By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
A young woman is plunged into a world of intrigue and mayhem when she learns she’s the heir to half of an international crime syndicate in Vincente Amorim‘s YAKUZA PRINCESS coming to theaters and VOD on September 3rd. YAKUZA PRINCESS, based on the graphic novel Samurai Shiro by Danilo Beyruth, stars actress and musician Masumi in her feature film debut as Akemi who, with help of an amnesiac stranger (The Tudors‘ Jonathan Rhys Meyers), must stay alive long enough to unlock the shocking truth of her past. With the Yakuza on her trail and a mysterious, ancient samurai sword by her side, Akemi’s once-average life is transformed into a brutal fight for survival as she battles her way across the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, to find her destiny.
We recently caught up with YAKUZA PRINCESS’ star to discuss her role in the action-packed new film, the life-changing disaster that set her on an artistic path, and how she narrowly avoided becoming a Japanese pop sensation to emerge as an unlikely action star.
You’ve had an amazing journey on your way to starring in YAKUZA PRINCESS. Can you share a little bit about your background?
I guess it started with the earthquake. In 2011, when the earthquake happened, I was going to university in Japan, and I was studying philosophy there. I was with a friend at an underground bar when the earthquake happened. We have a lot of earthquakes, but that was one of the largest that we’ve ever had. It was so large that we couldn’t get up the stairs. There were very steep and all of us were getting pushed down every time we’d try to go up. It was a very terrifying time. When we finally got to the surface, I felt like it was going to be my last day and that moment brought me clarity [on] what I really wanted to do, which was music.
After I survived that event, three months later, I moved to L.A. to enroll in a music school. That’s where my singer-songwriter career starts. It was a tough time – being a singer-songwriter in Hollywood and being Asian and female and all that kind of good stuff. After about eight years, I got an offer to be a J-pop star in Japan, and I seriously considered that because I want to make my parents proud! [Laughs] But at that time, I really wanted to stick to my art and continue to search out what kind of artistry I wanted to pursue, so I stayed in the United States. Walking away from an opportunity like that does bring the low tides in, and I was a little bit confused as to whether my decision was the right one. I decided to step away from music a little bit and do something completely different like acting. I [had] never thought about acting before, but I thought it was a good way to get my mind off of things. My husband was going to an acting school, so I enrolled for three months, and, three months in, I got the audition for YAKUZA PRINCESS.
Tell me about your character, Akemi. How did you approach playing her?
When I read the script of YAKUZA PRINCESS, Akemi’s story almost felt like my story. It was very similar to how I felt being Japanese born in America and then living in Japan and having two identities and two cultural influences and kind of feeling like I didn’t exactly belong in either of them. I think Akemi really goes through that in terms of identity and belonging and that contributes to her insecurity. There was a lot to relate to with her.
What was it like shooting on the crowded streets of São Paulo?
Shooting in São Paulo was great! The people are very warm. My team was an amazing group of people. Most of the days, it was training for the martial arts and swords and kendo and things like that, so I didn’t quite have enough time to do a lot of sightseeing. I didn’t get to see too much of Brazil, but I love the people.
Akemi is obviously a very physical role. How did you prepare in terms of training?
Prior to this movie, I really didn’t have much acting experience and I really didn’t have the martial arts background in Kendo or swords or stunts. So I really had to rely on my husband, who is a martial arts U.S. champion. He came with me to Brazil, thankfully! He trained me and the fight choreographer on the Brazilian team trained me as well. I also had a Kendo teacher who I only met with a few times. It was all kinds of movements to learn!
Did you do your own stunts?
Yes, I would say 90 percent of it was me.
Wow! Why did you decide to take on such a physically demanding role for your film debut?
[Laughs] I don’t feel like I chose it; I feel like it chose me! I didn’t have to do all of the stunts, of course. I could have had somebody do it for me, but when I got there, and I was learning all the choreography, I realized how easily it was coming to me. I was able to remember all the movements and get it pretty good, so the director and the producer said, “Masumi, it would be really great if you could do [the fights] because you’re learning them so quickly.” I didn’t ever think I would try to do 90 percent of the stunts, but I got kinda greedy and wanted to do it all!
Was it intimidating at all to realize that you were shouldering the entire burden of the story in your very first feature?
Yeah, I guess so. When I was reading the script, I didn’t really realize it. I didn’t really realize a lot of things until I got to the set. In the beginning, I did have that fear a little bit. But when you start working on the film, you realize how much other people are doing. You’re really just doing about 10 percent of this movie. Moviemaking is made up of a lot of people and all kinds of efforts. When I witnessed that, because I had never been on a set before and hadn’t seen a set designer, and a DP, and this and that, I didn’t feel like I was shouldering the whole thing. Everybody was putting in a lot of work, and I just owed it to them to give my 120 percent effort. I felt like that was my responsibility.
Would you consider yourself an action star now? Do you mind being put in that category?
[Laughs] Whooo! I mean, I don’t know if I’m an action star! I really enjoyed YAKUZA PRINCESS being my first movie, and I would love to do it again. I think what I’m most proud of is less about the action scenes, but the fact that I’m a Japanese woman who got to do the lead. On top of that, you don’t see a lot of Japanese actresses taking the lead [in film], and I’m not sexualized in any way. I’m not a sexy Asian woman kicking ass. I’m portrayed very humanly. I have so many layers. I don’t have to be sexy to be badass. That’s what I’m really proud of and that’s what I would like to do more of.
As you just touched on, Hollywood hasn’t been kind to Asian actors in general, and it especially hasn’t been kind in its portrayal of Asian women. Have you experienced any of that prejudice or stereotyping at this point in your career? Do you think things are finally beginning to change?
Because I grew up in Japan, I didn’t experience a lot of this misrepresentation or feeling like I’m not being represented enough because [I was] seeing [people like] myself on TV in Japan. So when I came here, I still didn’t feel like I was misrepresented. I did realize that I would get sexualized a lot. In auditions, they loved it if I had red lipstick on with an edgy look. That didn’t quite sink in until I started acting. What I faced a lot was getting an audition for a Japanese role and seeing that half-Japanese talents, who couldn’t really speak the language, would get the part. And these are Japanese lines that they’re speaking! I was looking at the TV show like, “They’re butchering my language! That’s not right!” That was the first time I felt like I was misrepresented and I really understood the importance of being represented properly. Speaking the language properly is part of respecting the history and the country.
Now, I’m really learning a lot about representation. I do feel like it’s getting better. We have more opportunities, but we need more opportunities. We need equal opportunities, and that’s where I hope we’re heading.
YAKUZA PRINCESS from Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing premieres on VOD and in select theaters on September 3rd.