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Shogun actor Sanada changes Hollywood's vision of Japan

Shogun actor Sanada changes Hollywood's vision of Japan


Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada no longer fights off-screen battles as he stars in the new miniseries “Shogun.”

In the past, during his appearances in Hollywood films, he has fought to offer an authentic representation of Japan and not a stereotypical Westernized image.

Sanada, 63, said he expressed his opinion whenever he felt uncomfortable about the way Japanese people were portrayed in a film he was cast in.

But his comments often didn't make much of a difference in the final edit.

I always thought there was a limit to what I could do as an actor, he said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Sanada plays a dual role in the latest production of the historical epic set in feudal Japan.

He also stars in and is a producer on “Shogun,” which gives him more control over the depiction of Japan and Japanese characters.

Sanada's Hollywood debut came in 2003, when he appeared in The Last Samurai, a period action drama starring Tom Cruise that became a worldwide box office hit.

He later moved his base to Los Angeles to appear in a number of notable Japan-related films, including The Wolverine, a 2013 superhero film; 47 Ronin, a 2013 historical fantasy action film; and the 2020 biographical drama Minamata.

Before that, Hollywood had made Japanese-themed films like House of Bamboo, a 1955 crime drama starring Yoshiko Yamaguchi; Sayonara, a 1957 interracial love story starring Marlon Brando; and The Barbarian and the Geisha, a 1958 historical romantic drama starring John Wayne.

But most of these films tended to present Japan through the imagery of Orientalism from a Western perspective, such as that represented by Mount Fuji and geishas.

So when he was offered a dual role as actor and producer on Shogun, a highly acclaimed 10-episode series now streaming on Disney+, Sanada jumped at the chance.

Initially, she was only offered to star in the project, which was first announced in 2018.

But the new series' co-creators, Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, asked him to become a producer because “they didn't want the production to seem weird to Japanese audiences.”

I told them that's what I wanted so much, he remembers.

Shogun is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by James Clavell, told through the eyes of an English navigator who landed in Japan in 1600, when the country was on the brink of civil war.

Navigator John Blackthorne was inspired by William Adams (1564-1620), Japan's first known Western samurai.

Blackthorne finds himself embroiled in the political conflicts between the warlords, but he skillfully maneuvers around them to reach the highest heights of Japan.

The first adaptation of the 1975 novel was made into a television miniseries by the NBC network in the United States in 1980, becoming a huge ratings success.

In the remake, Sanada plays Yoshii Toranaga, the main character inspired by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted for more than 250 years.

Toranaga, a cunning master strategist who rarely reveals his thoughts, seeks power to become the next ruler, through grueling political schemes and intrigues to outwit his rivals.

Toranaga sees the benefits of allying with Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis). The two men were linked by Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), Toranaga's vassal and converted Catholic, who serves as Blackthorne's translator.

The original miniseries was ultimately Blackthorne's story told from the perspective of a Western outsider, relegating the Japanese characters to subsidiary roles.

But in the new version, the emphasis is on very detailed narration of the story of the Japanese characters, describing their interpersonal relationships and bringing depth to these principles.

I decided to incorporate more Japanese perspectives into our show, Sanada said.

He believed that American audiences wanted to see a historical drama set in Japan from a much broader perspective, beyond the Western observer's point of view, more than 40 years after the original adaptation.

The level of understanding of Japanese culture in the United States is completely different than it was back then, he said.

The Last Shogun received rave reviews for achieving a high sense of authenticity, from the meticulously designed sets to the magnificent costumes to the actors' exceptional performances.

Sanada and his team have gone to great lengths to make everything about the project credible.

He began by bringing in period theater specialists from Japan, notably those employed at Toei Studios in Kyoto, with whom he had worked for decades.

Sanada also cast Japanese actors for the Japanese character roles.

He flew to Vancouver, Canada, about a month before filming began to carefully prepare for the series.

There were tons of details he had to pay close attention to: the size of the kimono's belts and the width of the collars, the size of the sliding “fusuma” paper doors, and the spacing between the shoji screens.

He also organized a week-long training camp for young local actors and extras to prepare them for filming a historical drama.

We asked special advisers to come from Japan to show them how a maid walks, opens and closes shoji and carries trays and how a samurai carries himself, wields a sword and uses his voice, he said. When filming began, all the extras looked natural in their kimonos and wielding swords.

While deploying the traditional Japanese method of making a classic period drama, he was also willing to take advantage of Hollywood's advanced special makeup effects.

The characters' period hairstyles were created by combining wigs prepared by Japanese hairstylists and a bald cap, a common technique used in Hollywood.

Our approach is not exclusively for Japan, but both Japanese and Western, he said.

During filming, Sanada went to the studio first thing in the morning to make sure everything was ready: the set, the props and how the extras put on their kimono. Only after this were the director and crew called in for a rehearsal.

When it came time to film his role, he went into performance mode. And Sanada was comfortable during filming, much more so than in his previous roles.

I spent a lot of time preparing to play my role, so I was ready when I stood in front of the cameras, he said. I was grateful and even felt like I had been given the opportunity to perform as a reward for my work as a producer.

In the 1980 television miniseries, the role of Sanada was played by internationally renowned actor Toshiro Mifune.

It’s no surprise that he felt pressure in Mifune’s “waraji” sandals. But Sanada said he had his own vision for Toranaga's character.

Mifune is an actor I deeply admire and historical figures have been played by many other great actors, he said. If you feel under pressure every time you are cast in a famous historical role, you would be under pressure forever. I watched the previous series, of course, but decided to forget about it for a moment and go in another direction.

Sanada said he was happy with the outcome of the new series.

I can't say it's perfect, but we didn't cut corners and turned to every resource available to make our show look authentic, he said.

Sanada also said that the move toward diversity in the American film industry worked in favor of a project such as Shogun.

It's only natural that all Japanese characters are played by Japanese actors, he said. It is astonishing that this is not the case, even in the 21st century. I hope the series serves as a new standard when a foreign culture themed film is made.

But Sanada also warned against the tendency to push diversity to extremes.

Some movie studios are extremely nervous about potentially being criticized for the lack of diversity in their output, he said. (Introducing people of color into a film) simply because studios fear a possible backlash would be an insult to the actors.




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