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Hiroyuki Sanada Says Before Shōgun It Was 'So Hard to Correct Every Detail' of Japanese Culture on Set

The actor explains why the 'producer' title is as powerful to him as the 'shōgun' title is to Toranaga

Kat Moon

Before filming for Shōgun began, Hiroyuki Sanada had a concern: "Can I do both perfectly?" He was talking about his dual roles as actor and producer in the new FX series, which adapts James Clavell's 1975 novel of the same name. While Sanada, who stars as Lord Yoshii Toranaga in the show, has nearly six decades of experience in front of the camera, Shōgun marks his first time producing. But his qualms about tackling the two sets of responsibilities didn't last for long. "Once I started shooting, it was fun," Sanada told TV Guide at the Television Critics Association winter press tour ahead of the series premiere. "So much fun."

Right away, he could tell the difference when it came to having his voice heard — especially in discussions about how Japan is portrayed. "Before, just as an actor, it was so hard to correct every detail of our culture," Sanada shared. In the past, he had to consider factors like the right timing to speak up, and with whom. "And don't break their pride," Sanada added. But that was not the case when filming Shōgun. "Everyone listened to me," he explained. The actor realized just how important having a title like "producer" was. "It was so effective," Sanada said. "Maybe it's like 'shōgun' title for Toranaga."

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In the series, which takes place in feudal Japan, Toranaga is one of five leaders selected to be in the Council of Regents to rule the land until the late taiko's heir comes of age. The show begins with the other four regents accusing Toranaga of aligning power against them — and suggesting that he wants to be shōgun, or the sole military governor, thereby usurping the heir. Toranaga vehemently denies this. He says he wishes to maintain peace in Japan, and the unexpected arrival of a shipwrecked English sailor, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), becomes key to his political agenda. 

In addition to Sanada and Jarvis, Shōgun also stars Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige, and Takehiro Hira as Ishido Kazunari.

Hiroyuki Sanada, Shōgun

Hiroyuki Sanada, Shōgun


Sanada said he was first approached to star in Shōgun around seven or eight years ago. Afterward, Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo signed on to develop the series. "When they came into the project, Justin and Rachel and FX asked me to produce as well," Sanada recalled. "I was like, 'OK, why not?'" The actor had previously consulted for films and shows he was involved in. "But I felt the limit to say something as an actor," he said. "So title is very important to say something." 

After he said yes to becoming a producer, the creative team began to hire a Japanese crew — including local experts in samurai drama — for production. Sanada had clear goals in mind for Shōgun: "We tried to avoid too much Westerniz[ing] or too much moderniz[ing]," Sanada said. "Even in Japan, thinking about the young generation, they try to make modernized samurai drama or movie — but real samurai fans hate that." One of his main hopes was for longtime fans of the genre to enjoy the FX series.

Shōgun's Anna Sawai Wanted a Role That Scared Her. She Found It in Toda Mariko

Sanada is also excited to introduce more Japanese talent to the world. At Shōgun's New York press screening in December, Marks discussed Sanada's involvement in the casting process, saying, "Every role was vetted with Hiro-san."

The actor recounted his experience of watching younger actors' performances through the monitors on set. "Directors, producers said, 'Yeah, that's it!'" he exclaimed. "I [was] so happy, like a parent, sometimes almost cried." To Sanada, seeing the younger actors excel in their roles felt more rewarding than having his own performance applauded.

For many viewers around the world, Shōgun will be the first time they meet Japan-based stars in their 20s, including Fumi Nikaido, who stars as Ochiba No Kata; Moeka Hoshi, who stars as Usami Fuji; and Yuki Kura, who stars as Yoshii Nagakado. For Sanada, opportunities to star in Hollywood projects didn't come until later in life. He recalled the earlier years of his career. "I started acting when I was five years old and in Japan," Sanada said. In 1982, he starred in his first movie outside of Japan — the Hong Kong martial arts film Ninja in the Dragon's Den. And Sanada knew he wanted to continue to land projects overseas. "I kept watching Hollywood movie[s], European movie[s]," he recalled. "'I want to work with them' — I was always thinking about that."

Hiroyuki Sanada, Shōgun

Hiroyuki Sanada, Shōgun

Colin Bentley/FX

He was also particularly drawn to theater. "When I was [in my] 20s, every year I went to New York or London if I have time, even three days off," Sanada said. He would spend his trips watching plays and musicals, as well as going to the movies. "Then I slept on the plane back," the actor shared. He wanted to see the arts scene at the "world level," and thought hard about how to get there. "What is missing in me? What is missing in Japan?" Sanada remembered thinking. "What [do] I have to do?"

In 1999, right before Sanada turned 40, he landed the most defining role of his career: The Fool in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear. "It was my biggest challenge in my life," Sanada said. The actor was very much interested in Shakespeare, but in his teenage years he had a different timeline in mind. "Let's start from filming in English, then [become] more confident to speak English, then try Shakespeare at the end of my life," Sanada had thought. "That's the final goal." Instead, King Lear became his first foray into the world of English-language acting. "Thou and thy? What's that? I never learned even in university," Sanada laughed. "I was panicking."

But with the help of five English coaches, he tackled the role. "That experience changed my life," he said. After King Lear, he felt ready to venture into more international projects. Just a few years later, in 2003, Sanada starred in his first Hollywood film: as swordsman Ujio in The Last Samurai, opposite Tom Cruise. "If I didn't take the Shakespeare role, maybe I didn't get the audition for The Last Samurai," Sanada said.

Since then, the actor has starred in Hollywood films including Army of the Dead, Bullet Train, and John Wick: Chapter 4. But Sanada said Shōgun is "of course" the biggest highlight of his career so far. "First leading role in Hollywood, and the first time producing all in one," he said. "I used all my experience in this drama."

New episodes of Shōgun air Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX and stream the same day on Hulu.