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'Shogun' star and producer Hiroyuki Sanada's greatest battle was for epic authenticity

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

Sanada had to swing his samurai blade right up to global superstar Cruise's neck in the drama set in 19th-century Japan. Cruise insisted that the actor use a sword rather than a shortened blade that would be enhanced with special effects.

"I took a full swing and then stopped just touching his skin, but no injury," Sanada says. "He never blinked. So he believed in me. And I believed in him. That was a great moment."

The role was the first in Sanada's decadeslong mission to work – and provide his Japanese cultural expertise – in Hollywood projects. That quest has culminated at age 63 with the starring role of Lord Yoshii Toranaga in FX's epic series "Shogun," for which he's also a first-time producer. The Disney-owned network's most expensive and ambitious project (Tuesdays, 10 EST/PST and streaming on Hulu).

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Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) in FX's "Shogun." Sanada served as producer for the first time in the 10-part series.
Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) in FX's "Shogun." Sanada served as producer for the first time in the 10-part series.

"When I came to Hollywood, my mission was to show our culture correctly. If there was a wall between East and West, I want to break it down," says Sanada. "So yes, dreams come true."

The Tokyo-born 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 the marooned English sailor John Blackthorne and legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as the warlord Toranaga, "was big news for Japan," he says.

"Of course I watched," says Sanada, who had a celebrated career portraying ninjas and samurai in Japan and starring in 1998's "The Ring" horror movie. "But I wasn't interested in making a Japanese story in Hollywood."

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(L-R) Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) face off in the finale of "Mortal Kombat."
(L-R) Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) face off in the finale of "Mortal Kombat."

The actor started exporting his considerable talents with "Last Samurai" where he instructed Cruise how to wear the traditional obi belt and hold the samurai sword correctly as they trained together.

After moving to Los Angeles in 2005, Sanada has continued providing his cultural input in acting projects including the android samurai on HBO’s "Westworld" and the kunai-wielding Scorpion in 2021's “Mortal Kombat” to the warrior Shimazu Koji alongside Keanu Reeves's assassin in 2023's "John Wick 4: Chapter 4."

But when the husband and wife team of Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, "Shogun" executive producers and writers, hired Sanada for the Toranaga role, they insisted the actor bring that expertise with the official role of producer.

"For the first time I have the title," says Sanada, smiling. "For the first time, I'm not consulting as an actor. After 20 years in Hollywood, I'm a producer. It means I can say anything, anytime."

Sanada as Toranago in "Shogun. "The first time in a Hollywood leading role was a big surprise for me," he says.
Sanada as Toranago in "Shogun. "The first time in a Hollywood leading role was a big surprise for me," he says.

The "Shogun" star made it his mission to ensure authenticity for the 10-episode series, which dives deep into the fabric of 1600 Japan's culture and expands the story's viewpoint.

The new "Shogun" weaves its complicated tale of palace intrigue through many Japanese characters' perspectives. Sanada's brilliant strategist Toranaga enlists the stranded Blackthorne (now played by British actor Cosmo Jarvis) to fend off his scheming enemies on the Council of Regents with the help of fiercely loyal translator Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai).

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

"I had a team for the first time, ever," Sanada says. "I carried the pressure of being a producer on my shoulder. But more than that, I had happiness."

(R-L) "Shogun" producer Hiroyuki Sanada consults with Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne on the set of the FX series.
(R-L) "Shogun" producer Hiroyuki Sanada consults with Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne on the set of the FX series.

Sanada silently went to battle each day to get "better and better" with each detail, perfecting even the most subtle detail or screen movement to pass muster with the most knowledgeable Japanese viewers. "If something is incorrect, people cannot focus on the drama. They don't want to see that kind of show. We needed 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 near the monitor in full samurai armor to scrutinize even minor background movement in the just-shot footage. "Besides being No. 1 on the call sheet, Hiro's job was making sure we were getting everything absolutely right," Marks says.

His work as a producer made playing the quietly powerful and shrewd Toranaga almost effortless, Sanada says. "After I had prepared everything in the scene, from the props to the other actors, I was so relaxed in front of the camera, I felt freedom," says Sanada. "I could be there and breathe as my character, and react like him."

He looks forward to "Shogun" being seen around the world, including on Disney+ in Japan. "I'm both very confident and a little nervous; a mixture," he says of his native country's reaction to the series. "We've done our best and people are always going to have their opinions. However, I think they will enjoy this very authentic samurai drama made in Hollywood."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Shogun' star and producer Hiroyuki Sanada talks epic new show