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James Clavell’s 1975 novel Shogun has been adapted as a miniseries before, in 1980, but while some initial reactions expressed doubt over whether such a story needed a reboot in 2018, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf saw a chance to modernize the story of English sailor John Blackthorne, who washes ashore in Japan in the 17th century and ultimately becomes a fierce feudal lord.
“When we looked at the [source] material, we realized this is very richly researched and richly written, very compelling and accurate portrayal of feudal Japan,” Landgraf told The Hollywood Reporter after announcing a 10-episode limited series. “There’s a whole lot of point of view that was omitted from the original series because it was thought at that time that American audiences wouldn’t want to see the story from the Japanese point of view. And now, I think you have to tell the story from the Japanese as well as Western point of view.”
“It’s hard, it’s not an easy thing to get right,” Landgraf confessed. “But there’s a lot of people here who are pretty committed to the same idea, which is to not just do the whitewashed version of what we’ve seen before, but try to do something that’s better, more honest.”
More importantly, Landgraf says, the FX take will rely heavily on consultants and its large Japanese cast for help with historical accuracy while also providing more agency to female samurai and other Japanese characters. Many scenes will be in Japanese with English subtitles, unlike NBC’s 1980 take on the material.
“Most of the actors in the original spoke English, so that means they hired mostly British or American Japanese people, because most Japanese people don’t speak English, or not well enough to act in it, but now we’re hiring almost entirely Japanese actors,” Landgraf said. “And it’s not just Japanese points of view, it’s female points of view. It’s very different now than it was 40 years ago. They’re not just there as the subordinate point of view, they have their own agency and their own equal point of view. That’s very fascinating because the roles of women in feudal Japan are very different from the roles of women in feudal England. So, part of what’s really compelling and surprising about the show is how empowered and complex and interesting the female characters are. So as we went on, we found more and more reason why it’s worth remaking.”
Names of the consultants — and Shogun‘s writing staff — were not immediately available. Casting has not yet been determined.
“There are consultants [on the show] who are experts in both Japanese culture and feudal Japanese culture, because those are two different things,” Landgraf said. “We’re planning on relying really heavily on research and input from people who know more about the subject than we do. And one of the benefits that you get from hiring Japanese actors is they become really important in that capacity. … When you hire actors, they have a tendency to do a lot of heavy research, so not only do they know their culture better, they tend to know the history of their culture better.”
FX did not take pitches on the adaptation from Japanese or Japanese-American writer-producers since Bennett came in with a specific and surprisingly personal connection to the material.
“He was in prison for a while in Ireland and there was a book in his cell, and it was Shogun,” Landgraf said. “He read it and it was kind of a lifeline for him at a very difficult, dark time in his life. He read it and reread it and it became profoundly meaningful to him. He’s a really good writer and he has a really personal, profound connection to this material, which we found really compelling. And I don’t remember a writer other than him ever being involved in this project. It was his from the very beginning.”
Shogun is expected to begin shooting within six months in Japan and the U.K.
Bennett (Public Enemies, Top Boy) and Rachel Bennette (NW, Bel Ami) are writing the series and will executive produce with Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich of DNA TV; Michael De Luca; Michaela Clavell; and Tim Van Patten (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones), who will direct multiple episodes.
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