Shōgun: Creating Fast-Paced Story Full of Political Conflicts and Complex Characters Through Editing

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Maria Gonzales and Aika Miyake are editors behind 7 out of 10 episodes (including the pilot and finale) of FX’s stellar adaptation of Shōgun, which will air weekly until April 23rd.

The show starts when a mysterious European ship is found stranded in a nearby fishing village, and Lord Yoshii Toranaga discovers secrets that could tip the scales of power and devastate his enemies. The show has been receiving glowing reviews and currently stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with over 30 reviews. 

Editing played a crucial role in the success of this adaptation as Maria and Aika created a fast-paced story, shifting the conflicts away from battlefields and into political intrigues by highlighting interpersonal dynamics, intense dialogue scenes, and the crucial role of female characters. While editing, they were also often challenged with condensing the run times of episodes from close to 100 minutes to 1h each while still fleshing out the complex tapestry and culture clashes of XVII century Japan and overcoming language barriers themselves. 

PH: Shōgun has been praised for its captivating storytelling and intricate character dynamics. How did you approach editing to emphasize these elements and ensure the narrative remained engaging throughout the series?

Maria Gonzales: The scripts were definitely captivating, and it was clear from the get-go that we would have to take extra care in making sure the intricate character dynamics were clear in the cut. An unforeseen challenge emerged during pre-production when timing rehearsals revealed that the Japanese lines took longer to articulate. This, in combination with very elaborate gestures that were highly choreographed, ended up practically doubling the estimated length of scenes. When it came to assembling, I went through my normal process of watching dailies, deciding which were the best performances and camera angles, and then assembling the scenes in a way that honored everything that was done on set. This resulted in feature-length episodes, with the pilot clocking at almost two hours. Clearly, this wasn’t going to work, and we had to roll up our sleeves and make some difficult decisions about letting things go while ensuring the authenticity production worked so hard to achieve was preserved. It was paramount to Justin Marks (our showrunner) that we were very thoughtful in this process, which took some time and careful consideration; probably the reason we were on the show for almost a year and a half.

Aika Miyake: In episode two, it was crucial to convey as much information and backstory of the characters as possible while also hinting at their respective hidden agendas. I always approach editing a bit like composing music, where I consider dialogue, movements in the pictures, information, sound design, and everything else happening as some type of musical notes. When I am editing a scene, I start to see where more pauses are needed to digest the emotions, where faster pacing is required to keep it interesting, or where reactions are necessary to enhance the moment, etc. Especially in the scene of the map drawing, we navigate multiple intricate character dynamics; not only are Toranaga and Blackthorne engaged in an intense conversation, but Mariko is also translating while her faith is being tested. Each character has an underlying agenda. In order to convey what’s happening internally with everyone, I search for appropriate places to insert their reactions while the conversation is unfolding. This scene was a complex symphony, but when the cut reached a good point, I remember feeling the entirety of the scene became clear and much simpler.

PH: Condensing episodes from nearly 100 minutes to a standard hour-long format can be a daunting task, especially when dealing with a story as rich and complex as Shōgun. Can you walk us through the process of deciding what to keep and what to cut while maintaining the integrity of the storyline and character development?

Maria Gonzales: Although all the movement was historically accurate (We had a “master of gestures” on set at all times), editorially, we knew the bowing and many of the scene entrances and exits had to be sped up through creative editing or completely omitted. Once we worked on those sections, we went through the dialogue with a fine tooth comb, making sure every line had a role in propelling our story forward. A good example is the Ceremonial Meeting Room Scene in the first episode when Toranaga faces off with the Regents. In the script, the scene was about 3 3/4 pages long. The timing we got from the set was about seven minutes. As early as the editor’s cut, I had the dialogue between Toranaga and Ishido paced up, but we were held up by all the ceremony when Toranaga first arrived as well as the dramatic moment when Tadayoshi has the outburst and then vows to kill himself and end his bloodline. In both cases, we had to significantly condense the moments. At the beginning of the scene, we ultimately had Ishido start speaking during Toranaga’s approach, where the dialogue originally started after Toranaga settled in. With the Tadayoshi beat, we decided to forgo some dramatic reactions because they took too long. As it stands now, we give Toranaga a brief pause, and he moves on with his apology to Ishido. We trusted the audience would understand what had transpired without highlighting the moment any further. After some dialogue lifts, the final scene timed out to just under 5 minutes. 

Aika Miyake: Within those elaborate Japanese gestures, bowing became something like the greetings in phone conversations in TV and movies, often omitted to cut to the chase. Everyone bows, sometimes multiple times, but it was apparent that we didn’t have time for all of them. I would leave the bowing in at moments where it was necessary, but many were taken out to keep the scenes moving.

Translation was also a tricky aspect to condense. In the first meeting scene between Toranaga and Blackthorne in episode two, initially, we didn’t have the fade-out of Father Alvito’s translation. The following intense exchange between Toranaga and Blackthorne was intended without translation in the script, so we had to figure out a transition that didn’t drag and lose momentum. We experimented quite a bit with this sequence but somehow always made it seem like Blackthorne suddenly understood Japanese. Finally, we settled on the version where Father Alvito’s translation slowly fades away while the camera pans around Toranaga. This literal shift set us up elegantly for the intense exchange that followed. Finding that balance and tempo was crucial.

PH: The series delves into the political intrigues and cultural clashes of 17th-century Japan. How did you navigate the challenge of portraying this historical period authentically while also ensuring that the storytelling remained accessible to modern audiences?

Maria Gonzales: This is a very interesting question. To be honest, with everything I’ve already mentioned, it became clear very early on that we had to keep the show moving at a pretty steady pace. Our dialogue scenes really do move, but we also slow down to show details of life in feudal Japan. Even mundane tasks like putting on a kimono, settling one’s finances, and preparing food were so beautifully executed they earned to be properly showcased. These are things we felt were essential in making the show feel authentic and were worth taking a beat for.

Aika Miyake: I found that leaning into humor was more relatable to modern audiences. In episode two, we have a scene where Mariko asks Blackthorne to take a bath, but he comically declines, and we see him sniffing his own armpits in the end. The scene displays the cultural differences in a very humorous way, but more importantly, it adds much-needed levity between two intense moments: The map scene and the assassin scene. 

PH: Female characters play a crucial role in Shōgun, adding depth and complexity to the narrative. Can you discuss how you approached editing their storylines to ensure they were given the prominence they deserved within the series?

Maria Gonzales: It was clear from our first conversations with Justin and Rachel Kondo (the show's co-creators) that they wanted the women in this show to have agency. I saw this on the page, and it definitely carried through to how the directors and camera blocked the scenes, so our task was to follow their lead and make sure this vision came across in the cuts as well. For this very reason, one of my favorite scenes to cut was Mariko and Fuji’s first scene in episode one. It was important for that cut to give both of them powerful introductions and establish Mariko’s status in this world. It's a moving scene that speaks to one of the main themes of the show: what one is willing to give up to truly serve a cause. The effect of this scene ripples through the rest of the series so it was important for me to feature both of the women in close-ups and for audiences to hopefully understand the connection between these two very strong characters.

Aika Miyake: I had a few scenes where I received notes to remove lines spoken by female characters, with the suggestion that it might feel more powerful if they didn't say them. When I receive notes like this, I'm very careful because my generation, along with most of us on the team, grew up watching movies and TV shows with patriarchal viewpoints, which subliminally influence our perceptions and decisions. How come do we feel more powerful when female characters are silent? Is she choosing to be silent or forced to be silent? I carefully weighed whether retaining or omitting these lines would better serve the scene, especially for Mariko, because she is a Samurai and she has a different purpose and attitude in the story.

Additionally, in Japanese culture, being outspoken and being direct as a woman are often discouraged, even in modern times. I've personally encountered these challenges as a woman and editor in Japan. I wanted our female characters to have agency of their own and the depth of their struggle behind filtered presence. It was so meaningful to be able to work on this show for this reason alone. 

PH: Language barriers can present unique challenges in editing, particularly in a multilingual series like Shōgun. How did you overcome these challenges to ensure that the dialogue flowed seamlessly and the story was effectively communicated to viewers?

Maria Gonzales: Having to work on material that’s predominantly in a foreign language is most certainly a challenge. We were lucky to have a phenomenal group of assistant editors who worked tirelessly to make sure all of our dailies were subtitled and marked for potential flubs or changes from the script. All that work allowed me to approach dailies the way I would on any English-speaking show. Once the episode was assembled, I had Masami Kagayama, our Japanese Assistant, watch it to flag any possible problems. When we were close to locking, I would work with Aika to make sure all of the Japanese was flowing naturally. Aika was a great help in that regard because I was able to confidently move into the next stage, which was when our producers, Eriko Miyagawa and Hiroyuki Sanada, who was also our star, would do a final pass to make sure Japanese was accurate and authentic.

Aika Miyake: I speak both languages, so I had the advantage of starting to cut without waiting for the dailies to be subtitled. However, I often had to go back to the Japanese scripts and read them carefully because they are written in classic Japanese. I was struck by how poetic and beautiful the classic Japanese scripts were. When we were working on the final subtitles, Justin and Rachel went through every line of dialogue with Eriko to make sure they had the most accurate translation. One challenge I encountered as a bilingual speaker was checking English subtitles while listening to Japanese. I had to switch off my Japanese brain to read English and vice versa to check Japanese. Not many occasions like this arise in normal life, so it was something to get used to.

PH: Shōgun has been described as a fast-paced adaptation that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Can you share any specific editing techniques or strategies you employed to maintain this sense of momentum and tension throughout the series?

Maria Gonzales: Something I learned from my mentor, Dana Glauberman, which she in turn learned from her mentor, the great Artie Schmidt, is that in order to make one scene flow into another, you want to end it with a comma, not a period. I’ve used this throughout the show, one example that comes to mind is the scene that opens the series. There was a lot of debate about the moment when Blackthorne leaves the Captain and heads outside. The dilemma was whether or not to see Blackthrone walk through the door and see it slam closed. I felt that would give a false ending to the scene, and we served the story better by just showing Blackthorne outside and hearing the gunshot, which in my mind, was the true ending for the previous scene. 

Aika Miyake: The nature of classic Japanese dialogue involves having more pauses between phrases, and I often had to trim them. In general, these pauses create pacing for the scene itself and are as important as the dialogue. It was crucial to ensure that the scenes, which were scripted to include a character translating a conversation in both English and Japanese, didn’t drag since many of these scenes were, in fact, 'battles' themselves, and I needed to build intensity. All of the pauses and pacing were very intentional, and we tweaked them until the very end.

PH: As editors, you played a key role in shaping the overall tone and mood of Shōgun. How did you collaborate with other members of the creative team, such as the directors and cinematographers, to achieve a cohesive vision for the series?

Maria Gonzales: The directors obviously had a powerful voice in shaping the tone of the show. Jonathan van Tulleken, who directed the first two episodes, was instrumental in this. Frederick E.O. Toye, who directed a total of four episodes, was also a great influence. Working with both of them was extremely rewarding as they clearly have great respect for our craft and allowed us to be true partners in shaping those first cuts. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our brilliant team of composers who really brought it all together in terms of tone. Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Nick Chuba composed a number of cues using only the script as inspiration. Those pieces became our temp score, and part of their process was to see how we used these tracks and what we responded to. From there, they refined the cues to really elevate the cuts. Probably our most tight collaboration was with Brian Armstrong, an amazing sound supervisor and biggest fan of the show. He dug into the great temp work my assistant, Laurie Thomson, did which fuelled conversations about sound that truly made the world of Shogun come alive. 

Aika Miyake: I strongly agree with Maria. I love the vintage anamorphic lens they chose, which added heavy vignetting and gave a slightly rough impression to our pictures. While capturing beautiful details, it really created a unique look where every shot feels like it's from our own perspective. Additionally, having the original temp score from the beginning was very inspiring. It helped me envision the essence of the show simply by listening to those scores. Lastly, at some point, I received a beautifully shot fast-flying drone shot, and it remained in the cut for the longest time. However, in the end, we collectively decided that it didn’t fit our show and took it out. We wanted to maintain a stoic cinematic world with a classic touch.

PH: With the premiere of Shōgun receiving widespread acclaim, how does it feel to be part of a project that has garnered such positive reviews and attention from both critics and audiences alike?

Maria Gonzales: I’m pinching myself every day. You just never know how people are going to respond to something you’ve worked on. This show has been a part of our lives for so long it’s great to finally see it out and that people are enjoying it. That people understand it! It’s incredibly validating and humbling at the same time.

Aika Miyake: I’m in tears. I feel pure joy sharing my work as well as my culture on this scale and in this level of detail. This is my first feature narrative, and I really cannot thank Justin, and the post-producer, Jamie Wheeler, enough for finding me and trusting me throughout the project. 

PH: Were there any particularly challenging scenes or episodes that stand out to you in terms of editing, and how did you overcome those challenges?

Maria Gonzales: I was honored that Justin entrusted me with the pilot which are traditionally very challenging episodes. I’ve faced challenging scenes throughout the show, but the pilot was a standout because it kept coming back, had the most in terms of reshoots, and it was a massive undertaking. If I had to single out a scene, it would probably be the cliff scene. A year or so into the edit, Justin would laugh and apologize if more notes came for this scene. I’ve done so many iterations of it, at times it felt like it was all I was working on. For some reason, we struggled to establish the connection between Blackthorne and Yabushige once he was battling the waves, so it took a lot of patience and sifting through the footage to find just the right reactions between the two of them. It was that connection between these two characters that we were most interested in getting right, and it just took some time to get there. 

Aika Miyake: One of the most challenging scenes for me was the earthquake scene in episode five. I experienced the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Tokyo, and the sight of the ground waving and buildings colliding together is something I will never forget. It provided me with an intimate understanding of authenticity, like creating the feeling of the primal rumbling from deep underground that induces sheer panic. Editing this scene definitely put me in a valuable place, but I feel like it helped me tremendously to edit the aftermath scene where Blackthorne's reunion with Fuji unfolds. The final look they give each other is an incredible moment that speaks volumes without saying anything, and it became one of my favorite moments in the episode.

PH: Looking back on your experience working on Shōgun, what do you hope viewers take away from the series, both in terms of its entertainment value and its exploration of historical and cultural themes?

Maria Gonzales: The best of the best in any given craft is on display here. Production Design, Cinematography, inspiring Costume Design, Hair and Make-up. I could just keep going on and on… I know our audience is sophisticated enough to appreciate all of this, but the bottom line is that I hope they enjoy the show. I hope these ten hours, which we lovingly crafted, offer people a chance to escape into a long-gone and fascinating era in Japanese history.

Aika Miyake: I relocated to the U.S. in 2019 after working as an editor for 13 years in Japan. I made this move because I found it increasingly challenging to find projects that resonated with me. The lighting, cinematography, production design, and acting—filmmaking itself—feel very different in Japan, and that is something beyond my control as an editor. As Toranaga and the producer of Shogun, Hiroyuki Sanada, mention in his interviews, I hope this becomes the new normal for Japanese audiences in terms of the quality of period cinema. The show unfolds with character-driven narratives and intricate plot twists, inviting exploration into its rich tapestry of Japanese culture and history. I hope the audience enjoys the episodes as much as I enjoyed cutting it.

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