Hiroyuki Sanada Pursues Authenticity of Feudal Japan in ‘Shogun’; Pushed for Detailed in Depiction of Characters

Courtesy of FX Networks

Hiroyuki Sanada, who showed the world the heart of a quintessential samurai in the film “The Last Samurai” in 2003, took on the challenge to replicate his feat in another Hollywood production: the 10-episode miniseries “Shogun.” The critically acclaimed historical drama has been streaming on Star on Disney+ since late February. This time, Sanada not only played the lead role but also served as a producer to ensure that the depiction of Japan during the tense aftermath of the Sengoku period (late 15th century to late 16th century) was true to life.

“I told them [the creative team] my conditions, saying, ‘If you accept my conditions that Japanese actors play Japanese characters and that period drama specialist staff be brought from Japan, then I’ll accept the offer,’” Sanada said, recounting his response to an offer to play the protagonist, Lord Yoshii Toranaga. It was around 2016, and the new “Shogun” was still in the planning stages.

The drama is based on the novel “Shogun” (1975) by James Clavell, which depicts a hegemonic struggle inspired by real warlords, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu (on whom the character of Toranaga is based), which culminates in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The novel also features an Englishman who was involved in the struggle. It was adapted into a TV miniseries in the United States in the 1980s, with Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga. It was a big hit, with an edited version also broadcast in Japan.

Sanada said he felt that it was his mission to remake “Shogun” after more than 40 years.

“Ieyasu has been my hero since childhood,” the actor said. “I was motivated to introduce the path of his life to the world simply because there’s a need for a hero today who can put an end to warfare and make the world a peaceful place.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroyuki Sanada

In addition to playing the lead, Sanada worked as a producer in charge of things associated with Japanese culture and he thoroughly pursued authenticity.

“Now you can see what’s fake and what’s not, simply by doing a little bit of research. We had to make it as realistic as possible so that viewers can focus on the story,” Sanada said.

He first booked creative staff and called on Japan’s specialists in wardrobe, wig-making and set design, with whom he had produced period dramas and films for nearly 40 years. He also made sure that each Japanese actor was taught by a specialist instructor on their role, be it samurai or lady-in-waiting. Props and wigs were brought from Kyoto. Some of them were produced in eclectic styles, combining Japanese and Western methods.

Sanada was involved in making the script as well and followed painstaking steps in the process.

“I checked the first draft [in English] to see whether there’s anything culturally off. Once the draft was translated into Japanese and examined by history experts for authenticity, a scriptwriter created the dialogue. Then, I changed them to suit each character, which was then translated back into English and brushed up before being approved as the final version,” Sanada said, adding that he always made certain that the script would sound neither Westernized nor modern.

Toranaga and his rivals are fictitious characters modeled on real-life historical warlords. Sanada has played some of those warlords, such as Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, who fought against Ieyasu in the Battle of Sekigahara. Because he played the part of these warlords in the past, Sanada understands their backgrounds very well.

“Since I also got myself involved in script-making, I knew Toranaga’s personality and role inside out. I was able to concentrate on playing the character without any trouble. It was as if I was told, ‘OK, now you can do the acting. That’s your main thing, right?’ as a reward for making all the preparations. I was able to thoroughly enjoy the process of acting,” he said.

He could work on the production in the way he liked thanks to the ample budget of the global streaming service.

“I do have my own obsession with films [for theatrical release], but, as a producer and an actor, I want as many people as possible to watch [my work]. It’s probably a matter of how one should ride the current of changes in society and continue making better work,” said Sanada, who seems to be flexibly accepting changes in media.

Sanada moved to Hollywood shortly after appearing in “The Last Samurai.”

“I wanted to put an end, in my time, to the era in which Japan is misrepresented on screen,” he said. Yet there was a limit to what he could say as an actor. Therefore, this time, “I took the producer role, and I could throw all my experience into the cause,” he said, looking fully satisfied.

Praise upon praise

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From left: Takehiro Hira, Fumi Nikaido, Cosmo Jarvis, Hiroyuki Sanada and Anna Sawai attend the official preview of “Shogun” in Tokyo.

Sanada received heaps of praise from fellow actors when “Shogun” was shown at an official preview in Tokyo. Cosmo Jarvis, who played the Englishman John Blackthorne, said Sanada was always available at his side when he wanted to ask him something about his character, who becomes Toranaga’s loyal retainer in the series.

“Even on the days when he [Sanada] had no scenes to shoot, he was on set from start to finish, even fixing the hair and costumes of extras,” said Takehiro Hira, who played Ishido Kazunari.

Hira recalled shooting a scene in extremely cold weather in Canada, in which Hira spoke with Ishido’s servant while on horseback. Sanada went back and forth between them and the director, who was giving instructions from a warm place far away, to convey the director’s words, according to Hira.

“It was so awe-inspiring I could hardly think about acting!” the actor said with a chuckle.

Tokuma Nishioka played a warlord under the control of Toranaga.

“Shooting was done amid the [COVID-19] pandemic,” he said. “Hiro [Sanada] wore two masks and a pair of goggles on his face and came to all the scenes, taking thorough measures against infection. We were all moved by his acting spirit.”

Hiroyuki Sanada: Born in 1960 and growing up in Tokyo, he has starred in many period pieces, such as “Taiheiki,” which was the 1991 NHK annual epic historical drama, and the film “Tasogare Seibei” (“The Twilight Samurai”). Since “The Last Samurai” in 2003, he moved his working base overseas and has appeared in such films as “47 Ronin” and “Bullet Train.”

‘Shogun’: Following the death of Taiko, the chief Imperial minister who unified Japan, his five regents are entrusted with the country’s future. One of them, Toranaga, is suspected of treason by Ishido, who brings Catholic daimyo feudal lords over to his side. Toranaga joins hands with non-Catholic English pilot John Blackthorne, who has been cast ashore in Japan after a shipwreck. Together, they confront Ishido.