Meet the Japanese-born actor making waves in Hollywood, and taking his responsibility as a cultural ambassador very seriously.
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28 Dec 2013 - 1:15 PM  UPDATED 28 Dec 2013 - 1:15 PM

When you first see charismatic Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada in later scenes of The Railway Man his warm, welcoming face is nothing like you'd expect of the bad guy in the movie. By then in fact his character, Nagase, is atoning for his torturous deeds from when he was a young officer in the Imperial Japanese Army helping oversee the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway during World War Two. The young Nagase's inflicting torture on a young British soldier Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and its effect on the adult man (Colin Firth) are the subject of the film, which is based on Lomax's autobiography. Lomax, who passed away last year, was keen for his story to be told on the big screen.

This kind of movie is never released in Japan.

Sanada, 53, never met Takashi Nagasi, who died in 2011, yet the actor did extensive research for the role.

“Nagasi became a Buddhist monk and built a temple for praying for the soldiers and a museum for telling the story in Thailand,” explains Sanada, a rare Japanese actor who can speak English well. “He decided to do this because teachers never tell the story in schools to the next generation. Every day he prayed and told the story to the tourists about exactly what happened. That was his life's mission. I think he was a brave man because a lot of Japanese people tried to stop him but he ignored them.”

Like Nagase, Sanada is devoted to correctly representing Japanese culture and history — the good and the bad — to the West. He immediately accepted the Nagase role in The Railway Man as the story is so important.

“I thought this role should be played by a Japanese-born actor and that it should be introduced to the world including Japan,” Sanada continues. “This is our generation's mission: to re-examine history in order to understand each other and make a better future together. This kind of movie is never released in Japan. This is why this time it must have a release. I think Japan is still closing the door to the world, especially to other cultures. It's very hard to have good communication with other countries. I hope this movie will be a good chance to start opening the door to the world.”

The film's Toronto Film Festival's world premiere proved a heartfelt experience for the actor. “I only met Eric's wife Patti Lomax for the first time at the premiere and I took a picture of Mr Nagase taken in Thailand with me. I told Patti, 'I hold his photo in my pocket, so I saw the movie with him'. Patti told me her dress was made with Eric's clothes and she also wore Eric's watch and she said Eric watched the movie with her too. It was a great moment.”

Sanada admits he becomes an unofficial cultural adviser on his films, especially his Hollywood blockbusters like The Wolverine (alongside Hugh Jackman), The Last Samurai (alongside Tom Cruise) and the upcoming 47 Ronin (alongside Keanu Reeves).

“I read the screenplay very carefully and discuss a lot with the director, even about the costumes, props, the CGI—everything — on all the movies I've done including The Last Samurai where I was in the post-production checking everything,” he chuckles at the memory. “I was like a crew member on the set. I enjoy the acting of course but if I don't have any shooting I'm on the set checking that everything is correct like how to wear kimono. I even check the extras aren't wearing the kimono the wrong way and I love to do that.”

Sanada greatly enjoyed working with Jackman on The Wolverine. “It started with him playing a POW in a prison camp, so there was a link with The Railway Man,” he notes. “I'd met Hugh eight years ago at the Shanghai Film Festival where a make-up artist who did The Last Samurai had worked with Hugh and he introduced me. He said, 'You guys should create a good relationship and you must work together in the future'. When I did Rush Hour 3 Hugh was working next door and he visited me and reiterated how we should work together. Finally we met in Sydney for The Wolverine and he is so professional. We had a one-on-one fighting scene and he knows how to fight for real. I've done a lot of samurai movies before and it was so smooth. We'd just do it two or three times then shoot the scene. There were no accidents, no injuries and I had a big pressure because his body was bare and it's easy to get injured but I never hurt him.”

Tokyo-born Sanada began training in martial arts at the age of 11 and at first envisioned a career in action movies. He first was noticed as a serious actor in Mahjong Hourouki directed by Makoto Wada, with whom he would develop a close working relationship on classic movies that have been likened to the work of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart in Hollywood. Sanada is also known for his stage work, and after performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in their 1999-2000 production of King Lear, he received an honorary MBE in 2002 for his “contribution to spreading British culture in Japan”. Although a great friend of Jackie Chan, Sanada has only worked once with the Hong Kong action star on Rush Hour 3. He's also appeared in the television series Revenge and was in the final season of LOST.

Now based in Los Angeles Sanada is no doubt currently observing the ill fate of 47 Ronin, a $175 million English-language Hollywood production based on a story the Japanese people know intimately — and didn't flock to see. In this 18th century story focusing on a band of samurai avenging the death of their master, Sanada's samurai leader Ôishi should be the central character and instead the constantly furrow-browed Keanu Reeves has been introduced into the story as a half-breed warrior called Kai. Even the handsome and usually reliable Tadanobu Asano (Zatoichi, The Rise of Genghis Khan, Thor) is one-note as the treacherous Lord Kira, while Rinko Kikuchi, who has also made her mark in the US plays Kira's shape-shifting sorceress advisor.

Variety reports that Universal Pictures cut their losses long ago. “Universal Pictures has acknowledged that 47 Ronin is a loser, disclosing that it's taken the unusual step of writing down some if its $175 million cost prior to the current quarter.”

Although the film could join The Lone Ranger as one of the biggest flops of 2013, the UK Independent's critic Geoffrey Macnab notes, “the last battle is staged with tremendous verve and the ritualistic finale combines pathos and grandeur”.

As usual Sanada attempted to bring some veracity to the film, while Reeves was well acquainted with martial arts following his roles in The Matrix movies and his directing debut, Man of Tai Chi. Kai shares a fight scene with Ôishi before they become buddies.

“We spent a long time rehearsing,” Sanada recalls. “Keanu wanted to do the real samurai style of fighting so from the beginning I taught him how to grip, how to stand, how to wear the kimono. He was a quick learner mentally and physically and he respected our culture. By the end of the shooting he looked completely right with the samurai style.”