Part of Sonny Chiba’s prestigiuous Japan Action School, though Hiroyuki Sanada made his name in the West with films like Speed Racer and Sunshine, he’s best known in his homeland for the likes of Samurai Reincarnation, Ninja In The Dragon’s Den, Legend Of The Eight Samurai, The Dagger Of Kamui, and the Academy Award nominated Twilight Samurai – plus surreal horror hit Spiral and the original Ring.
Bringing touch of old-school Samurai finesse to the role of comic-book antagonist Shingen Yashida in The Wolverine, Sanada spoke exclusively to SciFiNow about reinventing the comic, James Mangold’s Kendo dojo, and katana versus claws…
What can you tell us about your character?
I’m playing Shingen, it’s an original character from the comics, but Jim [Mangold] changed him from the comics. We arranged a lot of things differently for the movie, so I’m completely different – I’m a CEO of the largest corporation in the Asian Pacific, then I’m a father of the hero Mariko.
James Mangold has talked a lot about taking influence from samurai films. You’ve done a few samurai films, so did you see the character in those terms?
Yeah, he’s been learning Kendo a long time – he has a Kendo dojo in his house! [laughs] James has studied samurai films for years, not only for the action, but the drama the background, the culture – for everything inferring from those movies.
For Shingen, he’s not a stereotypical villain – one of the villains, but is he a good guy or bad guy? It’s hard to be sure. Every character has a background, James took a lot of ideas into the movie.
Shingen isn’t a typical supervillain – he’s a father, a son, a leader and a businessman. Was he quite a difficult character for you to get to grips with?
Yeah, because a lot of people have a completely different image from each character, maybe. He’s completely different from the original one in the comic – the original one has a bald head, is much older, the movie version of Shingen looks like a gentleman, but he’s done bad things. No, he’s not straight-up evil.
He has respect for his father, he’s the chairman of his company, then my father invited Logan to Japan, and I don’t know why he invited Wolverine to Japan. So I’m curious and I want to know why my father invited Logan – I cannot trust everything. I cannot understand what’s between my father and the Wolverine, what relationship they have, or what they’re planning, so it’s very complicated and it was very hard to find out the best way to play Shingen.
Bad side, good side, other people… as the son of my father, or the father of my daughter, like a sandwich, [laughs] with people not tomato. He’s definitely the most intense character in the movie.
Did you look at the original comic-book miniseries?
I bought the comics three or four years ago when rumours came out that they were making the movie. At that time I bought a lot of comics and read… it was completely an image from America, not like Japan now. Written in the Seventies? Eighties? Modern Japan’s not like that. No Ninja at all, no Samurai at all, so we departed from the original comics.
James Mangold wanted to make it more real, match it with modern Japan. Of course, it’s a superficial world for the movie. It’s not the real Japan – but the taste, design, is more real. Not only in Tokyo but also in the countryside – it’s so beautiful, we shot in outer Hiroshima, near the ocean. It’s so quiet and peaceful, completely different from Tokyo. There’s signature from from the classic Japanese film, from modern film – there’s ninjas, but not like the ninjas in the graphic novel; they’re wearing more modern black costume. It’s a realistic guise for the modern world.
Jim [Mangold] thought about that a lot, so this movie has a good balance between the comic’s take, and also modern, real Japan, and also eastern and western culture. It’s a nice mixture.
In the comic, Shingen has this iconic battle with Logan, which we see a bit of in the trailer and clips. What was that like to film?
Yeah, I was very excited. Claws versus Samurai sword, especially in a one-on-one fight with Logan – it’s very exciting shooting it.
[Filming fight scenes with Hugh Jackman] is very smooth on set, because he’s done a lot of fighting in the X-Men series already, and also he’s a good dancer! It’s very easy for him to remember the choreography, even on the set. Sometimes Jim would add another ten or 15 movements and the choreographer would come in and rehearse the fight scene two, three times, then shoot, shoot, shoot, and every time Hugh’d take the same balance, position, timing… he was so quick to learn.
We trusted each other, especially with the fights. I had a sword, and he had bare arms, bare wrists, so he had to take the sword on his bare arms, neck, body and I have to stop my sword right after I touched his skin. I never hit him harder, so we had trust each other – there were no accidents, no injury on the set at all. With his movements he was a great fighter, great performer – so professional. I respect him as a professional – I really enjoyed fighting with him.
Hugh Jackman has been playing that character for so long. Is it easier for you to have someone like that to work with and fire lines at?
Yeah, exactly. He’s already Wolverine when he comes onto the set. I really understood what he means to my character, what I have to do. He’s so easy to talk to, and he helped me a lot.
There are a lot of really strong martial artists in The Wolverine. Was it exciting watching them all come together for the big fights?
Yeah, this film has a lot of action sequences, not only with Hugh Jackman, but with ninjas, the Yakuza – a lot of action. I’m glad I got to have a one-on-one fight scene with Hugh, person-to-person, to create that scene.
I met him a long time ago at another film festival in Asia, maybe Shanghai or something, and we knew each other. We had the same makeup artist, and he introduced me to Hugh, and we talked about working together in the future. After that, when I was shooting in LA for Rush Hour 3.
Brett Ratner was the director, and he shot X-Men: The Last Stand, and then Hugh walked in stage left [laughs] and said hi again, “We should work together some day.” And then finally we did, so it’s been a dream come true not only acting together, but fighting together, we went to Tokyo together. It’s destiny!
There’s Japanese cast, Russian cast and an Australian crew. What was it like being such an international production?
It was so fun, it was a real international project, especially when we got to Japan with the main Australian crew working with all of the Japanese crew and all the extras, and they all needed translators, and sometimes Korean actors who speak… Korean [laughs] There were a lot of languages.
I really enjoyed shooting in Australia, it felt professional and all the people were so nice and funny. The weather was the best in Australia, in Japan it was mid-summer, so hot and humid, and a lot of the Australian crew were dressed for the beach [laughs], like “I love Japan, but I hate this weather!” It was funny.
The Wolverine is released in UK cinemas on 25 July 2013. You can buy X-Men: The Ultimate Collection on Blu-ray for £32.68 at Amazon.co.uk.