Shōgun’s Breakout Star Anna Sawai On All Things Swords, Costumes And More

Anna Sawai

Anna Sawai, the rising star who impressed audiences in Fast & Furious 9 and Pachinko, is about to embark on a journey far more intricate.  The FX mini-series, which is available on Disney+ Hotstar, is an upcoming historical drama, Shōgun, which throws Sawai into the heart of 16th century Japan, a land steeped in tradition and simmering with political tension. This series is a meticulously crafted saga that promises a thrilling blend of intrigue, cultural clashes, and unforgettable characters.

In this recent exclusive chat with ELLE, Sawai tells us about her palpable excitement for this new role. Sawai hinted at the depth and challenges she encountered while bringing this historical figure to life. Shogun isn’t just about showcasing Sawai’s talent, though. Based on the bestselling James Clavell novel of the same name, the series boasts a sprawling narrative that promises to captivate audiences with its rich historical tapestry.

The series boasts a narrative that delves into the fascinating Sengoku period, a time of simmering tension and potential civil war in Japan. So, put down the popcorn (for now!) and prepare to be transported to a fascinating bygone era alongside Sawai. Get ready to witness her transformation as she trades the world of high-speed chases for the captivating world of Shōgun.

ELLE: Could you tell us a bit about your path as an actor? How did you land this incredible opportunity to work alongside such a renowned cast in this epic series?

Anna Sawai:  When I was 16, I was cast in this movie called Ninja Assassin and the casting director had known me from since I was a teenager so when i told her that i still wanted to act, even though I had already been in a Japanese pop group for a while, she sent me an audition for the BBC series The Giri/Haji. After that, I just picked up the pace a little bit, but I basically left the Japanese pop group at the end of 2018 and made the decision that I wanted to start over and find my way in the acting industry. And I just  got really lucky because I just met a lot of amazing people who are now part of my team, but yeah I’ve just been lucky. 


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ELLE: Has the show done justice to the book?

Anna Sawai: I hope we truly brought it to justice. Since I am obviously Japanese, I feel quite proud of it, so my concern was with how real we could make this. And because Hiroyuki Sanada produced the show, he ensured that everything was perfect. He would point out many things, even if it was the most miniature thing, but if it didn’t fit, Justin wasn’t overly particular about his vision; instead, he was adaptable and trusted all of the Japanese advisors who worked on the set.

I believe we accomplished a great job. The issue is that some westerners may be alright with certain Japanese content when they view it, but I am worried about when Japanese people watch it. Are they going to think it’s fun, and I hope they will? I am excited to see.


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ELLE: Have you read the book? 

Anna Sawai: Yes, I did read the book. It’s an exquisite book. Some people might not be happy about that because they would think it’s 2024 and that’s why we are doing it, but it’s because women were feeling certain ways and it wasn’t depicted, and so we are shedding more light on that. They already did an 80s series, as you mentioned, and we didn’t want it to feel like we were just trying to make the same thing. So, Justin really did tweak it in his own way along with Rachel, who is the show’s writer and executive producer.

I mean, I’m specifically talking about Toda Mariko but there are so many things that were not in the 80s series that are now in the film, and I think we did it justice but I also feel like it is not 100 percent just the novel. We took the novel and Justin created a script with many writers, and that’s what we made. 


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ELLE: Does the clothing, which is akin to a historical adaption, do the story justice in your opinion? A few episodes feature you in stunning kimonos. To what extent do you think the clothes are appearing on screen? 

Anna Sawai: The costumes played a pivotal role in depicting the story. With Shōgun, every morning I have two ladies in my trailer so when Heather and I come in, they would wrap me around in several layers of kimono and it would take 30-40 minutes every morning and so it became a part of my process to become Mariko that day. And on top of that we would have a wig or makeup.

But what I particularly loved about Mariko’s wardrobe was the way costume designer Carlos Ayala used it to tell her story. Initially, her clothes were muted and lacked colour. However, as the series progresses, red accents like flowers and markings are added. There’s a powerful scene where she confronts a powerful lord, and she’s dressed entirely in red. This use of colour beautifully reflects Mariko’s own growth and the emergence of her inner strength.


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A post shared by Anna Sawai (@annasawai) 

ELLE: You have played a fair share of action roles but how how exciting was doing it in this show?

Anna Sawai: I enjoyed it so much. Training in Japan was an amazing experience! It took place at the same studio where I originally learned swordsmanship years ago, so it was a reunion with my old teacher (sensei). We had a blast training together, which made filming the fight scenes a lot of fun for me. While some actors might find fight scenes challenging, I relished them. It was important to me that Mariko wasn’t just portrayed as a warrior, but that her fighting skills had a backstory. Historically, women of her social rank did receive training and participate in public displays.

The trailer even shows a scene like this. This training made sense because women needed to be able to defend themselves. The entire process, from character development to fight choreography, was meticulously researched and authentic. We weren’t trying to turn her into something she wasn’t.


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ELLE: What are some of the traits of your character that made you choose this show, especially the Mariko’s character for example, were there any other characters you were interested in playing?

Anna Sawai: I think all of the characters are just so interesting and special. But Mariko was so extraordinary. She is so powerful and inspiring and I think everything about her scared me. It was like I didn’t know if I could play her. There was a little bit of self doubt but everyone was just so patient with me and they made it possible . But I love Mariko too much and i can’t choose my other characters. It would strange coming from me because I played the character, but I really think that she is the heart of the show.

ELLE: Shōgun is the first book in James Clavell’s Asian Saga, a series that continues for several novels. Given this, and the show’s positive reception so far, do you think there’s a possibility of future seasons exploring the later parts of the saga for viewers who are eager for more?”

Anna Sawai: I would like to ask that question to Justin too. It would be exciting if they wanted more but this itself is like a full story so we don’t know.

ELLE: What’s one message for the new viewers who are not familiar with the book or the show who are probably watching the show for the first time on Disney + Hotstar india?

Anna Sawai: I’m excited for everyone to see Shōgun, but a little understanding of the book will definitely enhance the experience. It’s a complex historical period, so I recommend some light reading beforehand. Don’t worry, though, you can still jump right in! Shōgun explores fascinating power struggles and relatable human stories. Plus, there are thrilling action sequences for those who enjoy them. Ultimately, the series offers a truly authentic portrayal of what life in 1600s Japan might have been like. Do a little reading beforehand, and I guarantee you’ll love it.

Digital Intern

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