Pachinko. Godzilla. And Now Shōgun. Anna Sawai Is Still Processing the ‘Strange’ Moment She’s Having

Anna Sawai doesn’t seem to do small projects. At least not in the past few years.

Coming out of a supporting role in the BBC Two crime drama Girl/Haji, the New Zealand-born Japanese actress (and onetime vocalist in the girl group Faky) was cast in Pachinko, Apple TV+’s sweeping, multi-generational and multi-lingual adaptation of the Min Jee Lee novel, which reportedly cost $13 million per episode. (Sawai played Naomi, a co-worker of Sunja’s grandson Solomon at Shiffley’s Tokyo branch in the 1989 timeline.)

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Sawai with Jimmi Simpson in ‘Pachinko’
Sawai with Jimmi Simpson in ‘Pachinko’

More recently, Sawai was seen in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, another Apple TV+ drama with a not-small budget (and no less than Godzilla on its call sheet).

Yet before she ever stared that OG kaiju in the eye, Sawai booked and filmed Shōgun, FX’s upcoming adaptation of James Clavell’s bestselling doorstop of a novel, premiering this Tuesday on Hulu with its first two episodes (which also air on FX that night starting at 10/9c).

Shōgun, “admirably ambitious and epic in scope,” promises to be Sawai’s grandest showcase yet.

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Godzilla Explained
Anna Sawai in ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’Courtesy of Apple TV+

Set in Japan in the year 1600 at the dawn of a century-defining civil war, Shōgun stars producer Hiroyuki Sanada (John Wick 4) as Lord Yoshii Toranaga, a regent who is warding off a threat from enemies when a mysterious ship is found marooned in a nearby fishing village. The vessel’s English pilot, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), comes bearing secrets that could help Toranaga tip the scales of power.

Enter Sawai’s Lady Toda Mariko, a married, mysterious Christian noblewoman — and the last of a disgraced line — who serves her lord by translating Blackthorne’s Portuguese. She also may teach the anjin a thing or two about Japanese culture.

Anna Sawai with Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne
Anna Sawai with Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne

How does it feel for Sawai to have two noteworthy streaming shows roll out veritably back-to-back?

“It’s been interesting…,” she shared with TVLine during a recent sit-down. “[Monarch and Shōgun] are so different, and the characters I play are completely opposite, so in a way, while it is ‘a moment’ and I’m very appreciative, it feels strange.”

Looking ahead to Shōgun‘s long-awaited premiere (filming wrapped in June 2022), Sawai said that while she has no “expectations” for how viewers will respond to Mariko (who is based on the real-life Hosokawa Gracia), “I know that she is going to have an impact on them if they watch her story.”

As the limited series’ 10 episodes unspool, “I hope that they are able to understand Japanese culture a lot more.” Specifically, Sawai said, “I hope they learn, or relearn, about Japanese women, because still a lot of people have misconceptions of us. They like to sexualize us a lot, and we really tried to give more voice to the female characters in this show.”

Sawai herself learned more than a few things along the way.

Sawai is fluent in Japanese, but when it comes to carrying herself as a highborn woman in feudal Japan, “I had to learn everything from zero,” she reported. For one, “The clothes you wear really restrict you, so you can’t walk normally, you can’t sit properly…. And you have to stand up in a way that’s really terrible to your thighs, and it’s hard to be very elegant.

“I also had to relearn how to eat, how to write…,” she continued. “It was great, though, because there was no part of me in the process.” Rather, “I could just wear the kimono and feel like I was Mariko. I could just start walking the way she does and feel like a different human being.”

FX, which produced Shōgun for Hulu, launched a massive promotional blitz behind the prestige drama, including a trailer that aired during the Super Bowl. Sawai, meanwhile, has already earned kudos, singled out in advance reviews as “mesmerizing,” a “breakout star,” and “this feels like her arrival.”

So whereas Monarch (aka the Godzilla show) had its fans but perhaps fell shy of bursting onto the pop culture radar, Shōgun‘s trumpeted arrival may force the actress to face the reality of her “moment.”

“I haven’t met a lot of people in person who have watched Monarch yet,” she explained — well, save for “a guy at immigration security at the airport, who was like, ‘I just finished that show,’ which was pretty cool. So, yeah, a lot is happening, but I don’t know if I’ve quite processed it!”

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