“Shōgun” and “House of Ninjas”: Japanese Actors Getting Involved on Both Sides of the Camera

Culture Entertainment

International streaming hits Shōgun and House of Ninjas both feature Japanese actors who are also involved behind the camera. Sanada Hiroyuki and Kaku Kento have shown a determination to present a Japan free from stereotypes and exoticism.

An Extravagant, Stately World

The television show Shōgun, adapted from the 1975 novel by James Clavell, began streaming in February 2024. Produced by FX, a Disney subsidiary, it is set in Japan shortly before the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara, a popular time period for historical dramas such as NHK’s taiga dramas.

Sanada Hiroyuki plays Yoshii Toranaga, based on the real-life Tokugawa Ieyasu, while Cosmo Jarvis performs as John Blackthorne, also known as Anjin, based on the English navigator William Adams. After Adams made landfall in Japan, he became a diplomatic adviser to Ieyasu. The drama centers on the relationship between the two men, with Anna Sawai’s Toda Mariko (based on the Catholic Hosokawa Gracia) also playing a major role. As the story progresses, we see the cultural differences in the meeting between East and West and the confrontation between Catholics and Protestants that are not presented in detail in Japanese historical dramas. While it is easy to understand the models for the characters, variations from the actual history may perplex Japanese fans of the genre, but they are sure to be hooked by the intensity of the filming and the thrilling political intrigue.

The novel was previously made into a successful miniseries broadcast in the United States in 1980 and localized for the Japan market in the following year. Honestly speaking, I was not impressed. The depiction of Japan was decidedly odd, and I remember that I could not watch it through to the end.

However, 40 years later, the new Shōgun has received rave reviews. Japanese specialists assisted with the costumes, props, acting, dialogue, and layout of rooms to create an extravagant, stately world largely lacking in any incongruity for Japanese audiences.

The performer Sanada’s contribution here was huge. It is 20 years since he first started working to quash misunderstandings about Japan in The Last Samurai (2003). Feeling the limitations of expressing his views as an actor, in addition to taking the starring role this time, he has been a producer, selecting the show’s staff, paying attention to the fine details, and acting as a bridge between the different nationalities. This displays an extraordinary versatility.

In its first six days of streaming, Shōgun achieved a total of 9 million views worldwide on channels including Hulu and Disney+ (in Japan). (© 2024 Disney and its related entities; courtesy of FX Networks)
In its first six days of streaming, Shōgun achieved a total of 9 million views worldwide on channels including Hulu and Disney+ (in Japan). (© 2024 Disney and its related entities; courtesy of FX Networks)

Opportunities on Netflix

At the same time, the contemporary drama House of Ninjas has been winning fans on Netflix. Kaku Kento stars and is also co-executive producer. US director Dave Boyle took the helm and Tōhō subsidiary Tōhō Studios worked with Netflix to produce the program. The show is about a family descended from Hattori Hanzō, who served Tokugawa Ieyasu and is seen as the ultimate ninja in the world of the story.

The Tawaras are a family of shinobi, or ninja. Eguchi Yōsuke and Kimura Tae play the parents and Kaku the second son. Six years previously, the eldest son (Kōra Kengo) was killed, and the family withdrew from its former business. However, a member of a rival ninja clan and the leader of a new religion (Yamada Takayuki) draws the Tawaras back into conflict. There is none of the flashy sorcery common in the genre as the show focuses on the subdued lives of the ninja and the renaissance of a family torn apart, as well as Japan’s stagnation.

The show derives from Kaku’s sense of crisis when acting work dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading him to sell a plot he wrote himself to Netflix. His consideration of international streaming from the beginning matched up with Netflix interest in producing a ninja show.

In the second week of its release, House of Ninjas topped Netflix’s Weekly top 10 for non-English shows. (© Netflix)
In the second week of its release, House of Ninjas topped Netflix’s Weekly top 10 for non-English shows. (© Netflix)

Asserting Their Own Ideas

It is not unusual for Japanese actors to work overseas. There is a tendency to focus on those active in Hollywood, but there are also many actors making careers in countries like China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Some return to Japan after finding success elsewhere in Asia.

Japanese actors in prewar Hollywood traveled to the United States before they had built a career at home. After the acclaim for Kurosawa Akira’s films, however, Mifune Toshirō appeared in many movies in the United States and elsewhere from the 1960s. He was followed by stars like Tamba Tetsurō, Sonny Chiba, Takakura Ken, Matsuda Yūsaku, and Kudoh Youki.

Watanabe Ken rose to international prominence with The Last Samurai; along with his subsequent film career, he has also performed on stage. Sanada switched his base to Hollywood after appearing in the same movie, and has since had roles in a number of films and television series outside Japan. The two are now the leading examples of internationally successful Japanese actors.

More Japanese works are reaching global audiences too, boosted by the spread of streaming services. These have lowered the barrier to achieving global success, and Japanese creators have improved their understanding of considering the needs of viewers overseas. If Japanese companies invest in foreign productions that require huge sums to create, then more popular Japanese actors are likely to appear in these.

The way Japanese actors work is changing and becoming more diverse. More are working overseas, producing, becoming independent from talent agencies, and asserting their own ideas, as they refuse to be bound by the idea that they should only concentrate on their acting.

Kaku, who took on the role of producer for the first time in House of Ninjas, commented in an interview with the magazine Elle that he wanted more people to think that if he could do it, then they could too. He seems to appreciate the freedom after breaking from a major agency in 2022. On April 3, he announced on Instagram the founding of a new production company, Signal 181, together with Dave Boyle.

Another factor contributing to the progress for Japanese shows is the increase in visitors to Japan, who have had more opportunity to see what the country is really like. Those who come on repeat trips venture past the tourist sites and have all kinds of experiences. Even if they are initially drawn by manga and anime, as they learn about the history and encounter daily life, they come to desire a depiction of Japan that is not based on stereotypes.

Overcoming Exoticism

However, not everything is so positive. Fixed ideas in Hollywood about Japanese people are rooted deep, and battles against discrimination and prejudice will continue in the international market.

Matsuzaki Yūki has been working in Hollywood for more than 20 years, appearing in films like Letters from Iwo Jima and The Pink Panther 2. In a March 2022 video interview posted on YouTube, he discussed prejudice against Japanese and other Asian actors. Then, in a print interview carried on an Asahi Shimbun website, he described how a famous producer had said that Japanese people do not get angry at being misrepresented or start boycott movements. As there is no effect on box office revenues, there is no feeling of a need for consideration. In the face of the unconscious discrimination against various minorities—not only based on race—Matsuzaki said that he wants to keep raising his voice, even if it makes others uncomfortable.

It has taken decades to get from a time when Japanese actors were happy just to appear in foreign productions to where they have come to call for accurate representation and are arriving into positions to achieve that. Audiences must also be mindful of prejudice.

The same kind of path has been traveled in the music world. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, first performed in 1904, has been criticized for the exoticism of its depiction of Japan. After advancing through a period of finding meaning in casting Japanese actors for Japanese roles, a 1985 production of this opera in Italy went ahead with the participation of Japanese staff in the directing, costume, and sets.

Opera singer Okamura Takao protested to the director of a production at a European opera house over how Japanese manners and customs were ignored. The cool reception he received led him to put on his own “revised version” in Tokyo in 2003. Puccini’s granddaughter, who held the copyright, did not approve of the revisions, but people in the music world are said to have been understanding.

In recent years, some scholars in Europe have called for the need for revision of artistic creations from a contemporary perspective, as watching works with colonial or racist stereotypes can lead to unconscious complicity in prejudice. It has taken a century to get to this point.

As simultaneous global streaming on television increases, the world is getting smaller, breaking down barriers. This has also intensified competition. As well as their acting skills, actors need creativity and language skills, and to assert what needs to be asserted. Viewers need the awareness not to become complicit in unconscious prejudice. In some senses, the barriers may actually have been raised.

In a February interview at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, Sanada said that his work on Shōgun represented a major step toward the future and that he sees himself as building bridges for later generations who want to work outside Japan. Talented young people can now cross those bridges and international borders with ease, indicating the progress achieved to date.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 6, 2024. Banner photo: Sanada Hiroyuki at left [© Reuters] and Kaku Kento [© Jiji].)

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