Hiroyuki Sanada: "Promises" for Peace through Film
by Dr. Craig Reid
In the world of martial arts cinema, a number of people have become living legends. You know the names. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen... But sometimes someone goes unnoticed for years, despite great work, and only slowly do you come to realize that he, too, ranks as a legend. Hiroyuki Sanada is such a person. He's a quirky enigma, steeped in a film history that encompasses chanbara and kung fu films, old and new, something martial arts film fans may or may not realize. So when kungfumagazine.com was offered a one-on-one interview with Sanada, the answer was a resounding, "Hai."
Born as Hiroyuki Shimosawa in 1960 Tokyo, Sanada was orphaned at age 11. But even before then his fate in film and life had been sealed when he debuted, at age five, in GAME OF CHANCE (1965) alongside Sonny Chiba.
Sanada is a quiet, humble man who always thinks before he speaks. With a pleasant smile he recollects in English, "When I started acting at five, since way back then, I always felt physically weak, knew I was not healthy. So by age eight I decided to do swimming and began practicing kendo for my health and not for film. At age 10 someone told me that if I wanted to ever do acting again in the future that I should stop. So I did."
"At that time I started to watch a lot of films from Hollywood, Europe and Hong Kong. Steve McQueen was the man, then of course Bruce Lee. And I was like, ?Oh my God.' I remember deciding that if I ever went back to the screen, I wanted to do all my own action, acting, everything on my own."
When he was 11, his father died, leaving a void in Sanada's life. But by 13 he was seriously focused on martial arts, perhaps as a way to deal with the loss, and to release pent-up emotions. Little did he expect the martial arts to eventually mold him into the soft-spoken man before me. Starting with shorinji kempo, he eventually took up kyokushinkai karate, and for acting he began learning traditional Japanese dancing and horse riding. It was also during this time that Sonny Chiba created Japan's first stunt school: the Japan Action Club.
"Sonny became my father role, I was a son of a yakuza, and we started a relationship. I remember visiting his stunt school when I was 10 and said to myself, 'Oh my god, I can learn this kind of stunts in Japan?' So when I was 13, I was able to join the school. So Sonny next became my stunt and action teacher."
I was curious to hear how the action sequences were set up and shot during those old samurai and karate films.
"Almost the same as Hong Kong style," Sanada says. "We learned the movements on set, changed things when we needed to, and if the movements look good and the choreographer and director say okay, we shoot. When Sonny was the action director, we would discuss things a lot, adjust movements; but it was the director that took care of the camera angles and lens. So almost similar to Hong Kong, but of course over there the directors usually have the action leader take care of that."
When asked what was the most memorable piece of advice that Sonny gave him, Sanada says without hesitation, "When I was 13 and training with Sonny, he told me that acting and actors have a long life, like a marathon, so the most important thing is to continue acting; and by the time I reach 30, that will be the time when I get a real first big chance to do something. He said, 'Being a teenager and in your 20s are merely steps in the acting process, and by 30, that is when your own career will really begin. Then when you are 40 and 50, those are the most important times as an actor, so don't rush. Before you become a big name, you have to learn a lot. You also have to watch the world, not only Japan.' Those words from Sonny have really touched me, and I think of them everyday, even now."
After years of ardent and patient training, Chiba felt Sanada was ready and let him enter the fray starring alongside Chiba in THE SHOGUN'S SAMURAI (1978), directed by then-acclaimed director Kenji Fukusaku (famous for his "Yakuza" films). Sanada shares that when he was young, he had a dream that he was going to work with Western people on high-quality projects at some point in his future. The dream proved prescient when he co-starred with Vic Morrow in MESSAGE FROM OUTER SPACE (1978).
"When I worked with Vic and several other Hollywood actors on that film," Sanada sparkles, "I observed them very closely, watching their quality and their professionalism. I was always thinking about what the future would hold. I also began going to Europe and America two or three times a year in order to learn and watch their films, shows, plays...basically their art."
After starring in a successful run of other martial arts films, such as DEATH OF THE SHOGUN (1979), G.I. SAMURAI (1979) and KAMIKAZE ADVENTURERS, Sanada got his first taste of Hong Kong action working with Conan Lee and first-time film director Yuen Kwei in NINJA IN THE DRAGON DEN. He later returned to Hong Kong to star alongside Michelle Khan (aka Michelle Yeoh) in her breakout martial arts film IN THE LINE OF DUTY (1986).
Sanada also went on to become a celebrated stage actor in Japan and internationally. In 1986, he starred in ROMEO & JULIET directed by legendary Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando. On the London stage, Sanada played the role of the "Fool" in the Royal Shakespeare Company's millennium production of KING LEAR, after which Queen Elizabeth II made him a Member of the British Empire (MBE).
The prophecy of his childhood dream to work with a big Hollywood star was fulfilled when he recently starred with Tom Cruise in THE LAST SAMURAI as Ujio, the samurai warrior who whacks the heck out of Cruise with his boken. When asked his thoughts on what many Japanese viewed as insulting ? the idea of Tom Cruise being the last samurai ? Sanada leans back and says with a smile, (Everyone in Japan say, 'Hey, how come Tom is alive in the film?' But the way I see it is that Tom's character fought alongside the last samurai. He was an American who watched and understood the last samurai of that period. He had the honor to be with him and be there when he died."
Sanada is happy about the resurgence of samurai films, and that fact that he's a significant part of it, with his role in TWILIGHT SAMURAI, one of the better samurai films made in a long time. He explains that what may have led to the downfall of the chanbara films was Japanese television.
"The TV samurai series made a big mistake, and that is how we lost a lot of the audience. But now, doing samurai films with more fantasy and CGI, we are slowly bringing back audiences. We're also getting rid of the TV look and the old stereotypical characters (he does that Toshiro Mifune scowl and "grunt"), the old-fashioned look. The younger people don't like this anymore, only the older men and women. We've become more entertaining.
"But we still try to keep with the use of the sword. Samurai fights can't afford us to be like Hong Kong swordfights with all the fancy twirling and wasted movements. It's still kept simple like when I was in LEGEND OF THE 8 SAMURAI, and so we've opted to keep the fights real, or maybe I should say more subtle, and let the camera make it look different with all the edited shots. It is my goal in these films like TWILIGHT SAMURAI to change the bad custom in Japanese samurai film and TV series, try to make things more authentic, simple, natural speaking, dirty, and not to grunt all the time."
Which brings us to his latest important film, THE PROMISE. Directed by flagship Chinese director Chen Kaige, with a budget of $34 million and taking 1,090 days to make, the film is by far China's most ambitious and expensive film project to date. Set in nowhere Asia during a fictitious time, THE PROMISE unfolds against the backdrop of war. A beautiful and mysterious princess makes a Faustian bargain with a sorceress and becomes the object of affection for three very different men: a powerful Duke, a lowly slave, and ? Sanada's character ? the brave general Guanming. Yet the importance of the film has nothing to do with it being a stepping-stone in Sanada's career but in the personal desire for him to be a part of the film's true ulterior motive.
Sanada relates, "After making LAST SAMURAI, I really felt like there were no walls between the East and West; we can be together and make films together. Then I looked back to Asia and I realized that we still have these walls within this small Asia. I feel like I needed to do something about it.
"At that time, I received the PROMISE script and met the producer and director. They wanted a cast of Chinese, Korean and Japanese actors working together, speaking mandarin, and Chen saw the film, as I did, as a chance to break down these walls and send out a message of peace between our cultures."
An event occurred while shooting in Beijing that made Sanada further realize the important role film can have in bringing countries closer together.
"In Beijing, we usually shot until midnight," Sanada recalls. "Then one day we stopped about 5:00 pm. I asked why and was told that there was a big football (soccer) game on tonight, Japan versus China. The producer said, 'Please don't go out tonight. If you do, I won't be able to help you.' I took his advice.
"In my hotel, I had two TVs, and I had them both on, one on the Chinese channel the other on the Japanese channel. Of course, both had on the same game, but the commentators were talking about different things. I was praying for China to win, or at least a tie... Japan won, and there was a lot of booing. The next day on set, it was very quiet, and no one talked about the game. The sports divided us.
"I used to think that maybe sports could be a way to unify countries and people, but not anymore. But film? Well, there's a different ball game, so to speak. Look at what Bruce Lee did with movies and martial arts. Everyone loves him: Chinese, Koreans, American, European, and Japanese. He unified us all. Jimmy Wang Yu and Shintaro Katsu found peace with their film too (ZATOICHI AND THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971))."
When I interject that it is so sad that Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee never got to do a film together, he nods. Then with a gleeful smile he says, "Yes, but it almost happened, they wanted to. A Mr. Ken Kazama, a good friend of Bruce's and Sonny's best friend, was arranging for a film when Bruce died.
"I know we have had a sad history and past with China," Sanada solemnly reflects, "but I hope with PROMISE we can find the spirit to unify. I know this will not be easy, but I had to try, and this is a start."
Sanada still practices martial arts, kendo, meditation and yoga everyday. Now 46 and a veteran of over 60 film and TV productions, Sanada is able to tap into his martial arts background on every show and movie he does ? not with fighting and action but with something else. Sanada closes, "Of course we learn the physical aspects of training through the martial arts, and I'm sure we all hear about the spiritual and mental aspects; and it is these things we must truly use all the time. We must learn courtesy, humbleness, and it is these things that I try to bring onto film sets and real life.
"When you work on sets, there are so many people running around, excited, emotional, discussing, complaining, 'I can't do this or that.' I try to use my spirit and calm to control myself, and hopefully that lends to controlling the atmosphere on the set and create harmony. It's hard to make everyone happy, but I believe we can find a way to please everyone between China, Japan, America, everywhere."
Interview over, I squeeze out one last question. What's with all his past English names of Henry, Duke and Harry? With a loud laugh he says, "Some publicist I'll never know just put my name up on these film posters. When I see these posters, I'm like, What, I see my picture, but who the hell is Henry Sanada?' I've never used these names."
I assure him that when I write this article I will not call him Joe Sanada. As we shake hands and exchange bows, he laughingly thanks me for that.
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM