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Emmy Contender: Westworld's Shōgun World was inspired by Kurosawa and cowboys

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Aug 21, 2018, 4:36 PM EDT (Updated)

Shōgun World didn’t have to be completely period-accurate. As a mirror of the frontier town in Westworld, the feudal Japanese-themed park was designed for guests who wished to trade in prostitutes for geishas and gunslingers for ninjas, and that was all that was really required. But production designer Howard Cummings — a two-time Emmy winner — says he was "really nervous."

Although Cummings had spent a lot of time researching the Edo period in Japanese history (1603 to 1868, to be specific), he was about to face the ultimate test: the reactions of the Japanese actors making guest appearances in the series when they stepped onto his sets. Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, and Rinko Kikuchi, he thought, would easily be able to assess the authenticity of his work.

"Suddenly I’ve got real Japanese actors walking in my space, which is supposed to replicate something they all grew up with," Cummings says. "I was very relieved to find out that they all felt it was accurate." The actors also aided him as de facto cultural advisors, suggesting things such as areas where teahouse guests would remove and store their shoes.

Cummings told SYFY WIRE about the pains he took to create Shōgun World, the Akira Kurosawa films that shaped it, and how his research gave Maeve a weapon.

Shogun World, Westworld

Credit: HBO

What were your inspirations for the mountain town, the teahouse, and the war camp?

The task I was plagued with on this that the mountain town and the tea house had to be set up in the same way as the town of Sweetwater and the Mariposa Saloon because it was a rip-off of that whole storyline. So we looked for a bunch of places to try to build this town, and I was walking down a side street in the Western town of Sweetwater built on Melody Ranch, and I had some research of mountain towns that I had done, and I looked at the references and I went, "Wait a minute. This little Western town could definitely be repurposed, re-faced to make a mountain town."

So I actually did the mountain town in a parallel street that I expanded right next to the Western town. At the top of the shot, when people are riding in and they’re being dragged through the streets, if you look to the left, you can actually see the Mariposa Saloon. [Laughs]

We framed it out, but it was great that it was right there.

Our original plan was maybe to go to some location, like Big Bear Lake, somewhere with pine trees that might look a little more like Japanese mountains. But we did everything in Santa Clarita. You can see it right outside my office.

So your office is basically in Shōgun World!

Yeah! It was, which was great. We had a pretty heavy use of Japanese planting, to get away from the California-ness of it all. The western town is the exact opposite. There’s not a single plant to be seen. My idea was to load with very specific Japanese plantings, and to have narrower streets that felt more like a mountain village as opposed to a big western town.

Westworld, Shogun World

Credit: HBO

Traditional Japanese teahouses aren’t usually two-stories, though.

Right! When I started researching them, I found some very tall ones, but they’re not usually two-story. I finally found one that was, the Japanese house from the Huntington Gardens. And I sort of slammed the form of that together with what the Western saloon looked like to make a sort of hybrid, but built as an authentic Japanese house.

Originally, we thought we were going to have to do this as a set build, and build this only as an exterior, but because Japanese houses have shōji screens, it actually made more sense to build the structure all as one piece. Because you see the open framing, it had to be built the same way you’d build a Japanese house. I had to get a bunch of books on how to build Edo-period houses because I didn’t know. They’re deceptively simple-looking, but they’re actually full of detail and history.

We actually also found this interesting rig for Japanese teapots, and I turned it into a weapon.

What? Where?

When Maeve is kind of screwing with the mind of this ninja guy, and he ends up stabbing his eye out. I found it during the research, and I had the writer add it in.

Shogun World, Westworld

Credit: HBO

Akira Kurosawa films were also an influence in the production design?

I was talking to [showrunner] Jonah Nolan, and he loved the simplicity of the interiors of this one movie, Yojimbo, so I went and took screen grabs of what that looked like. So it was a kind of a mash-up of westerns, Huntington Gardens, and Kurosawa movies, all molded into this mirror image of the Mariposa.

Originally, Jonah’s script for this episode put the Shōgun scenes in a palace, instead of a war camp.

Oh, you heard about that? We actually scouted in Oahu [where] there’s a replica of an Edo-period temple called the Byodo-In Temple. We actually thought at one point we were going to use that for the outside of this palace. But it was going to be very challenging to do that in the middle of the production.

In the end, Jonah was inspired by another Kurosawa movie, Ran, and the Japanese war camp in that. The war camp is defined by eight-foot-high curtain walls with all these graphics and emblems, and they’re called jinmaku. And the idea was that the Shōgun would come to them, with the jinmaku, and I thought this was a great solution because it was really graphic. You don’t really see that. I thought that was more evocative than going to shoot at a place like Yamashiro. I actually went up to Yamashiro to look at it, and it has a beautiful courtyard, but that was about it. So this more graphic idea, that was Jonah’s inspiration, directly lifted off of Kurosawa’s Ran.

Perhaps also Throne of Blood?

Definitely also Throne of Blood. I love the opening of Throne of Blood, where they ride up and there’s a giant palace behind them, but when the warlord comes out, they put up a giant curtain. It’s just so eerily interesting.

You also recreated Edo period paintings or murals?

In the teahouse, I borrowed an Edo period image, "Old Plum" by Kano Sansetsu, a gold leaf image of an old shriveled tree. You could have done it with lots of cherry blossom imagery, but I thought this sort of weird gnarled tree was more Westworld in its viewpoint. Whenever I was trying to make choices, it would have to relate not only to Shōgun World but also to Westworld, because it’s kind of the same mind, the same vision. I felt like I was using their national treasure!