The “Shōgun” Sound Team on Recreating 17th-Century Japan One Katana Clash at a Time

Praised for its authenticity, beauty, and sensitive storytelling, FX’s Shōgun has just been renewed for two more seasons. Created by Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, the show follows the plot of James Clavell’s 1975 novel, set in Japan in 1600. English pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) and his ship’s crew run aground in a Japanese fishing village, and after a brief imprisonment, Blackthorne is taken on by Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, also one of the series’ producers) to share his knowledge on European warfare and the Portuguese merchants and priests insinuating themselves into Japanese society. As Blackthorne comes to embrace the country where he finds himself indefinitely marooned, he also gets into a power struggle with the Catholic Church-backed Portuguese and falls quietly in love with his translator, Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a married noblewoman and Catholic convert. But these tribulations are secondary to those of the lord Blackthorne comes to serve. Toranaga rules over the country’s Kanto region, but is increasingly isolated by his fellow council of regents, over whom Ishido (Takehiro Hira) is attempting to consolidate power. Blackthorne’s presence becomes key to Toranaga’s own machinations, to not only escape but emerge triumphant from an otherwise dire fate.


Whether in the courtyards of Osaka Castle, outdoors in the hot springs of a small fishing village, or sequestered in hushed, tatami-mat-lined rooms, Shōgun’s acute attention to detail encompasses not just its visuals but its sound. “Authenticity is what the creators were looking for from top to bottom,” said sound supervisor Brian Armstrong. “That was our guiding post, to take what we typically do and really focus it on the specificity of everything, from the dishes to the nature.”


The sound team was given a handbook, which “almost puts the original text of Shōgun to shame, with how much information was contained in this thing,” Armstrong joked. Outside a few heightened scenes like a cannon attack, which the team set about making sound extra “ghoulish,” or slow-motion, theatrical moments in which Mariko’s husband, Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe), deliberately fires an arrow a hair past his wife’s nose, for Armstrong and re-recording mixers Steve Pederson and Greg P. Russell, faithfulness to both history and the natural world drove their process. “We found scientific recordings of birds that had a time of year and location. Jim Gallivan, one of our sound designers, would research the migrational patterns of the birds just so that all of that was accurate,” Armstrong said.

Sourcing recordings of the natural world wasn’t easy — many had either technological noises foreign to the 17th century or voices that were too modern, given that the show’s Japanese dialogue is period language akin to Shakespeare. Yet unlike so much dialogue in contemporary television, every syllable in Shōgun is crisply audible, a meticulous undertaking, even though none of the sound team speaks Japanese.


We talked very early on that we were never going to use the subtitles as a crutch. We’re going to treat this as if they weren’t there. Because clarity is king,” Armstrong said. He handed Pederson a challenge, sometimes cutting in a single syllable of ADR or using the first part of a word from ADR and the last half from production, in an effort to be “surgical and precise about what we’re trying to fix while keeping as much of the original performance as possible.” Producers Hiroyuki Sanada and Eriko Miyagawa were in every single group session, making sure the cast of villagers’ lines suited the time and place. “These little things, a syllable or an inflection that the production determined to be incorrect — we had to correct it in post, and audiences would not have gotten that, especially if it’s in Japanese. But the filmmakers were aware, and it just points out their zeal to be as authentic as possible. And it was our challenge to help them get there and match the beautiful visuals,” Pederson said.


An intense level of collaboration permeated the process. “Had we not had the Japanese film editors and their input, we would have attacked this entire thing as us, and it would have been different,” Russell said. “The notes that we got back, the tailoring to their taste and for authenticity, and respecting the culture, really shaped how we went about our job. We made a lot of changes.” Even the sound of the samurais’ swords had to be updated to sound right, having started off life too bright and overly Westernized when what they needed to be expressed correctly was a sense of heaviness. 


The show’s spare, period-correct interiors were also a focal point for the team’s efforts. No detail was too small — they discussed whether paper sounded too thick or too thin with creator Justin Marks, who “even talked about how the tatami mats have a weave pattern, that if you’re going one way across them, sounds different than if you’re going the opposite way,” Armstrong pointed out. The show’s score, by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Nick Chuba, followed a similar pattern, with a Japanese arranger in Tokyo recording period-correct instruments according to a 17th-century style of music called gagaku. The composers took these recordings, distorted them, and incorporated them into their score. “You’re thinking, is that done on a synth? And you find out, no, it’s actually a meditation bowl,” Pederson said.

Indoors, restrained but revealing discussions complement the vastness of the natural world outside. Mariko explains early on to Blackthorne that Japan is at the mercy of the elements, and its people conduct their lives and build their homes accordingly. When an earthquake comes, the destruction is a measured, realistic shock. “That’s a sequence near and dear to our hearts,” Armstrong said, to which he and his team took an approach of addition by subtraction. The sound of horses, a distant army, and music disappear one by one, “and all we’re left with are these winds and this eerie silence that Toranaga picks up on as he’s standing on the cliff. And then there’s practically nothing before that big flock of birds comes up that signifies something big is coming.” Toranaga’s near-death in the landslide that results is terrifyingly real. “I think it might have been Justin who said, can we can we see if there’s a way to lose the music? Lets put the audience on a mountain with an earthquake,” Pederson recalled. The event becomes an arc rather than a blow, with a bigger sense of sound saved for the post-quake landslide and Toranaga’s rescue, followed by the painful calls at varying distances from villagers who survived.


An auditory sense of distance also drives home the terror of another moment: Ishido’s hired assassins who come to Osaka Palace to murder Toranaga’s supporters, eventually penning Mariko, Blackthorne, and several others in a store room. We hardly see them and we hardly hear them, either, given that the Shinobi work silently, yet there’s an auditory sense of their approach. “There’s stuff close up that’s right outside the door. Then there’s stuff, 80 feet, 100 feet back. All of those relationships give you a sense of the scale of the threat,” Russell said. Well-placed footsteps and hushed voices portray the Shinobi surrounding them until Mariko and Blackthorne realize there is no escape, leading to one of the series’ most painfully iconic moments.

But in Shōgun, those sorts of big moments are on an equal footing in terms of their importance to the story with scenes where much less happens, whether it’s a convoy leaving Osaka Castle or a conversation between Blackthorne and one of his vassals on a mountaintop. “When you look at the beauty of these shots, and the space and the scale of things, even small intimate moments have this very rich look,” Russell said. “And we needed to marry that — we needed to sonically be as pretty, as delicate, and as rich.” The result is a show that not only looks completely different from anything else currently on television but possesses its own unique sense of sound, too.

Shōgun is currently streaming on Hulu.

For more on Shōgun, check out these interviews with editors Aika Miyake and Maria Gonzalez, the lush costume design by Carlos Rosario, the high-tech take on ancient gagaku instrumentation from composers Atticus and Leo Ross and sound engineer Nick Chuba, and the fatally stylish, no-moves-wasted samurai swordplay created by stunt coordinator Lauro David Chartrand-DelValle.

Featured image: “SHOGUN” — “Tomorrow is Tomorrow” — Episode 3 (Airs March 5) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.