‘Shōgun’ co-creators break down the finale: ‘It’s a story about death’

After 10 episodes, FX’s Shōgun ends not with a violent bang, but with mournful contemplation.

Toda Mariko’s (Anna Sawai) death has shaken all of Japan, turning the Council of Regents against Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira) and priming Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) for a decisive rout at the upcoming Battle of Sekigahara. However, just like in James Clavell’s original novel, Shōgun chooses not to focus on said battle, only showing a snippet of Toranaga’s assured victory in a flash forward.


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Instead, the finale episode, titled “A Dream of a Dream,” focuses on the lingering emotional impact of Mariko’s passing. John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) and Usami Fuji (Moeka Hoshi) grieve her loss, releasing her ashes and rosary into the sea. Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) seeks forgiveness for betraying her and pays with his life in the process. And Toranaga reveals that Crimson Sky, his much-hyped battle tactic to defeat Ishido, was none other than Mariko’s arrival in and attempted departure from Osaka.

“I sent a woman to do what an army never could,” he tells Yabushige. He adds, disappointed that Yabushige still believes Crimson Sky to be an action-heavy war plan: “I thought you of all people would see.”


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Shōgun‘s finale operates on a similar level to Toranaga’s Crimson Sky. Based on audiences’ prior experiences with epic TV shows, people may have anticipated a massive military set piece. However, as Shōgun co-creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo emphasized in an interview with Mashable, this series was never about Sekigahara. It was about Mariko, and now that she’s gone, the people in her orbit must process her death — and its aftermath.

Throughout our interview, Marks and Kondo discussed their approach to Sekigahara, making sure Mariko felt present in the finale, and those quick flashes of an elderly Blackthorne we glimpse throughout the episode. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada in “Shōgun.”
Credit: Katie Yu / FX

Mashable: I think people often expect big battle episodes from historical epics, but we don’t get that here or in the original novel. Instead, we get quick descriptions of what will happen at the Battle of Sekigahara, where Toranaga will triumph over Ishido. Were there ever conversations about actually trying to put the Battle of Sekigahara on screen?

Justin Marks, co-creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Shōgun: There were definitely conversations. I feel like when you say things like “the Battle of Sekigahara on screen,” I feel it in my bones, how painful it would be to shoot that. We’d still be shooting it!

But at the same time, I get [the sense of wanting the battle to play out], and I feel like sometimes maybe James Clavell felt that, too. We were talking to Michaela Clavell, his daughter and an executive producer on the show, and she was saying, in her memory, her father did want to get the story there. Then he got so preoccupied and in love with the characters who were already there, with Mariko especially and Blackthorne, that he got to the end and said, “You know what? The story is done. I told this story.”

Rachel Kondo, co-creator and executive producer of Shōgun: Michaela said that the battle stood before him, and he thought, “I don’t have another two years to write this one battle.” So the story was brought to completion.

It’s always been about [Mariko].

– Justin Marks

JM: We also have to be honest with ourselves and honest with our story if we’re going to tell a good one, and I felt like [including the Battle of Sekigahara] was a little dishonest to the story. Because what it would end up being would be a lot of moments that would absolutely be in the trailer for this show. It would not be where our heart was and where the audience’s heart was for where the story ought to be. So we chose to honor that.

Even in the book, I was reading it and getting to the end and wondering, “How many pages are left? Are we really going to miss out on the battle?” And then there it is: It’s mentioned in the last paragraph of the final page. You’re just like, “Oh,” and I think that’s what Clavell wants us to feel. He wants us to think that we’re getting something in a certain way, and then to realize at the end that if we really thought we were getting that, we weren’t really watching what was happening. 

RK: We weren’t really studying Toranaga.

JM: Right, and we weren’t really studying and understanding Mariko. It’s always been about her. The only character who ever knew that was Toranaga, and the only character who learns it is Blackthorne. That’s it. That’s our three characters, and that’s the only thing that counts.

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Like you said, this is a show about Mariko, and even though she’s no longer alive in the finale, she’s still very present. How did you go about writing her in ways where she’s still present, even though she’s not physically there?

RK: I always go back to the scene in the tea house from episode 6. The young apprentice Hana brings a new flask of sake, and as she removes the empty flask, Kiku asks her, “What do you see in that space?” She says, “I see nothing,” and Kiku responds, “Not nothing. It’s where the flask has been.” The reason why I thought it was important to keep that scene in there is because that was the foreshadowing of her absence. Mariko’s absence would say more than her life itself, and that’s the secret weapon that Toranaga wields.

JM: There’s a shot in episode 10 that director Fred Toye always had in his head. It’s this shot of Fuji reuniting with Blackthorne in their home, and it’s a callback to a shot that Fred and [cinematographer] Sam McCurdy shot in episode 4, where Fuji, Blackthorne, and Mariko stare out at the rain in their garden. We frame that shot in the exact same way in episode 10, as if Mariko were sitting there. She’s not, yet you feel her presence in that garden always. She’s the crucial third leg of that stool for Fuji and Blackthorne, and without her, they really have nothing to say, because they lost their translator. Yet they feel at peace.

RK: They almost don’t need to say anything because they feel the same thing, which is a profound sense of loss. And change is upon them because of this loss.

Mariko’s absence would say more than her life itself, and that’s the secret weapon that Toranaga wields.

– Rachel Kondo
Blackthorne and Fuji from "Shōgun" sit on mats, looking out at their rainy garden.

Cosmo Jarvis and Moeka Hoshi in “Shōgun.”
Credit: Katie Yu / FX

JM: There was also this scene in the finale, of Blackthorne and Fuji in the rowboat, which is not in the book and which one of our producers, Mako Kamitsuna, was really crucial in helping us put together. Fuji and Blackthorne give up Mariko’s ashes, which is this preposterous process from the place of a Japanese person who’s meant to hold on to these ashes and bury them in the family plot. But Blackthorne manages to persuade her from the place of a sailor, saying, “This is the way that I would do it if you want to keep someone with you forever.”

Then when Blackthorne puts Mariko’s cross in the water, Fuji says, “Let your hands be the last to hold her,” which is a callback to what Mariko says to her when she says goodbye to her baby in the first episode. That scene continues to break me every time I watch it. That’s my scene to cry about.

RK: I just remember in that scene, the impulse within me — maybe it’s a Western impulse, maybe it’s a hoarder impulse — to think, “Don’t let her rosary go! You’ll never have it again, you won’t remember her through that.” But for some reason, it made sense to let the pouring of the ashes happen because that’s very familiar.

JM: She’s not yours to remember, I think is the acknowledgement that Blackthorne also has to make here. He doesn’t own that rosary. Mariko owns that rosary. It’s like Toranaga returning his falcon Tetsuko to the sky, she is returned to the sea.

In this case, I guess that’s like Blackthorne dropping her into his living room. [laughs] But the message stands.

If anything else, what I hope episode 10 demonstrates in terms of Clavell’s book and also what we as a writers’ room tried to do with the book is that Shōgun is not really a story about culture. It’s a story about death and bargaining.

RK: And the life that precedes it and follows it.

Shōgun is not really a story about culture. It’s a story about death and bargaining.

– Justin Marks

JM: It’s these ruminations on death that really took us in from the first episode: the different cultural understandings of it and our trying to understand something that we never could.

The other thing that the book does differently than we do is Blackthorne’s attempt to commit seppuku. In the book it happens in the space of chapter 31, which is episode 4. We chose to move it all the way to the end, not just because it felt more appropriate there, but also because we didn’t feel ready to understand his choice at that point — not that we understand the act of seppuku now.

RK: We didn’t purposefully do that, we just didn’t include it earlier on because we were all feeling very fragile around it and not knowing how to deal with it. We did ultimately come back to it, but we didn’t set out to say, “Let’s just deal with it in episode 10.” It was only through sitting with it and having conversations with our Japanese consultants and learning about it that it felt a little more appropriate to bring it in.

Toranaga from "Shōgun" kneels down and places a hand on a distressed Blackthorne's shoulder.

Cosmo Jarvis and Hiroyuki Sanada in “Shōgun.”
Credit: Katie Yu / FX

Staying with Blackthorne, the episode opens with a snippet of an older Blackthorne at home in England, being asked about his experience with “savages.” That image returns throughout the episode. Tell me about the weight it carries and the decision to include it as a kind of framing device.

JM: We had wanted to do a misdirect. For a second you think we’re framing episode 10 as an old man looking back on his life filled with regret, only to realize that no, you’re looking at a young man looking forward to a possible future with regret. It was a writers’ room invention and wasn’t actually part of the book, but it was something that we felt was true to the mythos of “a dream of a dream,” to quote the Taikō in episode 2.

We called [old Blackthorne] Father Christmas because of how Cosmo looks in it, but that version of him is a projection of his colonial self that he has to sever his path from in episode 10. That is the final journey that I hope is also us as American or Hollywood filmmakers severing ourselves from these conversations, because I think it’s kind of boring nowadays to tell those stories. We really had wanted to turn our back on the “stranger in a strange land” trope. And our version of Blackthorne here — which I credit Cosmo for his performance a lot — was going for something different that didn’t just say, “There’s no reason to tell these stories.” Obviously we have a history and a legacy and it’s worth looking back on, but maybe let’s look back on it through a new lens of saying, “What new stories can we tell of those past stories?” 

All episodes of Shōgun are now streaming on Hulu.