‘Bullet Train’ actors Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji say Japanese characters are ‘heart’ of film

Actor Andrew Koji, who is half Japanese and was born and raised in England, said he always felt like he belonged. But in the new action-comedy movie “Bullet Train,” Koji plays a Japanese character, and in doing so, he’s found a new appreciation for his heritage.

“This film, and the last two years, have really made me lean into [my roots] and be proud of it, and for that half of my culture,” Koji said.

“Bullet Train,” which hits theaters Friday, is adapted from the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle” by Kōtarō Isaka. It is set in Japan and takes place entirely on a bullet train. There are seven assassins on board, all working – so there’s plenty of fighting, blood, and fun one-liners (one character likes to quote Thomas the Tank Engine, a detail that was in the original novel).

In the film, Koji plays Kimura, a henchman and alcoholic, whose son is pushed off the roof. Kimura’s father, the Elder (played by Japanese action star Hiroyuki Sanada), is disappointed that he failed to protect his family. Koji boards the bullet train to get revenge on the person who hurt his son.

“Bullet Train” was the subject of criticism before its release. The novel is set in Japan with seemingly Japanese characters. Although the film is still set in Japan, many characters are non-Japanese. The cast contains white actors, black actors, Latinx actors, and Japanese actors, and so some have said that the Japanese characters in the novel were whitewashed. In an interview with The New York Times, Isaka said he doesn’t mind the film having a more multiracial cast, saying its characters aren’t “real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese”.

Koji said whitewashing was “not a problem” for “Bullet Train”. “The Japanese characters – Kimura and the eldest, his father – are really the heart of it,” Koji said. Although “Bullet Train” primarily features Brad Pitt in its marketing materials, the film opens with Kimura, and the film’s screenwriter, Zak Olkewicz, told The Times that “the plot is pretty much about the Japanese characters and their stories that get that”. resolution.”

Koji was a relatively unknown actor and stuntman when he was chosen after a worldwide casting call to play the lead role in “Warrior,” a martial arts series about America’s first Chinatown in the 1870s, based on the writings of Bruce Lee. Koji’s character, Chinese immigrant Ah Sahm, became his starring role. Since “Warrior,” Koji has starred alongside Henry Golding in “Snake Eyes,” and now he’s starring alongside Pitt.

Andrew Koji in “Bullet Train”.Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

Sanada, who was offered the role of the eldest by the film’s director, David Leitch, said he didn’t care to make sure “Bullet Train” stayed true to its Japanese roots. “I decided to take advantage of this original world with international distribution,” Sanada told NBC Asian America. “Sometimes if I make a samurai movie, I try to make it more authentic. But this one has an original world, like a future Japan. in a unique way, so I really appreciate that.”

As a longtime Sanada fan, Koji said it was a “dream” to act alongside him. The two also became close during filming: “He always calls me his son, like ‘Hello, my son,’ and then I call him my dad,” Koji said.

For Sanada, “Bullet Train” marks two decades of Hollywood filmmaking. He was in his 40s and was a star in Japan before deciding to try his luck in America. his first film in English was “The Last Samurai” in 2003.

He said he read the script for “Bullet Train” and accepted the role because of how the film balances the different genres of action, drama, thriller and comedy.

“My role, Elder, has a family drama, a story of revenge, with my family history, my past, and also, the fights at the end,” he said. “The action has to have good drama and the emotion of the characters: why are they fighting? And after a fight, what kind of emotion comes out? That’s the most important thing for me. So this movie has both.

Sanada also sees “Bullet Train,” a Japanese story that’s now a big-budget Hollywood movie with a worldwide release, as helping him fulfill his personal mission, one that began 20 years ago on “The Last Samurai.” “If there is a wall between East and West, I want to break down the wall of our generation. And then bridge the future, for the next generation,” he said.

For his part, Koji said he tapped into his memories of feeling like a foreigner in Japan, which also underscored Kimura’s angst. “He’s a pretty personal character for me,” Koji explained. “He’s someone who struggles with being comfortable in his own skin and dealing with pressures, family and self-imposed things.”

When he was 18, Koji moved first to Thailand and then to Japan, where he lived for two years, learning about the Japanese film industry and doing odd jobs in between. “I was working behind the bar, which I was fired from,” he said. “I was working for a stunt company, I was working for a film company and I was trying to make my own movies at the same time. It was tough.

In Japan, Koji encountered the same obstacles he had encountered in the UK. “As a half-Asian guy, you feel very out of place in two different worlds and you feel like you don’t belong,” he said. “The [in Japan] you’re not asian enough. And you’re not white enough for here. So where are you? So I pushed that Japanese part of me away for a while.

Sanada said that playing in the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and in “The Last Samurai” taught him “the importance of international projects, of mixing cultures and learning from each other, of respecting each other and of creating something. something new that no one will ever see”.

He admitted that since arriving in America, the past two decades for him have not always been “easy”. But he kept working on his goal “again, again, again, again,” he said. Now, with “Bullet Train” and the upcoming “Shōgun” series for FX, Sanada said that “little by little the dream is coming true. I feel the doors are opening wider than 20 years ago. And I want to keep doing it for the next generation.

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