'Shogun' star and producer Hiroyuki Sanada talks epic new show

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PASADENA, Calif. – Hiroyuki Sanada was already one of Japan's most respected actors when he appeared in his first Hollywood film, 2003's „The Last Samurai,” in which he had a tense scene with star Tom Cruise.

Sanada had to swing his samurai blade up to the neck of global superstar Cruz in a drama set in 19th century Japan. Cruise insisted that the actor use a sword rather than a folding knife, which would be enhanced with special effects.

„I took a full swing and then stopped touching his skin, but there was no injury,” says Sanada. „He never blinked. So he trusted me. I trusted him. It was a great moment.”

The role is the first in Sanada's decades-long career working on Hollywood projects — and lending his Japanese cultural expertise. That quest culminated at age 63 with his role as Lord Yoshi Toranaga in FX's epic series „Shogun,” for which he is also a first-time producer. (Tuesdays, 10 EST/PST and streaming on Hulu) is the Disney-owned network's most expensive and ambitious project yet.

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„When I came to Hollywood, my aim was to show our culture properly. If there is a wall between East and West, I want to break it down,” says Sanada. „So yes, dreams do come true.”

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Born in Tokyo, Sanada recalls the original 1980 miniseries „Shogun,” based on author James Clavell's best-selling 1975 historical novel. The NBC event, starring Richard Chamberlain as English sailor John Blackthorne and legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as warrior Toran, „was big news for Japan,” he says.

„Of course I saw it,” says Sanada, who celebrated his role in the 1998 horror film „The Ring” in Japan portraying ninjas and samurai. „But I'm not interested in making a Japanese story in Hollywood.”

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The actor began exporting his considerable talents with „Last Samurai,” where he instructed Cruise on how to wear the traditional obi belt and how to properly hold a samurai sword.

After moving to Los Angeles in 2005, Sanada has continued to lend his cultural input to acting projects including an android samurai in HBO's „Westworld” and a kunai-wielding scorpion in 2021's „Mortal Kombat” as warrior Shimazu Koji in Keanu Achieves 20s 20s 3. „John Wick 4: Chapter 4.”

But when the husband-and-wife team of Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, „Shogun” executive producers and writers, cast Sanada in the role of Toranaka, they pressed the actor for that expertise along with the official role of producer.

„I have this title for the first time,” says Sanatha with a smile. „For the first time, I'm not consulting as an actor. After 20 years in Hollywood, I'm a producer. That means I can say anything whenever I want.”

The „Shogun” star made it his mission to ensure the authenticity of the 10-episode series, which delves deep into the fabric of 1600 Japanese culture and expands the story's vision.

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The new „Shogun” weaves a complex story of palace intrigue through the perspectives of several Japanese characters. Sanada's shrewd strategist Toranaka enlists the beleaguered Blackthorne (now played by British actor Cosmo Jarvis) to fend off his scheming enemies in the Council of Regents with the help of fiercely loyal translator Lady Mariko (Anna Savai).

Filmed in Vancouver, Canada, Sanada spearheaded the effort to hire Japanese consultants for costumes and props as well as stunt coordinators and motion consultants, Marks says.

„I had a group for the first time,” Sanada says. „I carried the pressure of being a producer on my shoulders. But more than that I was happy.”

Sanada went on to fight „better and better” every day, gathering Japanese audiences who were very knowledgeable about even the most subtle details or screen moves. „If something goes wrong, people can't focus on the drama. They don't want to watch that kind of show. We have to be authentic,” he says.

Marks says that Sanada was not just the lead actor but a „full partner” in the production. He recalls the actor dismounting his horse after shooting a major battle scene and finding his place next to the monitor in full samurai armor to scrutinize even the slightest background movement in the bare-shot scenes. „Besides being No. 1 on the goal sheet, Hero's work makes sure we get everything right,” says Marks.

His work as a producer made directing the quietly powerful and intelligent Toranaka almost effortless, says Sanada. „After I prepared everything from the props in the scene to the other actors, I was very relaxed in front of the camera and I felt free,” says Sanada. „I can be there and breathe as my character and act like him.”

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He looks forward to seeing „Shogun” around the world, including on Disney+ in Japan. „I'm very confident and a little nervous; a mix,” he says of his home country's reaction to the series. „We've done our best and people will always have their opinions. However, I think they will enjoy this real samurai drama made in Hollywood.”

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