'Shogun' Star Hiyoruki Sanada Has Stolen Scenes From Tom, Brad, and Keanu. Now It's His Turn to Rule


His first international jump was to London, where Sanada landed a role in the 1998 Japanese stage production of “Hamlet.” After one of the shows, producer Nigel Hawthorne offered him a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear,” which surprised the actor. He’d never expected to take an English-speaking stage role until the end of his career—or at least until he was confidently fluent. “I was scared, I had no experience in front of an audience,” Sanada says. “But the producers told me, ‘You are an actor before you are Japanese.’” Their message set off “a gong in my head,” he says. He considered what his career 10 years later might look like if he refused the offer. It wasn’t long before he embarked on “the biggest challenge of my life.”

“That experience taught me a lot about how important mixing culture was and making something new that no one had ever seen,” Sanada adds. “I decided to take on international projects like that for the future.”

Sanada estimates that if he hadn’t participated in “King Lear,” he probably wouldn’t have received an audition for The Last Samurai. The movie, which earned $454 million at the global box office, is told from the perspective of a white man, but Sanada felt portraying the warrior Ujio was his only chance to add a layer of authenticity to a rare Hollywood samurai project. “Even if it’s my first and last Hollywood movie, I needed to say something if I felt something was incorrect about our culture,” Sanada says. “That was my motivation at that time.” In his recently-published memoir, Zwick remembers the actor stepping up in a big way. “I came to count on Sanada’s vast experience in martial arts…to help me stage the many fighting scenes,” the director wrote.

Ultimately, the industry took notice. Ujio became Sanada’s blueprint for numerous future projects, intriguing filmmakers with his swordplay and ability to smuggle in an overpowering, stoic presence that few peers could replicate. To his credit, Sanada always approached each role with a discerning eye, making sure he was able to perform stunts that worked in tandem with his character and the drama. Even in brief appearances, like his role as hotel owner in John Wick 4, Sanada makes it easy to believe he and Wick are old friends, despite it being his first appearance in the series. “The trick is to cast someone that has so much gravitas,” director Chad Stahelski told me last year. “In life, Hiroyuki is a professor of Japanese studies. He loves his culture, loves his job, and he’s the most honorable human you’ll ever meet.”

In some senses, Shogun is a reminder that Sanada’s strengths as an actor don’t strictly rely on armor. During one sequence in the third episode, he and Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) establish a kinship when the British pilot teaches him how to dive off his ship into the bay, repeatedly plunging into the water until Toranaga relents and dives in after him. It’s a gesture that lifts the facade of his lordship and turns him into someone youthful again. “Luckily I only had to jump once,” Sanada says, recalling the cold temperatures during filming that day. “It’s a very important moment, the beginning of their buddy era.” It’s also a window into Sanada’s intentions for the series, highlighting the multiplexity of regal Japanese characters. “That’s what I wanted to show,” he says. “The human being.”

As he considers more acting roles and upcoming projects, Sanada hopes to chase more producing opportunities “and introduce Japanese talent and stories to the world.” He also wants to keep being an inspiration for younger actors, channeling Chiba’s wisdom by looking towards the future and building more incentives abroad. “Little by little, I’ve broken the wall and opened the door,” Sanada reflects. After two decades of living in Los Angeles, he hopes his new leadership role and lifelong dedication to cultural accuracy won’t go unnoticed. “Shogun is going to be a big step into the future, a big bridge between east and west,” Sanada says. “I want to make this bridge harder and stronger and smoother.”



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