Hiroyuki Sanada: “Sonny Chiba opened my eyes to the world”

Hiroyuki Sanada: “Sonny Chiba opened my eyes to the world”

Having become an essential face of Hollywood action films, the Japanese actor is the hero of Shōgun, a major feudal series produced by Disney on the history of his country. Hiroyuki Sanada tells us.

Child actor from the age of 5, then legendary student Sonny Chiba in Japan, Hiroyuki Sanada has made a place for himself in Hollywood for two decades. His mastery of martial arts (shōrinji kenpō and Kyokushinkai karate) coupled with his sense of choreography and direction have made him an essential face of Hollywood action films of the 21st century. First rival of Last Samurai opposite Tom Cruise (2003), he then faced Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine (in 2013) then Brad Pitt in Bullet Train (2022) or more recently Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4 (in 2023). An atypical journey which led him to Shōgun, a great historical saga adapted from the 1975 novel (by James Clavell), to watch from Tuesday February 27 on Disney Plus in France. Meeting with Hiroyuki Sanada.

FIRST: You were, at a very young age, a student of the legend Sonny Chiba. How did he influence the actor you became?
Hiroyuki Sanada : I learned a lot under his wing. Above all because it opened my eyes to the world. He taught me that we shouldn’t just focus on the Japanese market. He obviously taught me combat, for action scenes, but also how to act with the future in mind. To not only be obsessed with the present, but to see further. To anticipate the distant future, to build a career by imagining yourself 30 or 40 years later. His teaching was crucial for me.

Precisely, in Shōgunisn’t there this ambition to be a bridge between Asian culture and Western culture?
Yes, I believe this series can be a step forward. Maybe not a bridge (laughing)… But from there, I would like to try to bring certain actors, certain artists out of Japan, to introduce them to the world. This is a mission that I set for myself. So this series is a great opportunity to introduce Japanese culture to the whole world. This is why I wanted to be as authentic as possible. Especially since my character, Yoshi Toranaga, is inspired by a real Shogun essential in the history of Japan: Tokugawa Ieyasu. He is a hero of our history, who was able to put an end to wars between regions and establish a period of peace in the country for almost 300 years. We need this kind of hero these days, as a role model.

How do you film a series about Japanese culture in an essentially Hollywood production, in Vancouver?
Fortunately, I have quite a bit of experience in this area. I’ve already had the chance to shoot quite a few films with Western crews, while playing a Japanese role. I learned to collaborate with them in such a way that the result would appeal to a Western audience, while remaining faithful to my culture. That the Japanese public can see the film and say: yes, this is my history, my culture! It’s sometimes difficult to explain certain things on set, to make adjustments or corrections. But little by little, I think I’m getting there and I hope that everything I’ve learned in the past in Hollywood has helped Shōgun.

The action sequences in the series are impressive. How did you imagine them?
They are difficult to create, especially when they are thought of separately from the rest of the drama. I don’t like it to be honest. I prefer that the action always correlates with the drama. I believe that the emotion of a scene creates the spark of action and we imagine the choreography from there. I remember filming an escape sequence on Shōgun, in the middle of the night. There were flaming arrows falling everywhere, and we fought all night. It’s a beautiful scene, very important for Toranaga, which we shot over two full nights. It was very cool to film.

Shōgun, season 1 in 10 episodes, will be available to watch on Disney Plus from February 27.

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