As HBO’s Westworld heads into Season 2 – and don’t worry, I’m not here to discuss the show’s plot so read on without fear of spoilers – it has picked up a number of highly recognisable Japanese actors in guest or recurring roles. Two of my favourites are among the most well-known Japanese actors currently working in Hollywood, with Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi both making their Westworld debut in the fifth episode of Season 2, “Akane no Mai”.
Kikuchi had a few early roles in Japan, and while she continues to appear in Japanese media, first hit international recognition with Babel (2006) before starring in The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). She manages to star in both big budget, action-heavy Hollywood releases, artsier fare like Tran Anh Hung’s dreadful adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), and hyperdramatic Japanese television dramas like Liar Game (confession: I’ll always think of her as an eccentric villain from Liar Game). It was a welcome surprise spotting her in Westworld. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, it did at least give AV Club an excuse to interview Kikuchi and amongst other things ask her about the “Mako Mori test”.
Hiroyuki Sanada – who is somehow, inexplicably 57 years old – is likewise an actor with a career in his native Japan before gradually branching out into Hollywood and plenty of North American TV. Sanada, however, got his start much earlier by training with Sonny Chiba and his Japan Action Club. While probably recognisable to Western fans of J-horror through the Ring/Ringu movies or from the critically acclaimed Twilight Samurai (2002), Sanada also co-starred in The Last Samurai (2003), Sunshine (2007), the underrated The Wolverine (2013), and last year’s Life (2017). Sanada brings some real presence and a lot of cachet to his role in Westworld, even serving as the show’s Japanese cultural advisor [caution: minor Westworld Season 2 spoilers within].
With the second season of Westworld drawing on Japanese culture but also playing with how that culture is stereotyped and portrayed in western media, it’s interesting that the show has picked up Japanese actors to flesh out its world. It’s a little too early to tell how the rest of the season will unfold and how well it utilise (or exploit) Japanese culture, but if nothing else, it’s great seeing some of my favourite actors appear. It’s also a reminder that I really need to track down a copy of Twilight Samurai – which despite its Oscar nomination, doesn’t appear to have ever received a Blu-Ray or digital release in the UK, leaving only an old Tartan Video DVD edition.