By Steph Ormond
Hiroyuki Sanada is possibly one of the most dedicated actors of recent years and it is about time that we give him the credit he deserves. Since his acting debut in the 1965 Japanese crime drama, Game of Chance, and the discovery of his natural talent for martial arts aged twelve by action star Sonny Chiba, Sanada has never stopped pushing the limits of his own potential.
Spurred on by his newfound fame in Japan for being the clan fighter Nayate in the 1978 Yagyu Clan Conspiracy, the first half of Sanada’s adult career was mostly devoted to playing either the combat-ready action man or the conflicted samurai. His expertise in portraying these archetypes had been honed to perfection by Chiba at the Japan Action Club, a martial arts and drama organisation he attended during his youth.
Eventually, he made international headlines with the 2002 film The Twilight Samurai with the tragic portrayal of Seibei Iguchi, an ill-fated warrior living during the decline of feudal Japan. Sanada owns the role as a man who does anything for the women and children he cares for whilst struggling to keep the little honour that he has left in pursuit of futile attempts at redemption. He subverts the traditional representation of the Japanese samurai in the film by disturbing the adequate possession of the sword, status, and family.
In 2004, Sanada admitted that his unique interpretation of Seibei was meant to highlight his fallibility: “even the strong samurai is just a human being. That’s a new style in the samurai film”. Generating $10.2 million, it proved a gleaming success along with the multiple awards he won for Best Actor across the Japanese Academy.
However, this was not the first time Sanada had helped make waves for Japan in the global film industry. His starring role as Ryūji Takayama, who dies during the infamous final TV scene in the 1998 J-horror classic Ring, kickstarted the genre’s popularity in Western cinema from the early 2000s.
Largely unknown to younger generations, Sanada tried his hand at British theatre from the late 1990s until the year 2000. Most notably, performing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear staged at The Barbican from 1999 to 2000. As the loyal and comical ‘The Fool’, he demonstrates a careful awareness of King Lear’s conscience juxtaposed with vibrant wit to ironically suggest the fool as being the king himself.
Sanada’s portrayal also went beyond his character’s relationship with his master. It was further accentuated by his spontaneous dialogue and enchanting dance-like movements across the stage. Drawing the audience’s attention to the play’s past and its tragic prophecies. Indeed, Sanada had played the seemingly demented protagonist in the Ninagawa Company’s production of Hamlet in the same theatre until 1998. Yet his rapid adjustment to the English stage and the subsequent awarding of an honorary MBE is a testament to his ability to reach beyond the comforts of his first homegrown trademarks.
Since his first major Hollywood debut in 2003 as Ujio in The Last Samurai, Sanada’s career on both big and small screens has accelerated at an unprecedented rate. He has joined the ranks of many well-known franchises such as Lost, the MCU,Westworld, and even as a voice actor for Minions. One of his latest roles as the infernal spectre Scorpion/Hanzo Hasashi in the 2021 reboot of Mortal Kombat is reminiscent of Sanada’s big break into the world of action. Especially, his mastery of the iconic kunai spear and ability to authentically partake in choreography for violent fight scenes, which is wholly in keeping with the gruesome video game universe.
With Hiroyuki Sanada set to enter the brutal assassins’ world of John Wick 4 in 2022, his acting career seems to have gone full circle. Even after all these years, Sanada has steadily returned to the familiar territory that made him famous as a young adult actor. One can hope that with his professional maturity and firmly established international presence in the film and television industries, we will see much more of him to come.
Image: canburak via Flickr