At Monday’s Television Critics Association press tour, FX CEO John Landgraf sat down with IndieWire to discuss the network’s proposed adaptation of “Shogun,” which was announced six months ago. “It’s daunting, I will say. But James Clavell tried to do that with a novel, and frankly the source material is absolutely great,” he said. “I think it’s really worth re-adapting by the standards of today.”
“Standards of today” are keywords here. Clavell published “Shogun” in 1975 to critical acclaim, which led to an equally successful 1980 miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne, a 17th-century English sailor who rises in the ranks in feudal Japan. Period trappings notwithstanding, the whole East-meets-West narrative feels outdated, especially told from the perspective of a white man.
According to Landgraf, the premise will remain the same, but the series will include more Japanese perspectives.
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“We’ve supported the producers and the writers in changing the structure,” he said. “It always has been and always will be, on one level, told from the standpoint of a character named Blackthorne, who is a Westerner, and who doesn’t speak Japanese, and therefore doesn’t know very much at all and has to try to piece [things] together to figure out what the heck is going on around him. We’ve pulled up a whole bunch of other storylines of everything else that’s going on, amongst a whole series of really key Japanese characters.
“In other words, the audience is now going to know a lot more about these characters and about what’s going on,” he said. “It comes down to which characters have agency, which characters have a fully developed and articulated inner life, which have subtext as opposed to just text they’re supposed to deliver. And the bottom line is you can’t be in a position where you’re telling a story in Japan where the characters that have agency are Western characters. You have to have Japanese people with agency.”
More Japanese characters with beefier roles could help the representation problem, but another issue is how their story gets told. As seen with HBO’s lost-but-never-forgotten slave drama “Confederate,” who tells stories about marginalized people is as important as telling the stories themselves.
Currently, most of the “Shogun” producing staff is white. Eugene Kelly (“Westworld,” “Leftovers”) and Ronan Bennett (“Public Enemies,” “Top Boy”) will write the series, while Tim Van Patten (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”) will direct multiple episodes. Kelly, Bennett, and Van Patten will also executive produce with Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich of DNA TV (“Ex Machina,” “28 Days Later”), Michael De Luca (“Moneyball,” “The Social Network”), and Michaela Clavell, daughter of the original author. At the very end of the list, Eriko Miyazawa is named as an associate producer.
To counter this lack of Japanese representation on staff, the series will use consultants to weigh in on the Asian perspective. This in itself is tricky: The Japanese people in the series are Asians from the 1600s, but the show is being made for Asian-American consumption. Therefore, the narratives are different in both time period and nationality\. As “Crazy Rich Asians” showed, Asians in the East and West do not share the same identity.
“We’ve tried to do our homework. We’re not talking about modern Japan; we’re talking about Medieval Japan, and so you sort of have to get that right,” said Landgraf. “We’re talking to Asian-American media consultants or scholars about different questions, which is: How is popular culture received by Asian Americans? How does it help or hurt the cause of Asian-American identity, which is a separate issue? Those people wouldn’t necessarily be helpful in being consultants about Japanese culture in Medieval Japan, but they’re helpful as consultants about current culture in America.”
Short of traveling back in time, the show’s best bet for getting the Japanese perspective is to reach out to contemporary Japanese people.
“One of the things we came to the conclusion of is we weren’t going to be able to cast this with Japanese actors across the board who were fluent English speakers,” said Landgraf. “We were going to have to go to a lot of Japanese actors who, frankly, know more about their own history and are more rooted in the history of culture and Medieval Japan, and that means that we’re going to have to do more scenes in Japanese [with subtitles].
“Also, we’ve talked about a convention in which the Christian characters — they’re many, many non-Christian characters — but the Christian characters in the piece tend to speak English with each other but the non-Christian characters do not. They speak Japanese and that means there’s many, many scenes where there are no English speakers in the scenes and there are just Japanese speakers. And that makes use of the native linguistic ability of the cast that we intend to cast. So that’s just an example of where you have to go for a level of authenticity.”
Additional reporting by Ben Travers.