Hollywood ‘Chushingura’: Actor Sanada pushes envelope in bold new take on ‘47 Ronin’
by Takashi Kondo Hiroyuki Sanada, one of Japan’s most active stars on the international film scene, plays the role of a samurai chief in “47 Ronin”—a Hollywood action fantasy that is a bold retelling of a well-known Japanese historical incident involving 47 samurai, which became a popular kabuki play titled “Kanadehon Chushingura” (or just “Chushingura”)—in the hope of using the film to share a traditional tale of his country with audiences around the world.
“I was very surprised,” Sanada said, commenting on his reaction when he first read the script five years ago. “I wondered whether it could be rearranged that much.”
His response is natural.
The film’s basic plot and characters are no different from those of “Chushingura,” which is familiar to most Japanese. It tells the story of 47 samurai who raid the house of Kira Kozukenosuke to avenge the death of their lord, Asano Takuminokami. The characters Asano, the samurai leader Oishi Kuranosuke and Kira all appear in the film.
The film’s storyline and action, on the other hand, are pure Hollywood entertainment, going far beyond many Japanese people’s imaginations. For example, popular Hollywood actor Keanu Reeves joins the masterless samurai team, and an evil female phantom supports Kira.
Because Sanada had seen a number of marvelous “Chushingura” dramas featuring superb actors over the years, he felt anxious at first. However, after learning that director Carl Rinsch has enormous respect for Japanese culture and the original story, Sanada’s impression of the script changed.
“This could be an adventure, but it could also mark a big step forward,” Sanada said he thought, based on his extensive experience performing overseas. “Other countries actively introduce their own cultures in English to the international market all the time. I’ve felt for a long time that Japan lags behind and should change so that it can someday step into the same ring with them. If this had happened a few years earlier, I would have declined [the offer to perform in the film], but the timing was right for me.
“In the past, I performed in a Japanese period piece that was like a fantasy. I was surprised then, too. So [“47 Ronin” is] possible as a Hollywood film. It’s probably my job to try to get audiences to naturally accept and enjoy ideas that Japanese would normally never think of,” he said.
The cast includes Japanese actors Tadanobu Asano as Kira, Ko Shibasaki as Asano’s daughter and Rinko Kikuchi as the female phantom. In addition, Reeves plays the role of Kai, a mysterious man.
As Reeves ardently wished to conduct himself like a true samurai in the film, Sanada trained him based on his own expertise.
“At first he practiced sword fighting. Then he also learned the Japanese language,” Sanada said. “He seemed to understand that even if he learned the movements for sword fights and other scenes, he wouldn’t come off as a man who lived during that age unless he learned the spirit [of the people of the age].”
As an action star, Sanada believes that action is not simply a display but an inherent part of the storyline.
In the film, Oishi, played by Sanada, has a peaceful life and little experience of actual fighting. Meanwhile, Kai, played by Reeves, is a wild-looking orphan who has acquired the skills for survival while brought up by tengu long-nosed goblins. As their friendship develops, Oishi grows wilder, and Kai evolves into a true samurai.
“Keanu understood that it was possible to express the journey of the two through action, not through lines and stage directions [written in a script],” Sanada said.
Over the course of a long career that started when he was a child, Sanada has frequently changed his repertoire, shifting from modern dramas to period dramas, musicals, TV dramas and London theaters, and the list goes on.
His desire to keep pushing things further has driven him to work overseas, Sanada said.
“I hope this film serves as a strategic foothold to broaden my options for future collaborations in various ways,” he said.
The film, in English with Japanese subtitles, opens Friday in Japan. It will open in mid-December or later in the United States and many other countries.