Shogun star Hiroyuki Sanada’s career evolution, from Ringu to Hollywood regular

The prolific Japanese actor has been a familiar face in Asian and Western cinema for decades

Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in Shogun. Photo: FX
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Japanese cinema has produced incredible talents over the past 100 years. From directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu to actors such as Toshiro Mifune and Rinko Kikuchi.

One of the standout names to come out of Japan in the past 20 years has been actor and martial arts expert Hiroyuki Sanada.

The actor has appeared in dozens of films – from J-horror flicks to the biggest superhero epics from Marvel. Most recently, he starred as the lead in the new FX show, Shogun.

Here we look at the actor’s career evolution and the notable films and television shows he has featured in.

Shogun creators discuss turning the hit novel into a TV series

Shogun creators discuss turning the hit novel into a TV series

Early start and Hong Kong cinema

Born in Tokyo’s Shinagawa province, Sanada began acting at a very young age. His first film, Game of Chance, was released in 1966, and it was a Yakuza or gangster thriller starring Sonny Chiba. Sanada was only six years old at the time, and he also starred in two of the film’s sequels.

In the 1980s, Sanada moved to Hong Kong to appear in martial arts films, working alongside titans of the genre, including Corey Yuen and Michelle Yeoh.

During his time in Hong Kong, Sanada formed a close friendship with martial arts cinema star Jackie Chan. The two later worked together on Rush Hour 3 in 2007.

The Ring and Shakespeare

Sanada was becoming a familiar face in Japan by the late 1990s, and in 1998, he starred in a film that kicked off the J-horror phenomenon around the world, Ringu.

The film was a smash hit in Japan, and it quickly became a cult favourite among horror fans around the world. It also inspired the trend of remaking Japanese horror in Hollywood, starting with the hit 2002 film The Ring.

In 1999, Sanada joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for a production of King Lear. He was awarded an MBE, or Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire, for his role in the production.

The Last Samurai

While Ringu grew in popularity gradually, it was Sanada’s role in the Tom Cruise-fronted historical epic The Last Samurai that cemented his international breakthrough.

The 2003 film was a major hit worldwide, with many critics praising Sanada’s performance as Ujio, a master swordsman who is at odds with Cruise’s character, Captain Nathan Algren.

Directed by Edward Zwick, the film, which was made on a budget of $140 million, earned $456 million.

Hollywood beckons

After The Last Samurai, Sanada was approached to play several roles. In 2007, he appeared in the science fiction film Sunshine directed by Danny Boyle. The film reunited Sanada with Yeoh and also featured Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans.

The Japanese actor also appeared on hit television shows such as Lost and Revenge.

In 2013, he starred in The Wolverine with Hugh Jackman, and also appeared in films such as 47 Ronin, Bullet Train and Avengers: Endgame.

With his acting range, Sanada could play quiet and dramatic roles as well as the big action set pieces. His ability to appear calm and in an instant burst with emotion showcased his capability to adapt to whichever role he took on.

John Wick, Mortal Kombat and Shogun

During recent years, Sanada was able to fully showcase his martial arts abilities. In 2021, he starred in Mortal Kombat as Scorpion, a character beloved by fans of the video game the film is adapted from.

Last year, he appeared in the fourth instalment of the John Wick film series. The series has become one of the most action-packed and exciting film franchises, earning praise from viewers and critics alike.

His most recent work is FX show Shogun, a historical drama based on the 1975 book of the same name by James Clavell, in which he plays Lord Yoshii Toranaga.

Shogun is loosely based on the true story of English navigator William Adams, who in 1600 became the first Englishman to reach Japan.

Updated: March 06, 2024, 4:43 AM