Japanese-born actor Hiroyuki Sanada comes off his summer success in “The Wolverine” with two very different films taking a look at Japanese history. The first, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, is “The Railway Man,” about a former British POW (Colin Firth) who confronts one of his former captors (Sanada). It’s a moment in Japanese history Sanada is not very proud of, but still an important one to examine, he insists. And this Christmas, he goes full samurai in Keanu Reeves’ long-awaited “47 Ronin.”
“The Railway Man” takes on a contentious piece of history.
It’s a true story based on the book from Eric Lomax. I didn’t know those kinds of things happened because, especially in Japan, there’s no education about that. Teachers never talk to students, even parents don’t, and I though that is a problem. I thought we must make this film now to tell the story for the next generation, to help make a more peaceful world and make sure something like this never happens again. And also for me it was important this role be played by a Japanese-born actor. It’s a kind of mission, I felt.
Why do you think it isn’t taught in Japan as much?
Because it’s a story from during the war and a lot of bad things happened in the POW camps. That kind of thing, the people don’t want to know. They don’t want the world to know the story. But with a movie like this, it’s a chance for reconciliation, to say sorry and ask for forgiveness. Look back into your history and if you’re wrong, say sorry and go the next steps together to create a better future. It’s a small world.
How was working with Colin Firth?
It was a great experience. It was almost like just the two of us in a small room, just talking and talking. It was like we were on stage in a play. We created good chemistry from the beginning, but I’m not sure how. Maybe because he chose this role and I chose this role, we really had the same goal. Of course, he’s a great actor. Also, maybe it’s because we’re the same age [Laughs].
You’re also in Keanu Reeves’ “47 Ronin,” which is finally coming out this year.
Yes, finally. It will be released at Christmas. It’s very exciting because he took a long time for post-production. I was involved with the movie almost three years ago, and finally I can see the movie and I can show it to audiences. I’m so curious about the world’s reaction to it because it’s based on a true story, the most famous revenge story in Japan, but with a lot of fantasy and CGI action, almost like a samurai version of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Why do you think samurai stories continue to be so popular?
I think people think it’s about the sword-fighting and that kind of thing, but the samurai spirit is more a mentality thing. Especially now, there’s still a lot of war and terrorism happening in the world, so we need this spirit of humbleness, respect and loyalty. I think people want to see something with that kind of mentality. The samurai is not just a fighter.