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‘Shogun’ Remake: This Time, the White Man Is Only One of the Stars

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Gina Balian, a television executive who had worked on the hit series “Game of Thrones” for HBO, had just left to help FX start a new limited series division when an agent sent her a nearly 1,200-page novel.

It was “Shogun,” James Clavell’s 1975 best-selling chronicle of a hardened English sailor who lands in Japan at the dawn of the 17th century looking for riches and ends up adopting the ways of the samurai. Balian’s first reaction was that she had already seen this book on television — back in 1980, when NBC had turned the novel into a mini-series that earned the network its highest Nielsen ratings to date.

Most of what she remembered about the first adaptation was Richard Chamberlain — its white, male star. But as she started reading, she discovered the novel had a much more kaleidoscopic point of view, devoting considerable pages to getting inside the heads of the Japanese characters.

“I thought that there was a story to be told that was much wider and deeper,” said Balian, who is co-president of FX Entertainment. It didn’t hurt that something about it also reminded her of “Game of Thrones,” in terms of the “richness of so many characters’ lives.”

It took 11 years, two different teams of showrunners and a major relocation to bring “Shogun” back to the screen. The 10-part series debuts on Hulu on Feb. 27 with the first two episodes, followed by new ones weekly, and will premiere on Disney+ outside of the United States and Latin America.

Both Hollywood and Western audiences largely have moved beyond viewing the world as a playground where (mostly) white protagonists prove their mettle in exotic lands. Shows and films like “Squid Game” and “Parasite” have shown that audiences can handle Asian characters speaking their own languages.

“Shogun” — which includes a romantic story line between the Englishman and his Japanese interpreter — does not entirely forsake the genre of white characters encountering an alien Japan that was popularized in such films as “The Last Samurai” or “Lost in Translation,” or going back even further, in star vehicles like “Sayonara” (Marlon Brando) or “The Barbarian and the Geisha” (John Wayne).

So we see John Blackthorne, the ship’s pilot, played by Cosmo Jarvis, perplexed by Japanese bathing rituals and their habit of removing shoes inside the home, and he is horrified by swift acts of seemingly unprovoked violence. Japanese characters explain their cultural psychology in aphorisms like, “We live, and we die. We control nothing beyond that.”

Yet the new series, like the novel before it, gives ample time to Japanese characters in scenes where Blackthorne does not appear. In the 1980 mini-series, the Japanese characters played subsidiary roles in Chamberlain’s journey. The intermittent Japanese dialogue was not even translated. In large stretches of the new version, by contrast, the Japanese is subtitled, and significant plot lines revolve exclusively around the Japanese principals.

The first actor whose name appears in the credits is Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Toranaga, a Japanese lord modeled on Tokugawa Ieyasu, the military ruler who helped to unite Japan, introducing a period of peace that lasted for more than 200 years. Sanada, who is also a producer, said he remembers his disappointment that the original series gave short shrift to historical accuracy. “As a Japanese, I wanted to see something more real at the time, to be honest,” he said.

Sanada advised the cast and crew on period authenticity, given his experience acting in historical dramas in Japan. He helped teach Anna Sawai, who plays Toda Mariko, a samurai’s wife and Blackthorne’s interpreter, to speak in classical Japanese locutions.

But as an actor who appeared in “The Last Samurai” as well as, more recently, “Bullet Train,” which recast a Japanese novel with many non-Japanese actors, Sanada understood the allure of the Blackthorne character, whom Clavell based loosely on William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan.

“To have a blue-eyed character, who existed in real history, will help more international audiences watch it,” Sanada said.

As Blackthorne, Jarvis did not have to pretend to learn a foreign culture; he knew little about Japan when he signed on to play the part. At first, he studied some Japanese history and woodblock paintings for inspiration. “But after a while I realized that it was better if I just learned whatever I needed to learn at the same pace that Blackthorne learned it,” he said.

Scholars who teach Japanese history say the framing of “Shogun” made more sense when the novel was first published.

“In the 1970s — for a lot of white people, anyway — the idea of getting on a plane and going to Japan still felt like a big deal,” said Daniel Botsman, a professor of Japanese history at Yale University who previously taught the novel in his classes.

Amy Stanley, a professor of Japanese social history at Northwestern University and author of “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” said blue-eyed audience stand-ins like Blackthorne aren’t as important for a younger generation of fans who have watched plenty of shows in Japanese online. “They don’t necessarily need the mediating figure like ‘Shogun’ or ‘The Last Samurai,’” she said. Still, she added, characters who serve as cross-cultural brokers “can be an attractive introduction to a different time and place.”

Balian said the project hit early snags when the producers struggled to find enough open land to shoot in Japan. She also decided she wanted a different narrative sensibility from what the original showrunner, Ronan Bennett, brought to his script. (Balian did not go into further detail.) FX eventually decided to bring in new showrunners and move the filming to British Columbia.

In 2018, Justin Marks, who had written a live-action screenplay of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” took over as showrunner with his wife, the writer Rachel Kondo, who is ethnically part Japanese.

“I said, ‘Oh wow, look at my chance to connect with the culture I identify with and how I was raised,’” Kondo, who was born in Hawaii, said in a joint video interview with Marks. “Very quickly in the process I came to understand that not only am I not Japanese, I’m Japanese American, which is completely different.”

For the writers’ room, the couple selected mostly Asian American women.

“I looked at it as, ‘See, this is doing right by it,’” Marks said. But “we really started to see that Asian American wasn’t quite enough of a point of view for what this story was.”

To ensure that the Japanese scenes rang true — or at least truer — the pair worked with Mako Kamitsuna, a film editor raised in Hiroshima, and Eriko Miyagawa, who has consulted for other Western-made films set in Japan, including Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”

Kamitsuna and Miyagawa helped translate the scripts into classical Japanese leavened by contemporary diction. “We went for a classical authentic feel,” Miyagawa said, although sometimes they fudged and modernized “just for the sake of clarity.”

To create a sense of historical fidelity, the producers obsessed over kimono color schemes and how to carry katana swords. Even a detail as prosaic as how the women should sit became a topic of fervent debate.

Marks had talked to a scholar who said women of the period would kneel in a position known as “tatehiza,” but Miyagawa argued that most Japanese audiences would expect the women to sit in “seiza” — their knees folded and feet tucked underneath. Staging the high-ranking women with a knee raised “might distract people or take people out” of the scenes, Miyagawa said.

In the end, Marks agreed. “What we were really chasing, I think, was this idea of spiritual authenticity,” he said.

The producers waived historical accuracy in other ways to avoid alienating audiences. Sawai said that none of the actresses shaved their eyebrows or painted their teeth black, as would have been the case for women of the samurai class.

And despite the frank portrayal of sexuality in the novel, Sawai refused to film any nude scenes.

“I don’t want to end up being in ‘Shogun’ and going full nude and putting myself into that pigeonhole, or the stereotype of the Asian woman taking her clothes off and seducing a white guy,” Sawai said during an interview at a cafe in Tokyo.

She appreciated that the women had textured scenes that showed them as more than accessories to the men. “Women were feeling these emotions that we’re seeing in ‘Shogun,’” she said. Before, “they weren’t allowed to show it.”

Michaela Clavell, a daughter of the author and chief executive of a company that manages Clavell’s literary estate, said her father, who died in 1994, was proud of the original mini-series. But she recognized that it was of its time and wanted to update it.

“We only can do what we can do at any given real time moment, right?” she said. “In 20 years, we may look back on this and say, ‘Well, that was …’ fill in the blank.”

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo

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