Inside That Epic ‘Shogun’ Episode 9 Moment: ‘The Best Scene of the Season’

“Crimson Sky,” the penultimate episode of “Shogun,” delivers on its promise of blood and then some. But, true to the philosophy of the Eightfold Fence, one of the episode’s most powerful scenes finds triumph and cements the strength of the core characters even as their plans are (seemingly) defeated. Spoilers beyond this point, so only attempt to pass the castle gates at your own peril.

That is exactly what Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai) sets out to do at the top of the scene in question. She leads her retinue in an attempt to exit Osaka Castle, with sweeping overhead shots and an audience on the castle walls enforcing how Mariko is the center of attention and bringing the full weight of her authority to bear. She forces the issue of just how firmly the scheming Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira) is holding everyone inside hostage. The ensuing standoff between castle guards, Toranaga samurai, and eventually Mariko herself leaves the survivors still trapped and precipitates her declaration to commit seppuku.

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That outcome is, of course, all part of Mariko’s and Toranaga’s (Hiroyuki Sanata) “crimson sky” plan to undermine Ishido’s control. But the scene is an expression of Mariko’s formidable strength — and it’s the moment from the James Clavell book that inspired co-creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo to create this “Shogun” miniseries.

“You’re sweating as you read that scene,” Marks told IndieWire. “It was an incredibly bold gesture she made to open up this hostage situation. What’s amazing is that there’s the ‘and one’ of her actual death after this that feels truly like an afterthought.”

It’s also the clearest example of how “Shogun” highlights the agency, strength, and interior life of its female characters without succumbing to the temptation to, as Marks put it, “Matrix it,” and give Mariko superhuman fighting abilities or the kind of cute, “girl power” moment that condescends to the reality of a 16th-century Japanese woman’s circumstances in order to make a Strong Female Character meme.

“In the writer’s room, something that Emily Yoshida, one of our writers, constantly went to was that there’s this punk rock essence to Mariko. There’s this way that she is raging against everything and there’s no scene more punk rock than this one — set within the confines of all the traditions of Japan and the 1600s, it is this remarkably modern moment,” Marks said. “The weapon she’s holding was not there to kill. The weapon is really there to demonstrate intent.”

Mariko’s intent is perhaps what’s most punk rock about the scene because her aim is to expose the polite hypocrisy keeping everyone in the castle trapped and to absolutely fuck over Toranaga’s enemies. Accordingly, it was important to Kondo, co-writer Caillin Puente, and director Frederick E.O. Toye to highlight the ways in which putting herself in danger is even more debilitating than a spear through the heart.

'SHOGUN' --  "Crimson Sky" -- Episode 9 (Airs April 16)  Pictured (L-R):  Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, Tommy Bastow as Father Martin Alvito.  CR: Katie Yu/FX
‘Shogun’Katie Yu/FX

Toye’s direction picks up on the richness and heaviness of Mariko’s robes; we hear the crunch of her sandals on the gravel road and understand how easy it would be for her to slip up; the camera keeps her large in the frame but always encircled by others. There’s a palpable sense of how constricted she is and the effort of will it takes her to move forward. Sawaii really was wearing five layers of clothing as she attempted to maneuver with a huge naginata (the weapon of elite women of the time) — although the traditional geta on her feet had Nike soles for a little extra padding on the gravel.

“I just remember approaching Anna Sawai as we were planning for that episode and wanted to embrace her,” Kondo told IndieWire. “She’s an exceptional athlete. She’s an exceptional performer. But we were all very worried because emotionally, spiritually, physically, all these demands would be made upon her for this very, very, very intense episode.”

Maybe the moment within the scene that best expresses Mariko’s raging, indomitable will is the one where she continues walking towards the gates as archers send warning arrows inches from her feet. It’s an echo of a moment in Episode 5 when Mariko stays absolutely stock still even though she’s in the path of Buntaro’s (Shinnosuke Abe) drunk archery demonstration. Both moments show how fierce Mariko is through her willingness to be in danger and not flinch — unlike John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), bless him, who squirms uncomfortably on the walls of the castle in Episode 9, powerless to stop any of this.

'SHOGUN' --  "Crimson Sky" -- Episode 9 (Airs April 16)  Pictured (C):  Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko.  CR: Katie Yu/FX
‘Shogun’ Katie Yu/FX

“The trickiness with executing that scene was trying to portray Mariko as a character who in this moment is not weak,” Kondo said. “She’s not able to get through a wall of samurai, but how do you balance the idea of weakness [and] harness the dignity that she is possessed with and the dignity with which she presents her case?”

That balance Kondo credits to Puente, who “is the author of that scene, and she took it on so profoundly. It’s a nuanced, lengthy scene in the book, as it should be. And somehow [Puente] didn’t lose anything, not the power or the emotion of that scene, in condensing the version of it that exists in the book.”

It’s a credit to both Puente’s work and Toye’s that when Mariko does fall down and admits the guards have stopped her from leaving the castle, Toye frames her among the arrows still stuck in the ground. We never lose sight of the powers she’s overcoming. Mariko is still as men flail around her; the camera is steady and sweeping whenever she moves, giving her a visual grace that everyone around her can’t help but feel. There’s never a sense of frenetic movement or panic. There’s just her strength.

“I look at that scene and I see so many doors that could have been walked through — in Caillin and Rachel’s writing of it, in Fred Toye’s direction of it, in Anna’s performance, in the stunt coordination, there’s all of these wrong doors that could have been taken,” Marks said. “But the point was that she was not fighting to win. She was fighting to make a demonstration. It’s performance art. In some ways, her whole life, she’s been trying to walk through that gate. And that’s all that matters.”

The fact that “getting through the gate” is ultimately impossible is part of the core tragedy of Mariko’s character and what defines the anger that fuels her. “It’s the best scene of the season,” Marks said.

The season finale of “Shogun” airs April 22 on FX.

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