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'John Wick' star Hiroyuki Sanada says new film isn’t just about bloodshed — it's also about brotherhood

“For [Shimazu], brotherhood is the most important thing,” Sanada said.
Rina Sawayama and Hiroyuki Sanada in "John Wick: Chapter 4"
From left, Rina Sawayama and Hiroyuki Sanada in "John Wick: Chapter 4." Murray Close / Lionsgate

Friends rarely existed in assassin John Wick’s life, and those who did were bonded for life — whether or not they wanted to be.

Retired and estranged assassins Koji Shimazu, Wick and Caine have a complicated, blood-soaked friendship in the new John Wick film, currently in theaters. The three have a long history of fighting alongside one another in the shadows of the crime world. Their relationships and loyalty are tested in the new film, as they are ousted from retirement and forced to meet again in Osaka, Japan.

“The three of us are old friends. We’ve grown up together, trained together, and helped each other,” Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Shimazu, told NBC News of the movie, which just saw the highest-grossing opening weekend in the series. “For [Shimazu], brotherhood is the most important thing.” 

In the fourth installment of the saga, Wick (Keanu Reeves) finally finds a path to defeat the High Table, a council of crime lords that govern the most powerful entities in the underworld. With a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head, the excommunicated hitman runs against the clock to meet with the council and hopefully, be freed of all obligations to the High Table and life of violence. In the process, he puts in danger his life and the lives of the people he meets along the way. 

Shimazu is a loyal friend of Wick and the owner of the Osaka Continental Hotel, one of many Continental hotels that provide a neutral ground to rest for hitmen and assassins. Shimazu, the only person willing to defend Wick, provides him with short-lived refuge at the hotel.

Sanada knows his character’s decision to protect Wick at all costs comes from his code of honor. “That came from the Bushido,” he said. The Bushido is the samurai’s code of conduct, which he said was essential to his character. “He carried the samurai spirit,” he explained.

The High Table forcefully enlists Caine (Donnie Yen) to kill Wick, which leads to an epic head-to-head fight between Shimazu and Caine at the hotel. Going up against a longtime friend was difficult for Shimazu. 

“We had brotherhood but we had to fight,” the Japanese-born actor explained. 

He said the fight scene between Shimazu and Caine shows the complexity of their relationship: neither wants to fight but are bound to their respective causes. 

“That kind of drama is most important even in the action scenes. We tried to create the choreography that each movement, each attack and each block had a subtitle,” he said. “Each movement has emotion and the audience can read the subtitle from the movements that we tried to create on set.”

Fighting and violence are a staple for the series, but Sanada believes the fight scenes are more than just moments of violence — they tell a story.

“Each fight has a meaning,” he said. “Each character has different emotions. ‘I don’t want to fight. I have to fight. I don’t want to kill him, but I have to protect myself.”

After a long-winded fight inside the hotel, Shimazu, who is bleeding out from a gunshot wound, pulls out his sword to fight Caine. Caine gives him the opportunity to end the fight, but Shimazu declines, opting to adhere to his code of honor.

Shimazu had left his career as an assassin behind after the birth of his daughter, Akira (Rina Sawayama), but his reunion with Wick reminds him that his allegiance to his friend was unbreakable, Sanada said.

Sanada, who is considered one of Japan’s most distinguished actors, found fame in several Hollywood films, including “The Last Samurai,” “47 Ronin,” “Avengers: Endgame,” and “Bullet Train.”

He also emphasized the depth fight scenes bring to films he’s been a part of in the past.

“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,” he previously told NBC News about his role as the Elder in “Bullet Train.”

The “John Wick” saga has continued to grow and improve with each installment, critics say, beating out others at the box office this week, according to Variety. 

The fourth installment debuted at $73.5 million, a jump from 2019’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” which opened at $57 million, a major jump from the saga’s predecessors.