Carlos Rosario: The Samurai and the Sailor

By Gary V. Foss and Anna Wyckoff | May 17, 2024


The Samurai and the Sailor

At the beginning of the period of samurai culture in Japan that would influence everything from animation to spaghetti westerns, a lone Englishman aboard a derelict Dutch privateer ship landed in Izu and became enmeshed in the intrigue that would usher in the Edo Shogunate. The real-life Tokugawa engaged in a deadly game of wits for a kingdom without a crown in a court without a throne. In 1979 James Clavell published a fictionalized version of that historical period with names changed and a 1980s miniseries adaptation of his novel captured a global audience and garnered the highest Nielsen rating to date for NBC.

The first question costume designer Carlos Rosario fields about FX’s 2024 adaptation always concerns historical accuracy. “I’ve always been a fan of Japanese culture, but I’ve never done anything like it. That’s what our job is as costume designers.” Born in Perpignan, France, Rosario trained at the École Supérieure de la Mode in Paris before serving as an assistant designer at Christian Dior Homme. In 1995 he arrived in Los Angeles and worked for Colleen Atwood and others before embarking on his own. His projects range from The Girl in the Spider’s Web to the upcoming Alien: Romulus.

Because few garments exist from the 1600s, he and his team turned to experts, museums, art, and historical texts to understand the nuances of textiles and clothing in feudal Japan. He also enlisted kimono experts to ensure the intricate language of the garment was honored. In all, around 2,300 costumes were handmade for the show.

Rather than watch the previous miniseries, Rosario forged his own “psychological and spiritual relationships with the characters.” He explains, “You live and breathe with them for two years… so I wanted to start from scratch.” The action is set during the transition between the turbulent Sengoku period and flamboyant Edo period. Rosario used this window to lean into the raw reality of the people, focusing on the organic qualities of textiles and drawing inspiration from nature. With thousands on-screen during the course of the 10-episode miniseries, color was essential to delineate armies, fealties, and sympathies.

Yoshii Toranaga

Lord Yoshii Toranaga is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who was also a producer, in a restrained yet emotional performance. Turmoil registers in his eyes as he remains outwardly unflappable. His costumes’ splendor and restrained elegance mirror his personality. As the commander of the “brown army,” his palette focuses on earth tones in rich copper and golds, with hints of maroon. Rosario reflects his metallic theme in the steely grays and blue costumes of Ishido Kazunari (Takehiro Hira) the leader of the “gray army” and Toranaga’s chief rival. The samurai armor is a feat. Exquisitely detailed, it consumed most of the five-month prep time. Adding a layer to the complexity was building and rebuilding to accommodate battles. Rosario notes, “That was a little bit heartbreaking. All these beautiful pieces, and then they end up in a field full of mud and blood.”

A conversation with the daughter of director Akira Kurasawa was revelatory. When asked if lords are more subdued when they go to the village, she responded, “Oh, no. That is the moment they want to show their wealth and power.” The thought stayed with Rosario. To assert Toranaga’s authority, Rosario gave him new garments for every scene in the first episode.

Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) is a rogue, sychophant, plotter, and pawn, trying to navigate a political world that remains opaque even as he plays his hand. Rosario says, “Because he plays by his own rules, I wanted to give him a look that was unique. We gave his jinbaori spiky, greasy feathers which makes him read like a broke rock star in a way that’s a little bit punk. His helmet, based on an original, was made out of horse hair that made it feel like a lion’s mane.”

John Blackthorne

Showing the transformation of Blackthorne, also called Anjin (Cosmo Jarvis), from half-starved sailor to Japanese noble was literally about stripping him down and building him back up. After the removal of his ragged britches and blouse, he wears a simple kosode. Rosario says, “We dyed the fabric 35 times to get the color right. It removes his identity and gave me space to add different Japanese pieces to his costume.” Trapped between factions he is powerless to control, Blackthorne’s clothing complements his character arc. As he becomes more deeply assimilated into the culture and gains stature, he wears more elaborate costumes and carries his consort’s family sword, or katana, the symbol of samurai status.

Toda Mariko

We are introduced to Mariko (Anna Sawai) whose monochromatic colors symbolize her lack of purpose. With the weight of her family’s shame, she is divided between her Catholic faith and her loyalty to Lord Toranaga. As she assumes the role of translator for Blackthorne, her costumes bloom as she finds empowerment. For her final scene, her white costumes are layered with a multiplicity of meanings. There is a moment that seems uniquely bridal by western standards, but carries another connotation when the harbinger of death in Japanese color symbology infuses it with the innocence of the martyr.

In contrast to Mariko’s restraint is Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), the mother of the heir. To signify her rank, she wears five layers total. The outer uchikake is silk-
screened and hand painted. She glides in and out of scenes like a figure in a painting.

Background characters may have less screen time, but every costume has a backstory. Rosario used scale as an asset to build a seamless and captivating world that captures the 17th century in a way that the modern audience can lose themselves in. But the volume of work was daunting. Rosario says, “I told my crew, if we survive the first two days, it will be OK. When that first day happened and everything came alive, it just became magical.”