By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Before her first film role, Japanese American singer MASUMI (she spells her name in all-caps) had already been performing song and dance for her own family, as far back as age 5.
She had played in a Japanese drum group, transitioned into singing and recording her own songs, and survived the Great Tōhoku Earthquake. But her starring role in the action thriller “Yakuza Princess,” opening in theaters and on-demand on Sept. 3, pushed her in directions she’d never considered before.
Asked which film skills were hardest to master, she responded candidly, “My mind was the toughest to master. Being a newbie to everything, I had to fight off the feeling of being not ‘good enough’ or skilled enough for it all. But again, the entire team and [my] castmates were incredibly supportive. Everybody put 120% of their effort during all the night shoots. I didn’t have to be confident and perfect, I just owed it to them to give it my absolute best…
“Kendo, swords, stunt fighting, acting. Everything was new for me. I had a month to practice for the fighting choreography and the sword movements prior to shooting. The fight choreographer, Rizzo, was a kind and patient man who I spent a lot of ‘off days’ practicing with! My husband, Kenny Leu, is a martial artist, so he trained me as well. We learned Kendo at the dojos in São Paulo, then trained more back at our apartment gym.”
“Yakuza Princess,” directed by Vicente Amorim, tells the story of MASUMI’s character, Akemi, as she journeys through the Japanese community in São Paulo, the largest expatriate Japanese enclave on Earth at some 1.5 million strong. She believes herself heir to a large portion of the Japanese yakuza crime syndicate, and she’s looking for proof, or at least the real story.
But lies and treachery confront her at every turn, as do armed assailants wielding both guns and swords. An amnesiac Westerner called Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Myers) steps in at her side, although he just might turn out to be more foe than friend.
As MASMUI explained, after releasing a few songs, she turned down an offer from Japan, to mold her into a Japanese pop idol. She turned that down because she wanted to decide the kind of artist she should grow into. But in her confusion and depression around that phase, she decided to study acting and put music on the back burner. Her agent shared an audition tape with her husband’s manager, and she ended up being cast in “Yakuza Princess.”
Filming in São Paulo took three months.
“The first month was for rehearsal, and prepping for the martial arts. Most Brazilian Japanese mainly spoke the local language. Most people don’t speak Japanese anymore.
“But my kendo teacher spoke perfect Japanese, and he told me his passion was to spread the Japanese tradition through Kendo for those Brazilian Japanese that are becoming less familiar with Japanese tradition in Brazil. I was touched by his passion in preserving the culture.”
She’s grateful to Amorim for his patience with the ideas she had for her character. Myers felt like a big brother to her, and she had a hard time keeping up with all of his helpful acting tips. Her Japanese co-stars, Tsuyoshi Ihara and Eijiro Ozaki, taught her sword fighting techniques.
“It was tough to have 90% of the shoot being at night. We shot most of our fight scenes starting past midnight until 6 a.m., and keeping the body flexible at that hour was a challenge. We had a very tight schedule, and it didn’t allow us to make many changes, so I slept as much as I could. Most days, until five minutes before the car picked us up.”
Asked about future projects, she said she doesn’t have a new acting role lined up yet, but she’s releasing new songs to coincide with the release of “Yakuza Princess.”
“Hope you guys catch my music as well,” MASUMI said, as she signed off.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.