Meet the MVP of ‘Shōgun’ — Ex-Punk Rocker and Japanese Movie Star Tadanobu Asano

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Tadanobu Asano in 'Shōgun.' - Credit: Katie Yu/FX
Tadanobu Asano in 'Shōgun.' - Credit: Katie Yu/FX

By the time you’ve inched toward the halfway point of the first episode of Shōgun, the epic new limited series that revisits James Clavell’s 1975 doorstopper of a historical novel about early 1600s Japan, you’ve already seen an eyeful: massive schooners, flashing swords, military processions, political power plays, a father and his infant son sentenced to death, a half-dozen English prisoners awaiting their fate in a pit. And then, out of nowhere, a character rides in on horseback. He’s shot from behind, but there’s something about the way he holds himself, as well as the dark blue feathers on his vestment, that suggests a high rank. When we finally do see his face, the slightly self-satisfied smile tells you that this man is different from the other samurai and lords we’ve already met. Who is this guy?

Before the credits rolled on this first chapter in FX’s groundbreaking, 10-episode adaptation, we will have watched this same person boil a man to death, suffer through a deadly storm at sea, nearly fall to his death down the side of a cliff and drown, and become intrigued by the sight of his servant having sex with a courtesan. He is Lord Kashigi Yabushige, ruler of a fiefdom in Izu and arguably the craftiest person around at the dawn of the Edo period. You could practically hear legions of viewers frantically searching for the IMDb page of the 50-year-old actor who played Yabushige, asking themselves: Who is that guy? For anyone who’d been binging on Japanese cinema for the past three decades, however, the response was: Oh hell yes, it’s that guy!!!

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“That guy” is Tadanobu Asano, a charismatic presence in everything from kinetic genre movies to prestigious jidaigeki period pieces since the mid-1990s. He’s worked with a who’s-who of modern Japanese auteurs and envelope-pushing cult filmmakers, including Hirokazu Kore-eda (Maborosi, Distance), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Bright Future), Nagisa Oshima (Gohatto), Takeshi Kitano (Zatoichi), Shinya Tsukamoto (Gemini, Vital), and Sogo Ishi (Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts), with whom Asano played in the noise-punk group Mach 1.67. The sadistic bleached-blond yakuza with the slit-up mug who became the face of Takashi Miike’s notorious Ichi the Killer (2001)? That’s Tadanobu. The stern-looking member of Asgard’s Warriors Three, who battles alongside the God of Thunder in Thor: Ragnarok (2017)? That’s Tadanobu too.

He’s a bona fide movie star in his home country and has graced a number of international productions from a Russian biopic about Genghis Khan (Mongol) to those MCU excursions into Norse mythology. Yet Shōgun has introduced Asano to what feels like an entirely new audience, and his boisterous portrayal of Yabushige quickly made him the show’s fan favorite. “In the writer’s room, we had a picture of Tadanobu tacked up on our wall,” Rachel Kondo, the series’ co-creator, says. “He had long hair, he was wearing a tuxedo, and we just thought: That’s Yabushige. It was like we just wrote to who we thought the character could be from that image alone. He was our only choice for the role.”

Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano attends the red carpet event for FX's "Shogun" at the Academy theater in Los Angeles, February 13, 2024. (Photo by Michael Tran / AFP) (Photo by MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Tadanobu Asano attends the red carpet event for FX’s “Shōgun” at the Academy theater in Los Angeles.

“Even when I’ve worked outside of Japan, I’m always aware of being a Japanese actor, who’s been in a lot of Japanese movies and TV shows,” Asano says, on a Zoom call from his home in Tokyo. “And when I came over to do Shōgun …I knew it would be subtitled, no matter want language I spoke, but I also knew it’d be an American production as well. I had to come up with some sort of physicality to the performance — how I stood, how I moved, the expression on my face — that translated whether or not there were subtitles. I wanted people to see what I was doing and be convinced, or to find him interesting, from just that alone. I wanted them to ‘get it,’ regardless of what language they spoke. That was the challenge.”

The physicality that the actor gives this feudal lord, whether he’s fighting off an army or simply fed up over what he feels is a foolhardy or fatalistic decision, is indeed one of the things that sets his character apart. Yabushige may be someone who’s mentally sizing up situations from every angle, but he’s also earthy, exudes a warrior’s confidence even when he’s conning someone, and has a way of swaggering through a crisis; critics have compared that brawler’s gait and his facial expressions — he’s capable of a killer “are you shitting me right now?!” look — to the early work of Toshiro Mifune (notably, in the samurai films directed by Akira Kurosawa). Asano is flattered by the comparison, but points to a slightly different source of inspiration. “I kept going back to what Yabushige was like as a little kid,” he says. “The boy who would stop to pick up the pebble from the road. I’d constantly ask myself: What would Little Yabushige do? How would he react? So a lot of it comes from that.”

There’s also the fact that, in a landscape governed by strict codes of conduct and social protocols, Yabushige serves as the resident trickster. He’s loyal to his lord, the fugitive regent Yoshii Toranaga played by Hiroyuki Sanada — Asano first worked with the veteran actor when he was 19, he notes, and “the relationship between Toranaga and Yabushige is remarkably similar to the one between Sanada-san and I.” But he’s also someone who knows how to maneuver in and around the shifting political game-of-thrones thanks to the gap left by the death of the region’s previous shōgun, and has a talent for manipulating his fellow players in the name of gaining an advantage. Even when Yabushige finds himself caught working both sides of a conflict, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to, in the words of co-creator and showrunner Justin Marks, “stay one step ahead of the lie.”

His opportunistic cunning makes him one of the more “modern” characters in this jidaigeki; the combination of that and the sheer cult-of-personality that Asano brings to him is what’s made him the series’ standout MVP. How the actor manages to balance what he calls “the playfulness and the brutality” of the character, as well as giving him a sense of humor, a death obsession and a noticeable joie de vivre, speaks to Asano’s longstanding talent for playing complicated antiheroes. “We’d always like to say, ‘This Yabu is here to party!'” Marks says. “But the reference we always went to, oddly enough, was Uncut Gems. You’re on a journey within the headspace of a character, but you’re watching him do this highwire act and sort of waiting for him to fall. In my first conversation with Tadanobu, I brought this up and said, this is energy we’re thinking of — where the audience is almost going to feel sorry for him while also hating him. And I think his response was something like, ‘Perfect.'”

“SHOGUN” --  "Servants of Two Masters" -- Episode 2 (Airs February 27)  Pictured (C):   Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige.  CR: Katie Yu/FX
Tadanobu Asano in ‘Shogun.’

Asano chuckles when this is mentioned, then quickly notes that while Shōgun sort of fell into his lap — he was not exactly looking to do an 11-month shoot abroad on a massive blockbuster-level epic — the timing was oddly serendipitous. “It came to me at a moment when I was looking back at a lot of the characters I’d played over what’s now a rather long career,” he says. “And it occurred to me, whenever I had the choice between playing a ‘good’ character or an ‘evil’ one, I’d find myself choosing the evil one. I thought, Hmm. Why is that? What was it that drew me to those roles? And I realized that, with a few exceptions, most of them didn’t start out trying to do bad. They simple did things ‘different,’ and maybe society punished them for that.

“I mean, some of them are killers and gangsters, sure,” Asano adds, grinning. “But a lot of them were just people who didn’t fit into the world around them. And it was right when that idea about people not being strictly good or bad, but how so much of it is about the gap between how a person lives and whether or not society accepts that choice …that was when I got the scripts for the first few episodes. It was like, He boils people alive and he’s concerned about writing the perfect will. There’s so much going on here.

There was also the fact that Yabushige was a character who was both calculating and often childish could tap into something else that Asano was interested in exploring in terms of acting styles. “So this goes back to the beginning of my career, because I started when I was very young,” he says. “I was a teenager, so I got asked to play a lot of students. And I was obsessed with playing things as realistic as possible. Then, in my late 20s and into my 30s, I started to go bigger — to really exaggerate gestures, to go very broad and loud and large in performances. Then, as I got older, I thought: Well, to really express myself, it would be great to do both. But there weren’t really opportunities to do that a lot. Then Yabushige comes along, and I thought, You could do this” — Asano makes a slightly bemused, slightly confused, extremely cartoonish facial expression — “and you could be completely naturalistic with him. Both sides!”

And though Asano mentions that while Shōgun‘s core story remains a universal one — “You could do it within a yakuza society or a modern corporation, and it would still work,” he notes — he was intrigued by the way that the relationship between Yabushige and the Englishman John Blackthorne, played by Cosmo Jarvis, represents a historical moment of cross-cultural change. “Someone from the West comes to Japan now, people know how to talk to them,” he says. “In the 1600s, no one had a clue. But you can tell that Yabushige is intrigued by him, because Blackthorne doesn’t fit in either.” Both Marks and Kondo single out a moment in the second episode when, having engineered an ambush by bandits in order to spare Blackthorne’s life, the Englishman thanks his savior in Japanese.

“Tadanobu said, ‘Let me try something,'” Marks recalls. “He was just supposed to pat Cosmo on the head. But instead, he asks him to repeat ‘I am a dog’ in Japanese as well. Cosmo had no idea what the sentence meant, but he started repeating it. Then Asano reacted, and Cosmo reacted to his reaction. It suddenly became this thing that made you see their relationship in this comic way that ended up influencing all of their scenes together.” (For his part, Asano says the improvisation worked “because Cosmo and I are both musicians, so I had the feeling he’d know how to play along if you threw a curve.”)

Suddenly, Marks excuses himself from the Zoom call he’s conducting with Kondo. When he returns a few seconds later, he’s holding a framed poster that his assistant had made for him. It’s a replica of the poster for the 1969 poster for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only instead of Redford and Newman, it’s Asano and Jarvis, both in character.

“‘Never met a pair like Yabu and the Anjin,'” Kondo says, reading the poster’s tagline. (Anjin being Blackthorne’s nickname.) “The Anjin is the perfect pet. Yabu is, for some reason, still alive — but for how long?!?”

“This is my prize possession,” Marks says. “I could do seven seasons with Asano and Cosmo, and these characters.”

ICHI THE KILLER, Tadanobu Asano, 2001, ©Media Blasters/courtesy Everett Collection
Tadanobu Asano in ‘Ichi the Killer.’

Marks also points out that, among the many reasons he and Kondo had fought for so long to do Shōgun, they had wanted to showcase a number of Japanese actors that they felt were either unknown in the West or, in Asano’s case, were too often underutilized. “In the case of Tadanobu, you’re talking about a face that may be familiar to a handful of American viewers,” he says, “but usually he’s kind of lost within an ensemble. So many people don’t know what we call the ‘Ichi the Killer side’ of him — where he’s practically breaking the frame around him because he’s so dynamic. The hope is that this helps act as a kind of gateway drug to a lot of his past work. Because he’s had such a long, rich and varied career.”

Whether or not this limited series sparks a wave of Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts screenings across the country remains to be seen (Asano laughs at the idea, then adds that he and director Sogo Ishii are making music together again and are collaborating on a film tentatively titled Boxman), he’s happy that people are appreciating the series and are as attached to Yabushige as he was. Personally, he feels like the role does mark a turning point for him, and slightly harkens back to his early work in the 1990s when “it felt like there were no rules. We could be as creative and out there as we wanted to be.” If Shōgun, does change things for him professionally outside of his home country, he’s fine with that too.

“I’ve been thinking about that the last few weeks, actually,” Asano says. “There have been moments when I’ve seen the reaction to the show and to my character, and thought: What the hell is going on around me here? I wasn’t expecting this kind of attention this late into my career, to be honest. But there have been days in my life when I’ll be preparing for a role, you know — just sitting in a room by myself, going through a script, reading the lines out loud, trying different things. And I’ll stop myself and go, ‘Tadanobu: you are the best and most interesting actor in the world!!!’

“And now,” he jokes, “it’s like I think to myself, ‘Well… maybe people are finally ready to agree with you.'”

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