A Hiro’s Journey

After two decades of playing memorable roles in Hollywood, Hiroyuki Sanada is finally getting his due on “Shōgun”

Hiroyuki Sanada measures his success in sunsets. 

The child model–turned–performer was practically raised on the bustling sets of yakuza films, starting with 1965’s “A Game of Chance (Rokyoku komori-uta)”; the actor says reaching the end of a workday meant he “could finally calm down and relax.” Later, when he was in his 20s and making a name for himself in the death-defying Hong Kong action scene of the late 1980s, seeing another nightfall after an afternoon of crashing through sugar glass and hanging off moving cars meant that he “survived without an accident.” 

“Every time,” Sanada remembers, “the sunset healed me.” 

This ritual remained true after the actor made the leap from his native Japan to California when he was in his 40s. This was before he became the recognizable, magnetic screen presence American audiences came to embrace over the next two decades. He was just another new face in town, living in a small apartment in Santa Monica. Every evening, he’d watch the sun set on another marathon day of agent meetings, acting classes, English lessons, and auditions. His only comfort was knowing that the Pacific Ocean, painted purple at dusk, stretched to the shores of his home country, where he was already a household name. 

“At that time, I didn’t have a manager or an agent here. I didn’t know: Can I survive here or not?” Sanada says. “But [I thought], This ocean connects to Japan—my country. I can go back anytime.” 

Hiroyuki Sanada

There have been a lot of sunsets since then, and almost as many successes. Sanada broke through to an international audience with Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” in 2003, stealing a rain-soaked sword-fight scene from the biggest star in the world, Tom Cruise. From there, he quickly became one of the most reliable hired hands in Hollywood. From the early aughts onward, Sanada would get a call if a filmmaker needed to add a touch of quiet charisma and gravitas to the genre mix, in projects like Danny Boyle’s sci-fi flick “Sunshine” (2007), Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s HBO mind-trip “Westworld” (2016), the Russo brothers’ box office–breaking “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), and Chad Stahelski’s gun fu sequel “John Wick: Chapter 4.” 

For 20 years, Sanada gave Hollywood his all. In many ways, “Shōgun” feels like the industry finally returning the favor. 

Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks’ sprawling FX on Hulu series, adapted from James Clavell’s 1975 historical novel, marks a defining moment in Sanada’s career. He stars as Lord Yoshii Toranaga, a character based on Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who ushered in Japan’s prosperous 265-year Edo Period beginning in 1603. Toranaga is a shrewd general navigating the political schemes of his four fellow regents and the culture-shaking arrival of English Protestant sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis)—an analog of English adventurer William Adams. 

“I learned that mixing cultures to make something new that no one has ever seen before is so difficult; but it’s important, and it’s interesting.”

Sanada’s lead performance is a staggering exercise in projecting power through subtle gestures alone. His producing credit on “Shōgun”—shockingly, the first in his nearly 60-year career—put the onus of the project’s success on his shoulders in a way he’d never experienced before. “Of course, I had the pressure [of] the responsibility of our culture,” he says. 

But Sanada is ready to carry that weight. He’s been planning for it since the beginning, thanks to early guidance from his mentor Sonny Chiba, who played the actor’s onscreen father in three films. As a teen, Sanada trained at Chiba’s hybrid stunt-acting academy, the Japan Action Club—where, in between learning the ins and outs of onscreen ass-kicking, he got lessons in playing the long game. 

“For Mr. Sonny Chiba, the big thing was [to] always be ambitious and think about 10 years, 20 years…in the future,” Sanada says. That advice extended beyond the actor’s time in Japan. “[Chiba said to] think about the world market. That’s why I was so focused in my 30s, 40s, and even my 20s—when I was an idol action star or something—always thinking, No, no, no; this is not my goal.” 

Starting in his teens, Sanada threw himself into any project he thought might launch him onto the global stage. His early North Stars were triple threats like Gene Kelly and leading men who were willing to do their own stunts, such as John Wayne and Steve McQueen. “I started thinking, If I can be an actor in the future, I want to do everything by myself. That’s why I started dancing, singing, [doing] action and martial arts, and horseback riding. I made a menu [so I could train] every day,” he says. 

Hiroyuki Sanada

When he was in his 30s and frustrated by his stifling public persona as an action star, Sanada specifically sought out more challenging material, including the 1997 TV drama “A Story of Love (Kon’na koi no hanashi)” and Hideo Nakata’s influential 1998 horror thriller “Ringu.” At the age of 40, Sanada accepted an invitation to play the Fool in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear” despite the fact that he wasn’t yet fully fluent in English. 

“From the beginning of the show, I felt the tension: ‘Who’s that Asian guy?’ But at the end, I got applause,” he remembers. “I learned that mixing cultures to make something new that no one has ever seen before is so difficult; but it’s important, and it’s interesting. If I didn’t have that experience in London, I wouldn’t have taken an audition for an international project like ‘The Last Samurai.’ So, Shakespeare changed my life.” 

But when Sanada started transitioning to American productions, he often found himself fulfilling a role he hadn’t prepared for: unofficial expert on cultural authenticity. He recalls that while rehearsing the famous sword clash in “The Last Samurai,” his main focus (besides “just don’t make [Tom Cruise] injured,” he says with a laugh) was tweaking the choreography to better reflect the samurai fighting style. During the filming of Japan-set stories like Carl Rinsch’s “47 Ronin” (2013) and James Mangold’s “The Wolverine” (2013), Sanada would subtly suggest ways to make them feel more genuine, down to the specific ways characters should hold themselves, talk, and dress. 

“Every story about Japan, I consulted [on] and adjusted,” Sanada says. “But I started feeling the limits [of] saying something just as an actor. It was a hesitation—I don’t want to break their pride, the crews.”

Which is why, more than anything, becoming a producer on “Shōgun” feels like such a major milestone for him. “For 20 years, I’ve done all of those things alone, but I had a team this time,” he says. Along with Kondo and Marks, Sanada helped assemble a crew that included Hannojoh, the show’s master of gestures; samurai and period movement advisers Daiki Ishida and Akiko Kobayashi; and technical supervisor Toru Harada, who coached the cast on small but key details of shosagoto, a traditional movement style derived from Kabuki theater. 

“That was so helpful for me,” Sanada says of having this Japanese crew behind him. “After preparing everything as a producer and in front of the camera as an actor, I could relax more and just focus on doing my ordinary job, just enjoying the collaboration. It was a great balance for me.” 

“Balance” is the operative word here. “We had to fashion a new stool for [Sanada] in video village so he could go between acting in a scene to monitoring it behind the camera while in full battle armor,” Kondo recounts via email.

Sanada laughs at the memory. “It never felt tiring…. Some kind of energy came into my body from somewhere; maybe that’s adrenaline or something.”

Hiroyuki Sanada

To hear Kondo tell it, the actor’s full-bore commitment was fueled by the memory of his own hard-won ascent in the industry. “I once asked him how he felt about playing the iconic role of Toranaga at this particular stage in his career,” she says. “While I thought he would talk about feeling gratified or excited, he simply said he was doing it for the younger actors.” 

Sanada’s costar Anna Sawai can attest to this. The 31-year-old former pop star gives a breakthrough performance as Toda Mariko, a mysterious highborn woman who serves as the translator between Toranaga and Blackthorne. Sawai met Sanada long before cameras started rolling at a Vancouver training camp for actors to get acquainted with period-appropriate choreography. 

“Hiro would always be there,” she says. “I have videos of myself trying to memorize certain movements, and he’s always in the video. You can hear him come in and give just a little bit more for the actors to understand.”

On set, Sanada became a Toranaga-esque authority figure—a lordly elder statesman the cast would seek out for answers to even the most obscure questions. 

“We learned that women [in the 1600s] would have their knees closed, even when they were fighting for their lives,” Sawai explains. “I brought up the question of: Shouldn’t they be thinking less about the knees and more about getting away? Hiro was always there to provide that meaning. We all trusted him to be the one to decide in the end. You could just tell that everyone knew that he was there to provide the most knowledge, and we could rely on him because he had so much experience.” 

Sanada’s guidance wasn’t just invaluable when it came to period details; he also always knew just the right way to elicit authentic performances from his scene partners. Sawai thinks back to a particularly challenging sequence in which Mariko, bound by the complex marital laws of the time, asks Toranaga for permission to take her own life alongside her husband. It’s an emotionally raw moment; but take after take, Sawai struggled to find the vulnerability the scene required. 

“[Sanada] was just like, ‘Look, every struggle that you’re feeling is probably true to the character,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘[Mariko is] not really allowed to express herself. That’s not her personality; that’s not the community; that’s not the culture. She feels lost, and that’s why she’s asking for permission.’ That took the weight off my shoulders, because I needed someone to tell me it’s OK that I’m confused.”

Sanada made it his mission to get the best out of his “Shōgun” castmates. “When they had done a great performance and all the producers and directors said, ‘Yes, this is it,’ then I was like, ‘Yes, I’m proud of them; I’m so happy,’ ” he says. “I feel like a parent. I’m happier for them than when people applaud my own performance.” 

Hiroyuki Sanada coverTo the creatives watching him work from the sidelines, Sanada’s words felt genuine. “I think it’s really true,” Kondo says. “[Sanada’s hope] is that because of [the impact of] ‘Shōgun,’ perhaps working toward that iconic role won’t take as long for them as it did for him.”

Sawai agrees. “It was my first time seeing anyone so selflessly passionate about the work. He just loves the art; that’s all it is. There’s no ego. I’m only now realizing that maybe it’s because I’ve seen Hiro on set making this happen with FX and Justin and Rachel…[or] maybe because I just saw a fellow Japanese actor become a producer, I’m starting to believe that I can also do it. Hiro showed me that it’s possible. I think we all need that kind of example, because if no one’s done it, you think, How am I supposed to do it?”

For young actors overseas looking to follow in his footsteps, Sanada echoes a piece of wisdom Chiba gave him: Think years ahead, think ambitiously, and think global. “[Speaking] English is very important; it’s a license to working [in Hollywood],” he advises. Beyond that, “Just be yourself, and believe in yourself. Never give up; that’s the only thing I can say.” 

And yes, still, Sanada will “100%” take any chance he can get to see a sunset. But these days, he doesn’t have to do it alone.

This story originally appeared in the June 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast to hear our full conversation with Sanada. 

Photographed by Roger Erickson on 5/3 in L.A.

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