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With ‘Shogun,’ Hollywood Icon Hiroyuki Sanada Takes On the Project of a Lifetime

With ‘Shogun,’ Hollywood Icon Hiroyuki Sanada Takes On the Project of a Lifetime
With ‘Shogun,’ Hollywood Icon Hiroyuki Sanada Takes On the Project of a Lifetime

There’s surely no precedent for the career of Hiroyuki Sanada, which spans more than a dozen big-screen blockbusters and TV series including Westworld and Lost—all of which came after more than three decades of work in his native Japan. But this moment still feels seismic. For the first time in his nearly 60 years of acting, the Last Samurai breakout and John Wick: Chapter 4 scene-stealer topped the call sheet of a Hollywood production on FX’s Shōgun, the epic new adaptation of James Clavell’s landmark 1975 novel. (The first two episodes are now streaming on Hulu.) He received his first-ever producer credit on the show, painstakingly poring over every detail of the production’s lavish, nuanced portrait of feudal Japan. And he found himself giving a performance unlike any he’d given before.

For fans of Sanada, most familiar for wielding swords opposite and dispensing wisdom to some of the town’s biggest stars, this marks a thrilling step forward. As the actor candidly reveals in our wide-ranging conversation, the roles available to a Japanese actor in American movies and shows have historically leaned stereotypical, thin, and culturally inaccurate. His mission has been to correct that tradition, and it’s hard to think of a better example than what he pulls off in Shōgun—both in front of and behind the camera.

In a series based on real events and told mostly in Japanese—a contrast to the previous 1980 adaptation of the novel—he plays Yoshii Toranaga, a daimyo (a lord subordinate to Japan’s overall military leader, or shōgun) clinging to power at a turning point in 16th-century Japan, whose political ambitions are challenged by the arrival of a rebellious English sailor named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), who’s been shipwrecked in Japan—and left under his watch.

Sanada’s physical performance is, as always, a marvel. But it’s the cunning intricacies, the heart and liveness of the role’s dimensions, that mark a thrilling new showcase for an icon of the screen.

Hiroyuki Sanada with Anna Sawai

Copyright 2024, FX. All Rights Reserved.

Vanity Fair: Is acting and producing simultaneously something that you had been familiar with coming into this project? How did it challenge you, and what did the producing, particularly, entail?

Hiroyuki Sanada: I’ve wanted to make something about Japanese culture in Hollywood. I’ve wanted to correct and introduce our culture to the world in an authentic way for such a long time. When I got the title of producer, I was happy. I thought, It’s a good chance to correct everything.

I really enjoyed doing both. I was on set every day, even if I had no shooting as an actor. I had a chance to learn how to collaborate with the Western crew to try to make this authentic. This is 20 years after The Last Samurai, the experience that trained me. I put all my knowledge and experience into this show. And I’m not alone. I could hire a Japanese crew who has experience making props, wigs, costumes. Each department has a consultant from Japan. I just ordered them to correct everything, and then if there’s any problem, they talk to me. [Laughs]

I wanted to introduce our culture to the world correctly. That was my dream. Everything—language and movement are an important part of our culture. Speaking as an actor who was born and grew up in Japan, it’s a good education for the young generation of Japanese actors as well as filmmakers. I learned a lot from so many great masters in Japan, so now I need to give back to them. That’s my mission as I age. I wanted to look to the future.

It’s such a massive production. What did you learn about making something on this scale?

I was always surprised by the huge scale of the set. But as an actor, I was just happy to act in front of the huge-scale set. As a producer, I wanted to make a good balance between scale and the small details of the characters—of Japanese culture. I’ve learned a lot on how to make a good balance between scale and detail. It was the most important thing on set. It’s a little difficult to understand each other, but day by day we learned from each other and then understood each other.

What attracted you to playing Yoshii Toranaga at this point in your career?

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