From song to sword

MASUMI on moving between singing and acting for Yakuza Princess

by Jennie Kermode

MASUMI in Yakuza Princess
MASUMI in Yakuza Princess Photo: Magnet Releasing

A thundering slice of action built around one young woman’s calling to avenge the family she never knew, Vicente Amorim’s Yakuza Princess had its première at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival and will soon be released in cinemas. It stars MASUMI in her breakthrough role as Akemi, alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Tsuyoshi Ihara as mysterious men as mysterious strangers who know how to fight but may or may not be on her side.

Every sword has a story
Every sword has a story Photo: Magnet Releasing

Prior to this, MASUMI was best known for her music. A talented singer/songwriter, she rose to fame by playing her guitar in Dallas clubs, going on to perform all over the world, but turned down an offer to make her a pop idol in Tokyo because she wanted to retain control of her musical direction. Acting, she says, was never really on the radar – she did appear in a couple of short films but “I don't really consider that as an acting thing. It was just a commercial agent thing that I got those small parts, but it was still always music that was my priority.”

It’s towards the end of Fantasia that we meet. I’ve already reviewed the film and I ask what it was about it that persuaded her that it was time to try something new.

“After I turned down the opportunity to become a J-pop star, I just kind of went into a time of not being sure what I wanted to do anymore, if that was the right decision to step away from it,” she says. “So I wanted to take a break from music. And around that time, my husband, Kenny Leu, he recommended that I took some acting classes so I would continue to be creative. And so I did that. I went to my husband's acting school, and three months into it I got the opportunity for Yakuza Princess.

Was she already familiar with the genre?

She shakes her head. “Not really, because I have a hard time watching, like, stabbing and...” She holds up her hands. “I'm not very good with blood and things like that. I'm very sensitive. So yeah, I haven't really watched much of it up until up this movie.”

MASUMI and Jonathan Rhys Meyers
MASUMI and Jonathan Rhys Meyers Photo: Magnet Releasing

She was familiar with Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel Samurai Shiro, on which the film is based, she says, but was wary of letting it influence her performance. “I knew the story, obviously, but I focus more on the script and who I can be as a human, like as an actual person rather than a character in a comic.”

When we first meet Akemi she’s performing karaoke in a bar. Was that a difficult scene to approach as a professional singer, to avid making it sound professional and keep it in character?

“Yeah, it was really tough, because that was my song that I was singing. I wrote that song, I’ve released that song. So it was tough to not make it want to sound good. I want to make sure that my song sounds good, but I can't because Akemi is not a good singer. So we actually worked on that scene a little bit. And it was quite tough for me to make it more jarring. But we figured out a way to make it less singery.”

Behind the scenes with Vicente Amorim
Behind the scenes with Vicente Amorim Photo: Magnet Releasing

She then goes into some physical action quite quickly, and it's a very physical film. How much of that was her own work, and what kind of training did she get?

“Prior to the movie, I didn't have any stunt experience or martial arts experience,” she says. “So I trained for the first month just on the martial arts and the kendo and the sword fighting, and I got a lot of help from people. I wasn't sure how good I was going to be before the shoot, but after doing it, I became more confident with my stunt abilities. So yeah, I'm looking forward to doing more actually.”

The dramatic work involved was something she was more sure of from the outset, but there were still aspects of it that were tough to deal with, she explains.

“I think overall, in the movie, Akemi is in a sad state. You rarely see her smile. And to carry that weight, that emotion, the sadness and the anger and the fear, all of that was really difficult. To keep that for the entirety of the movie, for the most part. But if I were to pick one scene that was especially difficult, I would say it was the scene that I had with Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” Viewers will know which one she means when they see the film, she explains.

Yakuza Princess poster
Yakuza Princess poster Photo: Magnet Releasing

The experience of being on set, by contrast, was something she enjoyed a good deal.

“I got along with everybody really well. I don't know if this is how it is most of the time, but it was like family. We got along really well. Everybody was like a big brother to me, always helping me out, and we had a really good chemistry and energy, every day of shooting. So I was really grateful.”

Even under the best conditions, there’s pressure to get through the shoot which can make it difficult for first timers trying to get to know their characters, but she still feels that she was listened to.

“I would say the schedule was tight. Yeah. Vicente always was open to discussing ideas and my opinions. He was always there to try it out if it made sense. But schedule wise, it was a quite tight scheduling.”

And it really it's quite open ended at the end. Does she see there being a sequel? Would she want to be involved if there is?

“Yes, if there's another one, I would absolutely want to be,” she says, and adds that she’s keen to do more film work generally. “I just started so this was my first taste of acting really, and it was a martial arts related. I would like to do different types of characters and, you know, I would like to do maybe drama, and comedy eventually. All kinds of stuff. It’s awesome.”

The film opening at Fantasia is a great start, she feels.

“Oh, it's amazing. I'm honoured. This is my first time in a movie festival. I'm never going to forget this experience.”

Yakuza Princess will be available to watch in North American cinemas and on demand from Friday 3 September.

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