Hiroyuki Sanada Has Been Commanding the Screen Since Long Before ‘Shōgun’

Estimated read time 5 min read

The Big Picture

  • Hiroyuki Sanada captivates audiences with his gaze and dialogue delivery, which can be seen in the new historical TV drama
  • Hiroyuki Sanada consistently steals the spotlight from his co-stars in the various projects he’s appeared in, from
    Mortal Kombat
    John Wick: Chapter 4
  • Hiroyuki Sanada commits fully to intense fight sequences, showcasing his martial prowess.

A lot of work went into making Shōgun one of 2024’s most acclaimed TV shows. One of the biggest factors in that success is Hiroyuki Sanada, who serves as a producer on Shōgun while also playing the role of Lord Yoshii Toranaga. Toranaga is embroiled in a conflict with the Council of Regents, who are ruling Japan until the new Shōgun comes of age. The work that Sanada puts into the role makes Shōgun worth watching, and is also merely the latest of a long string of roles where Sanada draws the audience’s attention with his performance.

Sanada has been a constant presence in film since he was six, but American audiences have probably noticed his work in various films beginning with The Last Samurai. Over the years, Sanada has been in major films like the Mortal Kombat reboot, John Wick: Chapter 4, and the underrated science fiction drama Sunshine. Despite being a supporting presence in most of these films, he manages to stand out due to two major factors: his magnetic screen presence and his commitment to stunt work.

Shogun Film Poster

Shogun (2024)

When a mysterious European ship is found marooned in a nearby fishing village, Lord Yoshii Toranaga discovers secrets that could tip the scales of power and devastate his enemies.

Release Date 2024-02-00

Main Genre Drama

Seasons 1

Hiroyuki Sanada Can Draw Attention With a Single Look or Speech

Sanada’s best trait as an actor is his piercing gaze, which holds the audience’s attention. Equally as magnetic is the delivery of his dialogue, as well as his cadence. Take the Shōgun episode “Servants of Two Masters,” for example. When John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is brought before Toranaga, the camera shifts between both men as Blackthorne explains his arrival in Japan while Mariko (Anna Sawai) translates for Toranaga. Director Jonathan van Tulleken keeps the focus on Sanada as he speaks, which makes for a rather compelling image. The fact that he is speaking entirely in Japanese does nothing to blunt this sheer magnetism.

Peak TV viewers have seen Sanada’s presence in action before. He played a supporting role in Seasons 2 and 3 of Westworld as Musashi, the roaming bandit and expert swordsman. Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) first encounters Musashi when she attempts to escape Westworld but stumbles into Shogunworld, and again later when Dolores (Rachel Evan Wood) places a piece of her consciousness inside of Musashi. The latter scene features Sanada working on two fronts: not only does he have to portray a new version of Musashi, but also infuse him with Dolores’ personality. The end result has to be seen to be believed, but he manages to pull it off — a feat that very few actors have managed to accomplish.

What Sanada also accomplishes that few other actors can is stealing the spotlight from his co-stars in nearly every project. Mortal Kombat focuses mainly on MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), yet it’s Scorpion’s battle against Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) that remains the highlight of the film. He commands the screen as Wick’s old friend Shimazu Koji in John Wick: Chapter 4, which reunited him with Keanu Reeves after the ill-fated 47 Ronin (another film where Sanada shines brightly). Sanada even manages to outshine Brad Pitt in Bullet Train, holding court as he explains all the misfortunes that befell Pitt’s Ladybug.

Hiroyuki Sanada Throws Himself Into His Fight Sequences

Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga in Episode 4 of Shogun Image via FX

Sanada also doesn’t employ any half-measures when it comes to fight sequences in his projects. He prefers to do his own stunts, elaborating further on the subject during an interview with Esquire:

“Action is one of my skills. If the script calls for me to do it myself, I do. Until I can’t walk. And practicing martial arts, it’s good training for both the body and the mental. We learn a lot of mental strength and how to be kind to others. It’s so useful in real life, especially on set.”

True to his word, Sanada has been part of some intense action sequences throughout his career. 47 Ronin and The Last Samurai feature him in massive war scenes, while The Wolverine pits his swordsmanship against Hugh Jackman‘s adamantium claws and sculpted muscles. The scene where Sanada’s martial prowess undoubtedly stands out most is in the final fight of Mortal Kombat, as Scorpion and Sub-Zero engage in battle. Both of them carry a heated rivalry due to their lineage with the Shirai Ryu and Lin Kuei clans, and that rivalry explodes on screen. Blow is traded for blow. Copious amounts of blood are shed. Elemental powers of ice and fire are brought to bear. Throughout it all, Sanada more than holds his own, bringing gravitas to lines that include “I have risen from Hell to kill you” and Scorpion’s infamous catchphrase “Get over here!” While Hollywood has yet to realize the work that goes into stunt performances, Sanada gives it his all in every fight.

Whether it’s delivering a commanding speech or engaging in a brutal battle, Hiroyuki Sanada has definitely earned more than enough praise for his talents. Shōgun is just a small example of those talents, and hopefully, the limited series will expose Sanada to a whole new audience.

Shogun airs on Tuesday nights on FX and is available to stream on Hulu.

Watch on Hulu