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Why Lord Yoshii Toranaga From FX's Shogun Looks So Familiar

The actors portraying the main players of FX's "Shogun" have big shoes to fill. The 1980 miniseries adaptation of James Clavell's historical novel, after all, stars the Japanese acting legend Toshirô Mifune as Lord Toranaga, and Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne, the Western navigator who becomes stranded in Japan and learns the country's ways. If the names themselves weren't intimidating enough, both men landed Emmy nominations for their roles. 

Fortunately, the new series has found worthy successors for the pair. John Blackthorne is played by Cosmo Jarvis from "Peaky Blinders," while the role of powerful Lord Yoshii Toranaga has gone to Hiroyuki Sanada. The Japanese actor is more than able to convey the honorable gravitas the role requires, thanks to an extensive career that has included a large array of different projects — including multiple samurai-themed ones. Let's take a look at some of the roles that fans of "Shogun" might know Sanada from. 

Hiroyuki Sanada was Ujio in The Last Samurai

"Shogun" isn't even the first time that Hiroyuki Sanada has dealt with a Westerner in a samurai setting. In 2003, he played expert fighter Ujio in Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai," a 19th-century story of Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who's imprisoned by a group of rebellious old-school samurai warriors and ends up joining their cause. 

Ujio is one of the best fighters in Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto's (Ken Watanabe) small army, and a proud traditionalist who initially clashes with Algren, both culturally and — since Ujio is tasked with training the American — physically. This means Sanada gets plenty of screen time with Cruise, and his character's growing respect toward the protagonist is also a handy measuring stick for Algren's cultural assimilation process. 

Sanada is a good choice to play an expert swordsman, seeing as he's pretty handy with the blade in real life. He described the experience of making a movie about a clash of cultures with a multicultural cast and crew, and how Algren's adaptation to Japanese customs mirrored the experience behind the scenes, to IGN. "On the set, American crew working with Japanese culture is also mixing cultures, so I think this is the best story for our two cultures to collaborate on," he said. "The whole crew learned about Japanese culture so well that sometimes it seemed a little bit strange for us."

He battled Marvel's favorite mutant in The Wolverine

Tom Cruise isn't the only iconic movie hero Hiroyuki Sanada has locked blades with. In 2013, he took on Logan, the X-Man known as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), in James Mangold's "The Wolverine." As Shingen Yashida, a corrupt businessman and a student of the blade, Shingen loves power, hates mutants, and has evil plans for his daughter — and Wolverine's love interest — Mariko (Tao Okamoto). This puts Shingen on a collision course with Logan, and when the inevitable battle takes place, it's evident that he would win with ease if it wasn't for Wolverine's pesky healing factor. 

Sanada also appeared in 2019's Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster "Avengers: Endgame," in the minor role of Ronin's (Jeremy Renner) Yakuza boss target, Akihiko. Combine this with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine becoming part of the MCU in "Deadpool and Wolverine," and that makes Sanada a retroactively appointed member in the prestigious club of actors who have played more than one role in the MCU.

He played Scorpion in Mortal Kombat

2021's "Mortal Kombat" movie pays plenty of attention to a version of the hostile dynamic between two of the video game franchise's most iconic masked characters, the cryomancer ninja assassin Sub-Zero and the fire-themed undead avenger Scorpion. The movie's versions have their final showdown in life in the very first scene, as the icy Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) ambushes Hanzo "Scorpion" Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) on his home turf, killing Hanzo and his family. Of course, this is "Mortal Kombat," so what in other franchises would be the end of the pair's rivalry is only the beginning. 

While Sanada dove into the mythology to figure out the character before the filming began, he had never played a "Mortal Kombat" game before taking the role. Thus he had no idea of the kind of reaction the crew would have when he first performed Scorpion's signature harpoon move and uttered the accompanying "Get over here!" — or, alternately, "Come here!" — such an iconic catchphrase that the video game characters even keep referencing it in-universe. 

"When I performed that signature move with the words in the rehearsal on set for the first time, I had a great reaction from the cast and crew," Sanada told Entertainment Weekly. "They said, 'Yeah! I've waited for this moment.' Then I realized how popular this move is."

He managed a Continental Hotel branch in John Wick: Chapter 4

The "John Wick" film series has grown from a single, well-regarded action movie into a sweeping franchise that gives "The Expendables" a run for its money as a showcase for action stars old and new. As such, it's hardly a surprise to see Hiroyuki Sanada turn up in "John Wick: Chapter 4" as Shimazu Koji, John Wick's (Keanu Reeves) old friend who works as the suave and samurai-influenced manager of the Continental Hotel in Osaka, Japan. 

The role brings out the best of Sanada, as it makes use of both his refined gravitas — practically a requirement for any Continental Hotel higher-up, thanks to the example set by Ian McShane's Winston Scott — and his ability to excel in action scenes. For the latter, he even gets a scene partner for the ages, as his big battle sequence is with none other than Donnie Yen (who plays the blind assassin Caine). 

The role of the cool but unfortunately short-lived Continental branch manager was specifically created for Sanada — and he even got to choose the character's name. "I chose from my mom's countryside, Kagoshima, whose biggest name was Shimazu," he told Esquire. "It's a good name for a samurai." He also revealed that the big fight between him and Yen was as much of a treat for the crew as the audience. "We shot all night, but it was so much fun," he said. "When we did the scene, all the crew in the studio came to watch us. So, that was a good reaction."

Hiroyuki Sanada's extensive acting career

An award-winning actor who's been appearing in movies and TV shows since 1965, Hiroyuki Sanada has played a great many iconic roles over the years. Horror aficionados may remember him as Ryūji Takayama, a prominent character from the Japanese 1998 horror classic "Ring" and its sequels, "Spiral" and "Ring 2." He also played the main character of the critically acclaimed 2002 historical drama "Twilight Samurai." 

On the Hollywood side of things, Sanada has appeared in several major movies, from "Rush Hour 3" and "Speed Racer" to the war drama "The Railway Man" and the Sherlock Holmes film "Mr. Holmes." In the few years before "Shogun," he was particularly visible. Apart from his roles in "John Wick: Chapter 4" and "Mortal Kombat," viewers might have caught him as Bly Tanaka in Zack Snyder's 2021 zombie film "Army of the Dead," or as the Elder in the 2022 action thriller "Bullet Train." 

Sanada has also had a significant presence on the small screen. Along with a great many Japanese TV shows, he's appeared as the recurring character Dogen on "Lost," and also played prominent roles in the science fiction shows "Helix" and "Extant," among others. Fans of "Westworld" may also remember him for his turn as Musashi, another of many distinguished roles in a long, illustrious career.