Bullet Train hit theaters this past weekend with a whopping $60 million at the global box office. The film, which stars Brad Pitt as Ladybug – an unlucky assassin who takes a job on the bullet train in Japan when there are other assassins at play – leading him to hilarious and action-packed situations. One of his unlikely allies turns out to be The Elder (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) and his foolish yet equally deadly son, Yuichi (Andrew Koji).
*This article contains spoilers to Bullet Train*
Although the film does spend the majority of the time on Pitt’s Ladybug, The Elder and Yuichi still get rich backstories and their moments for revenge. The father-son relationship is explored even further from their initial estrangement to a mutual understanding by the end of the film.
“Our family has a long history [because] a lot of things happened in the past,” Sanada told The Nerds of Color during the Japanese American Cultural Community screening on Wednesday evening. “During the fighting, we helped each other and it was a bonding [experience for] father and son. The arc in the movie was very important for my role and important for the whole movie. Our revenge story is one important theme in the movie.”
Unlike Sanada’s other movies that feature Japanese elders and honorable deaths, Bullet Train did something unexpected for films that center Japanese aesthetics — they kept the main Japanese characters alive, including the wise elder who was willing to sacrifice everything to save his son. Sanada knew quite well what I meant when I spoke about the rarity of Japanese characters surviving in Hollywood movies. In many western films that center on the aesthetics of Japan, it’s become a trope to use the beauty of the country to further the white character’s plot and somehow result in the death of several Japanese “yakuza” or gangsters. Sanada himself felt relief with the outcome of The Elder and Yuichi at the end of the film and credits the writers and director David Leitch having respect for the Japanese manga by Kōtarō Isaka that the film was based on.
“The one thing I thought was [their] respect for the Japanese novel and author Kōtarō Isaka, who created this [story], [was the reason] the Japanese characters survived up to the end,” said Sanada. “If they make a part two or part three, we can survive forever.”
The movie isn’t without its controversy with the film being based on the Japanese manga and several of the cast consisting of non-Asian actors. Fortunately, the film does have the main villain as the “White Death” being of a white man who does get what’s coming to him — as well as The Prince, played by Joey King, with jokes consisting of “white woman tears” and how white women always play the victim, which was very fitting. It was also very satisfying for Sanada for his character and character’s son to get their revenge against their oppressors.
“I felt the respect,” he said. “I think the writer or the director [did it] on purpose because they respected the Japanese. They never killed us.”
Sanada also felt the team behind the film respected his comments when it came to the authenticity of being based in Japan and his character’s background in the samurai ways — especially having worked with the stunt team before.
“Every role has [its] own original fighting style,” said Sanada. “The props people gave me a unique cane with a duck head [that doubled as a sword]. I could use this duck head for the fighting and use this cover and use this hand like Miyamoto Musashi-double style with the duck head. It’s very unique. I showed them my idea of using the hook and holding the enemy’s neck and then trash/cut and block and cut. Then we created our own style for The Elder. Once we created the choreography and put the ideas together and what David knows about action – because he was a stunt guy before, it was easy to communicate [my ideas]. He respected my history too. We had great collaboration on set.”
Bullet Train is out in theaters everywhere.