Hiroyuki Sanada: an unsung action hero

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A celebration of an actor and action star, Hiroyuki Sanada, who continues to thrive after decades in the business.

When it comes to icons of the action genre, we tend to look back on the stars of the 1980s: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris. And the 90s: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Jet Li and Keanu Reeves.


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Many of these idols were at their best in their respected decades, only for their momentum to slow down as time went by. Some of our heroes of yesteryear have struggled to stay relevant (and in shape). Some of them are thriving, like Keanu Reeves in the John Wick series, that’s become the biggest original action franchise of the decade. Others are no longer able to reach the same heights of success, even resorting to reviving old franchises, the passion for which the masses no longer possess.

Most of the action stars don’t seem to have the same drive or zest to continue and push their limits in this harsh business. I would give credit to Sly for staying in shape and keep himself relevant, while in Seagal’s case, it’s the complete opposite as he tends to make almost a carbon copy of his action flicks with barely any effort, relies heavily on body doubles, remains seated in most of his scenes, yet tends to take himself too seriously. Even Stallone’s biggest and most successful recent work rides on nostalgia to a degree.

Yet while we look back fondly at these icons of the action genre, there is another action star that not many people seem to know about. Perhaps at least until the recent release of the Mortal Kombat reboot, and I think it’s time to shed some light onto this acting veteran. It’s Hiroyuki Sanada.

Mortal Kombat

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hiroyuki was the star of many Japanese and Hong Kong action hits: Shogun’s Ninja, Roaring Fire, Ninja In The Dragon’s Den, Ninja Wars, Nemuranai Machi: Shinjuku Same and such like. Many of these films were to be found in your local video shop rather than in a multiplex cinema. Lots of them don’t even attract critic ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.

Still, in the late 1990s, Hiroyuki starred in his first cult classic; the Japanese horror sensation, The Ring. Hiroyuki would reach international recognition in Yoji Yamada’s Oscar nominated film, The Twilight Samurai. Then, The Last Samurai, alongside fellow Japanese co-star, Ken Watanabe and lead, Tom Cruise. Since then, he has earned many supporting roles in Western films and television programmes. In 2007, Hiroyuki stared in an ensemble piece as part of the line-up of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and he turned up too as the main villain in the third instalment of Rush Hour, thus squaring off against action legend, Jackie Chan and holding his own. At 53 years of age, Hiroyuki would return to the action scene in the 2013 blockbuster, The Wolverine and Ronin 47, starring opposite Keanu Reeves.

But there were more strings to his metaphorical bow. Although moviegoers remember him in samurai and ninja roles, Sanada also dabbled in theatre, featuring in many Shakespeare productions. He’s trodden the boards in the likes of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear. Hiroyuki has also been prominent as a dramatic actor on screen as well. Not just in the aforementioned The Twilight Samurai either, and across the next decade he was cast in British productions such as The Railway Man and Mr Holmes.

Yet even in his late 50s, Hiroyuki returned to the role of the samurai when he was added to a long list of actors in the critically acclaimed HBO series Westworld. He popped up in another comic book movie too, making a brief appearance in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, in a fight against Hawkeye during his ronin phase.


Now into his 60s, Hiroyuki seems to be finally getting the recognition he deserved when he was cast as the main icon of the bloodiest video game franchises of all time, playing Scorpion in the Mortal Kombat reboot. Age is no barrier here: whilst the audience might be forgiven for feeling slightly concerned about Sanada’s agility,  given his experience in action films, plus his history of determination to perform his own stunts and commit himself to his roles, the results are  impressive. He not only looks a good 20 years younger, but moves like a man half his age.

In preparation for portraying the character of Scorpion, Hiroyuki would start to play the classic Mortal Kombat videogames in order to get invested in the story, character background and environment. That, on top of the physical workouts he goes through.

At the time of writing, he’s banked another couple of roles that we’ve not yet seen. He’s yet to appear in Bullet Train and John Wick 4; both films from John Wick creators, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. They’re each due in the year or two ahead.

Hiroyuki may not be an A-lister, but he’s a presence, and still pushing himself decades into his career. Just because his name doesn’t tend to make it high up the poster, doesn’t mean he’s not a force to be reckoned with on screen…

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