, then yes, but I am more than one thing. And we felt pretty good about ourselves. And years later, it comes back through this monster of a process. And then it comes back to us as, if I were just Christian, yes, but I have more than one heart. And that leapt out at us as...


KONDO: ...So lyrical and so poetic and so - it just landed so beautifully. And how could we have ever come up with that? Not in a million years, you know.

DETROW: As we talk about all the choices you made and how you put the show together and its relationship with the original source material and the original miniseries, one thing I do want to directly ask about is the way that in recent years, I feel like there's been much more criticism and conversation about the white savior narrative that so many movies and books and shows over the years have been told through. How much did that narrative and conversation loom over you as you put this show together?

MARKS: Huge.


MARKS: A huge - it took a huge role and a huge amount of weight in the writers' room especially. Very often, to me - and mind you, I'm speaking as a white male having this conversation. The problem with these white savior narratives, these, you know, ideas that have kind of endured in our media and our representations and our storytelling over the decades is, yes, that representational side, of course, this sort of idea of agency that we're stripping away from other characters around it, that we're centering the frame of focus or the point of view of a white character. And that is problematic by a modern lens. But in addition to that, the real sin that it commits is that it's just something we've seen before.


MARKS: And we really wanted on this show to take advantage of some of those tropes and cliches and expectations that we have for this genre. And instead of trying to deny it or just, like, invert the gaze, what we were really hoping to do with this show is to subvert that gaze, to bring the audience in with certain expectations for what kind of story this is going to be because we think we've seen this story before. But then, in effect, you find that there's something else waiting for you, that the journey of a lot of these characters is sometimes to accept our powerlessness in a much bigger situation that, you know, we may come into these situations thinking we have some agency or right or point of view or voice, and instead find that a lot of this world doesn't care whether we're there or not and will just go about their business regardless. And we think that's kind of a refreshing point of view and way to look at it in a modern day, to sort of say what we really need to do, as Rachel said, is to zero ourselves out a lot more and to listen and to experience things with curiosity.

DETROW: That is Rachel Kondo, as well as Justin Marks, co-creators of the new FX miniseries "Shogun." Thank you so much.

MARKS: Thanks for having us.

KONDO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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