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Anna Sawai's 'Shogun' role felt personal: Mariko is 'every woman in Japan who has suffered'

Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

One of the first questions Anna Sawai had for showrunner Justin Marks when they first met to discuss "Shōgun" was, "Why are you remaking this?"

Co-created by Marks and Rachel Kondo, FX's adaptation of James Clavell's bestselling novel has been a long-gestating project. But at the time, Sawai's perspective was limited to what she could glean from her audition materials, which included a character description, a synopsis and a portion of a script involving a bathing scene that was anything but revelatory.

"I wanted to know that they weren't just trying to do another white savior story," says Sawai. "That they were going to do it right this time."

The 10-episode limited series, premiering Tuesday, takes place in Japan in the year 1600. The historical drama primarily follows a core trio that includes Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a warlord and regent of Japan's five-member governing council whose life depends on outmaneuvering his political rivals, and John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an English pilot serving aboard a Dutch ship that washes up in a village within Toranaga's territory.

Sawai portrays Toda Mariko, a noblewoman and Christian convert who is called on by Toranaga to serve as an interpreter between him and his new foreign captive. Devoted to her faith as well as her duties as a vassal, a wife and a daughter of a disgraced family line, Mariko's journey involves figuring out her purpose and how to live it out on her own terms.

"I don't think I knew how deeply affected I was going to be by Mariko," says Sawai while curled up in an armchair one recent evening in February amid a whirlwind "Shōgun" press tour that would see her crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean between Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York. "Her story felt so personal to me."

 

Enough time has passed since "Shōgun's" 10-month shoot wrapped for Sawai that the series she'd filmed following the project, Apple TV+'s "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters," has already been released. But she is full of emotions as she collects her thoughts about her experiences as Mariko.

"It was pretty tough," says Sawai as she reminisces about moments on set where she was overwhelmed by Mariko's feelings or when she was frustrated for not performing to the standard she believed the character would have set for herself. "She felt very real to me and the weight of [her story] was very heavy."

Even beyond the nuances of Mariko's character and story, the role is undeniably demanding. Mariko required an actor who was fluent in both English and Japanese and could perform in both languages comfortably. "Shōgun's" historical setting meant wearing layers of kosode — the standard Japanese garment at the time — as well as a long and heavy wig. As a noblewoman of that era, Mariko is also proficient with a naginata, a long-bladed polearm akin to a spear, and has occasion to wield it.

Marks admits that at times he had doubts that they would ever be able to cast the role.

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