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The Japanese characters at the ‘heart’ of ‘Bullet Train’

Actor Andrew Koji, who is half Japanese and was born and raised in England, said he’s always felt out of place. But in the new action-comedy film “Bullet Train,” Koji plays a Japanese character, and in the process, he found a new appreciation for his heritage.

“This film, and the last couple years, made me really look into [my roots] and find pride in it, and for that half of my culture,” Koji said.

“Bullet Train,” which is in 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 a job — so there’s plenty of fights, blood and quippy 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 hired hand and an alcoholic, whose son is pushed off of a roof. Kimura’s father, the Elder (played by Japanese action star Hiroyuki Sanada), is disappointed in him for not protecting his family. Koji boards the bullet train to get revenge on the person who harmed his son.

“Bullet Train” was the subject of criticism before its release. The novel is set in Japan with ostensibly Japanese characters. While the film is still set in Japan, many of the characters are not Japanese. The cast contains white actors, Black actors, Latinx actors and Japanese actors, and thus some have said the Japanese characters from the novel had been whitewashed. In an interview with The New York Times, Isaka said he didn’t mind that the film has a more multiracial cast, saying his characters are “not real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese.”

Koji said whitewashing is “a nonissue” for “Bullet Train.” “The Japanese characters — Kimura and the Elder, his father — are very much the heart of it,” Koji said. Though “Bullet Train” predominantly featured Brad Pitt in its marketing materials, the film opens with Kimura, and the film’s screenwriter, Zak Olkewicz, told the Times that “the plot pretty much kind of is about the Japanese characters and their story lines getting that resolution.”

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

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

Sanada, who was offered the role of the Elder by the film’s director, David Leitch, said he wasn’t concerned about making sure “Bullet Train” stayed true to its Japanese roots. “I decided to just enjoy this original world with the international cast,” Sanada told NBC Asian America. “Sometimes if I do samurai movie, I try to make it more authentic. But this one has an original world, like a future Japan.” He then added happily, “And they use the Japanese pop songs in a unique way, so I really enjoy that.”

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

For Sanada, “Bullet Train” marks two decades of making films in Hollywood. He was in his 40s and a star in Japan before he decided to try his luck in America; his first English-language film was “The Last Samurai” in 2003.

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

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

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

For his part, Koji said he tapped into his recollections of feeling like an outsider in Japan, which also underscored Kimura’s angst. “It’s quite a personal character to me,” Koji explained. “He’s someone who’s struggled with being comfortable in his skin and dealing with pressures, family and things that he’s placed on himself.”

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

In Japan, Koji encountered the same roadblocks he had encountered in the U.K. “As a half Asian man, you feel very displaced in two different worlds, and you feel like you don’t belong,” he said. “There [in Japan] you’re not Asian enough. And you’re not white enough for here. So where are you? So I pushed away that Japanese part of me for a while.” 

Sanada said acting in the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and in “The Last Samurai” taught him about the “importance of international projects, in mixing culture and learning from each other, respecting each other, and making something new no one ever see.”

He admitted that since moving to America, the last two decades for him haven’t always been “easy.” But he kept working at 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, dreaming come true. I’m feeling the doors open wider than 20 years ago. And I want to keep doing this for the next generation.”

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