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‘Shogun’s’ Hiroyuki Sanada Breaks Down The Show’s Surprising Finale

Shogun Hiroyuki Sanada
Getty Image / FX

Warning: Spoilers for Shogun’s season finale “A Dream of a Dream” below.

And so, this is how Shogun ends – not with a crimson sky but a realized dream.

Over the course of 10 episodes the FX drama has courted all-out war, reveling in political power plays and colloquial sleights of hand as powerful men nursing decades-old grudges fought for control over feudal Japan. Based on James Carville’s formative novel, Shogun may have begun as a fish-out-of-water adventure with an Anglo hero whose sole motivation centered on retrieving his battered ship, his tortured crew, and sailing for more prosperous waters. But, like the many red herrings littering this fascinating small-screen tale, Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) was simply a pawn, a small piece on a larger board controlled by a grandmaster of subterfuge who sacrificed everything to see his vision of peace come to fruition.

For Hiroyuki Sanada, a producer on Shogun and its lead as puppet master Lord Yoshii Toranaga, the show’s climactic final scene could only end one way.
“This was never an action Samurai drama,” Sanada tells UPROXX. “It was always a human drama. Strategy was important.”

That’s why the series’ parting shot needed to ground itself, not on a battlefield, but in a conversation between two men fighting on opposite sides. After turning on Lord Toranaga and inadvertently causing the death of Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai), Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) is invited to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) with Lord Toranaga serving as his second. The pair sit on a rocky cliff, staring out at a sprawling lake as Yabushige questions the purpose of all the bloodshed and deception. It’s here, for the first time, that Toranaga reveals his master plan, trusting no one save a dead man with the full scope of his scheming.

A scene so important required more from Sanada than he’d ever given before.

“We changed the script a lot,” he explains. “Most of dialogue I created and translated in way that Samurai [would speak] — choosing the word or switching their positions. [Showrunner] Justin [Marks] and I created that together.”

The scene was eight pages of dialogue, filmed on a particularly cloudy day in British Columbia which meant, to chase the light and avoid rainfall, Sanada mimed the scene first, skipping the dialogue and simply moving as his character would so that takes wouldn’t be wasted before the sun went down. Like choregraphing a sword fight, Sanada was constantly “calculating the time and lighting” during the back-and-forth with Asano, switching between his “producer mind and acting mind” so the director could capture a wide angle view, making the pseudo-showdown feel sweeping and grand despite the lack of armies and promised violence. For his close-up, Sanada completed his monologue in one take, something he said came easy because he wrote so much of the script.

“It was almost like [I had] no mind, I was just telling the story and history,” he says. “I loved it because [Toranaga’s] vision was so clear and it became real. He made a peaceful era last a long time. That’s why he became a hero in Japan, my hero. And we need that kind of hero nowadays.”

Sanada, who’s been acting for over 60 years at this point, starring opposite everyone from Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves to Brad Pitt, is still surprised by the fan reaction to his FX adaptation – one that’s 70% subtitled and doesn’t prioritize its white male lead.

“Just like Blackthorne is learning our culture little by little, episode by episode, the audience [is too]” he says. And though there are no plans for a second season of Shogun, he hopes the series can serve as a blueprint for things to come.

“We’re showing the audience more culture with authenticity and respect,” he says of his show. “It’s going to be the new normal.”

All episodes of ‘Shogun’ are now streaming on FX on Hulu.