Warning: This discussion contains spoilers about the second season of HBO’s “Westworld”
With its story of life-like robots in a Wild West-themed amusement park becoming sentient, and the complications that arise as a result, the television show “Westworld” has attracted a dedicated following over the past couple of years. Yet on the latest episode of the HBO drama, the setting shifted from the American frontier to a very different place — Edo Period Japan.
The second season’s fifth episode earned positive reviews from English-language viewers in large part because of its shift from a park populated by robot cowboys to one occupied by robot ninja and geisha. A large part of that praise stemmed from how the folks behind the show aimed on getting the culture and time period right, and in the process showed how other entertainment ventures made by Western creators dealing with Japan (or any non-Western country) can avoid online backlash.
Titled “Akane No Mai,” this installment of the show introduced viewers to Shogun World, a not-subtly-titled park adjacent to the main Western area. The set created for this episode appeared to be full of rich Edo-inspired ideas, based on a behind-the-scenes clip uploaded by HBO, with attention to detail on street signs written in Japanese and the main teahouse setting. Large chunks of what happens in Shogun World directly mirror events earlier in the season, but done with a period-appropriate twist. The music, meanwhile, saw arrangements of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” produced with traditional Japanese instruments, which charmed a great many (except a writer at Rolling Stone).
Fittingly, the episode featured several prominent Japanese actors. Rinko Kikuchi — best known to non-Japanese audiences for her roles in “Babel” and “Pacific Rim” — played the lead geisha role, while industry stalwart Hiroyuki Sanada of “The Last Samurai” fame portrayed a ronin robot. It also showcased emerging talent Kiki Sukezane, who also appears in this year’s Netflix series “Lost In Space.” Just as importantly, articles released shortly after “Akane no Mai” aired showed that both Kikuchi and Sanada practically acted as Japanese culture advisers to make sure many important details were correct. Other actors even learned period-appropriate language.
And let me tell ya, “Westworld” packs in some small but historically accurate points over the course of its time in Shogun World. This part of the show’s plot was hinted at in season one and in a season two trailer, and when the latter dropped there was some gnashing of teeth that they could screw it up by falling into some of the same traps as “Isle Of Dogs” and “The Outsider” earlier this year. Yet early reviews of “Akane no Mai” from the likes of Indie Wire and Esquire highlight how authentic it all feels to how we imagine Edo Japan. The episode inspired explainers about the period and a piece from Popular Mechanics geeking out about the inclusion of a sodegarami (sleeve entangler). And, again, HBO’s behind-the-scenes video for this episode leans in heavy on making it feel just right.
There’s no doubt that ensuring a lot of small details are done properly, ideally with the heavy involvement of people from the country you are trying to recreate, goes a long way to avoiding controversy. (It helps to have a public relations team that can get out that message concurrently with the show, too.)
However, it’s also interesting to note that Kikuchi and Sanada often acknowledge in interviews that everything’s still not quite right. Shogun World is a theme park constructed in what we take to be the United States and, as reviewers have pointed out, it’s kind of natural that something is off because the park wasn’t designed by Japanese people. As a result, nagging nerd inquiries — Did ninja really exist in the Edo Period? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate to set Akane’s dance to DJ Krush instead of Wu-Tang? — can be simply brushed away, maybe with a subtle nod to the Akira Kurosawa filmography that cast members have universally said inspired all of this.
Whatever the reason, nobody online appears to angry about “Westworld.” Instead, fans are doing what they always do with this show — devote podcasts and reaction videos to fan theories about the plot. Maybe the secret to avoiding discussions of potential problematic areas is to shroud everything with intrigue about what comes next.
What did people in Japan think of this Edo replication? Well, nothing really, since the second season of “Westworld” didn’t premiere here on pay channel Star until May 24. So far, most chatter about the show has acknowledged the appearance of Japanese actors, which is a convenient promotional tool. We’ll have to wait and see if viewers here are as taken in by the Edo setting as Western viewers — or if they’re likely to be more fascinated by the storyline back in the Wild West.