Actors & Actresses
(Tokyo, 1960- )
Sanada Hiroyuki is a rare animal in the Japanese entertainment world -- an "engi-ha" or actor who can really act. Perhaps this is the greatest compliment that an actor can be paid in Japan, superfluous though it would seem elsewhere. And Sanada is one of the very few who have had the courage to prove this outside Japan. Like the late Mifune Toshiro or Takakura Ken who have proved themselves abroad, or contemporaries such as Yakusho Koji who has dominated the award shows since the mid-1990s, or "The Last Samurai" co-star a href="watanabe_ken.shtml">Watanabe Ken, Sanada is much in demand for serious films.
Born Shimozawa Hiroyuki, he started his acting career very young, joining the Himawari Drama Company and becoming a magazine model at just five years of age. He appeared in his first movie that same year but shortly after stopped everything to go to school. He lost his father at the age of 11 and started to learn karate the same year. At 13, he joined the Japan Action Club theater group and started to learn jazz dance. At the JAC he became a protoge of such stars as Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba and Sho Kosugi (father of popular young actor Kane Kosugi). He learned horseriding and graduated from the Horikoshi Gakuen high school, a school that specializes in young "talento."
He made a second movie debut at the age of 18 under the name Sanada Hiroyuki in Yagyu Ichizoku no Inbo (Shogun Samurai). The early years of this -- his second acting career -- were spent mostly in similarly low-budget samurai and ninja movies. He became quite popular as a martial artist abroad and used the nicknames "Henry" or "Duke" Sanada. He graduated in Film Science from the arts college of Nihon University in 1982.
In 1987, he won the Golden Arrow award for Best Newcomer for his performance on stage in Little Shop of Horrors. His movie accolades are even more impressive -- he's won the Best Actor prize at the Japan Academy Awards no less than five times. One was for his lead role in the critically acclaimed Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai, 2002. Photo, left) which also earned an Oscar nomination for an for Best Foreign Picture. At the time of the Japanese awards show, he was in New Zealand filming the Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai. On working with the Hollywood star: "When I first met him, he'd already learned Japanese fighting for eight months. But some parts looked western, so I gave him some pointers on grip or stance or how to use his eyes. We trained a lot together. I taught him some forms to make his movement more authentic Japanese. And he was a good learner and a hard worker. Quick learner. Every day he improved, more authentic. So we had a good relationship and we've enjoy rehearsal on the set."
These two movies put him in warrior mode, very much as he was cast in his younger days in martial arts movies. But Sanada is nothing if not versatile. He starred in the Ring/Rasen (Ring/Spiral, 1998) horror series that was so successful as to be remade in Hollywood in 2002. In 2000, he became the first Japanese actor to ever appear with the Royal Shakespeare Company, putting in a creditable English performance in London as King Lear's Fool. He had a role in the final Merchant Ivory production, the period drama The White Countess in 2006. He has starred in a host of other TV series, over 50 movie productions and has even released several albums.
He was married to actress Tezuka Satomi, with whom he had two sons, from 1990 until their divorce in 1997. Sanada has earned quite a reputation as a playboy, notably having an affair with actress Suzuki Riona, 15 years younger.