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INTERVIEW – ‘John Wick 4’ Star Hiroyuki Sanada on Working with Donnie Yen and the Origin of Koji Shimazu

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There are some actors who have such grace, elegance and gravitas that they elevate every project they’re in. Hiroyuki Sanada is one of those actors. A veteran performer with a truly global presence, Sanada has over 50 years of experience in film, television and theater. In John Wick 4, Sanada plays Koji Shimazu, the manager of the Continental Hotel in Osaka, Japan and an old friend of John Wick.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sanada, who is one of my favorite actors. In the film, he has some very memorable moments with Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen. Describing their work together as a “chemical reaction,” Sanada said that the characters and the emotions were even more important than the action in their scenes. He said that once they finalized the choreography, they didn’t need rehearsal, and sometimes shot the scene in one take. Sanada, who has experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company, also said that the entire crew would gather to watch the two stars, making it feel like a theater stage. “It was a great playground for us. The set design was great. It’s like a stage – just two of us fighting on stage,” Sanada said. “And then all the crew in the studio came to see us, like a theater.”

Recently in an interview with GQ Magazine, Donnie Yen talked about how he worked with John Wick 4 director Chad Stahelski to help make sure that his character, Caine, avoided stereotypes. I asked Sanada if he had a similar experience in helping to ensure authenticity for his character. He explained that initially, his character had a different name, but Stahelski asked if Sanada could recommend a more traditional one. Sanada came up with Shimazu because it is the name of a famous Samurai clan in Japanese history. “They had a family mark. I sent to Chad and said ‘This is my mark’ and he used it on set,” Sanada said.

Brave Warriors of the Shimazu Clan (Shimazuke Eiyūzoroi) Art by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese, 1839–1892) Published by Hyashi Kichizō
Brave Warriors of the Shimazu Clan (Shimazuke Eiyūzoroi) Art by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese, 1839–1892) Published by Hyashi Kichizō

Sanada also shared that his character originally didn’t have a first name. But considering the character’s history with both John Wick and Caine, it made more sense for them to call him by a first name. Sanada explained that he took this opportunity to pay homage to a Japanese fight choreographer named Koji. He reached out to Koji for permission, and thus Koji Shimazu was born.

It’s great to hear that Stahelski and the John Wick creative team made a genuine effort to ensure that actors like Sanada and Yen were not only given substantial roles, but that they were brought into the creative process to ensure greater cultural authenticity. I particularly enjoyed Sanada’s anecdote about his character’s name because too often in Hollywood, Asian characters are given just one generic name and no depth. Names have power, and knowing the real life and cultural significance of Koji Shimazu adds a richness to the character that’s necessary and important.

Watch our full conversation below and don’t miss Sanada as Koji Shimazu in John Wick 4 premiering March 24, 2023!

POCculture.com Interview with Hiroyuki Sanada

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) takes on his most lethal adversaries yet in the upcoming fourth installment of the series. With the price on his head ever increasing, Wick takes his fight against the High Table global as he seeks out the most powerful players in the underworld, from New York to Paris to Osaka to Berlin.

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Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture.  He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.

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