Samurai in L.A.: Actors in Iki Company Train in the Art of Japanese Sword-Fighting
|Iki Company's Masa Kanome, left, Sachiko Hayashi and Ryuji Yamakita|
The would-be samurai of Iki Company are waiting for their master, doggedly whacking at each other with wooden sticks at a park in Westwood. It will be months before he arrives.
The company members are mostly young, aspiring actors trying to break into the U.S. market. All but one are Japanese; many are still learning English.
Master choreographer Keiya Tabuchi flies to Los Angeles from Tokyo once a year to teach them the intricacies of tate, or traditional Japanese theatrical combat. He teaches them how to hold a sword, how to sheathe and unsheathe it, how to swing it, how to cut, how to get cut -- even how to act like your guts are spilling out onto the ground. Then he choreographs the play that Iki Company stages each year, a sword-fighting extravaganza.
None of the participants has much experience, and they're armed with wooden swords instead of steel katana, but they all have a desire to slice and dice their fellow man in that crisp, fluid, almost balletic motion unique to samurai.
"We don't have routines yet," says their chairman, Masa Kanome. "We won't until Keiya comes. We are doing basic stuff until then."
"You have to do it faster. If you do slow, anybody can do it also," says producer Ryuji Yamakita. He adds, "We can't compete with just normal acting. So we do action."
The first time the master came, in 2011, Iki Company's third founding member, Sachiko Hayashi, posted a message on the company's Facebook page, cautiously inviting people to join them for lessons: "We cannot be responsible for any accidents. Thank you in advance for your understanding!"
A bunch of actors showed up. The first few days, the skin peeled off their fingers. Their hands blistered, then bled. Hayashi broke three wooden swords and injured her wrist. Kanome fractured his ankle.
Everybody's thighs quivered. Muscles they didn't even know they had ached. "My butt was burning," complains a former Miss Asia USA, Yuka Sano. "My biceps were painful for weeks."
"You know holding bat? Baseball? Same," Yamakita says with a stoic shrug. But not everyone found the fortitude to continue.
"Yeah, some people kinda faded out," Kanome admits. "Keiya is very strict."
Legend has it that Keiya Tabuchi, who is now 38, came to the United States at 18 to serve as a stunt double for a Power Rangers character at an amusement park. Midway through a performance, while hooked to wires that let him fly through the air, he hurt his back.
No longer able to do extreme stunts, he became a choreographer. (Most recently, he choreographed the fight scenes in Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins.)
Yamakita and Kanome didn't know anything about sword fighting when they formed the company. Both struggling actors, they'd met at a party a few months earlier and got to talking about life in America and Japan.
When Yamakita mentioned that he knew a guy who could do amazing things with a sword, Kanome was instantly taken with the idea. Would that guy teach them to be samurai, too? The answer was yes.
Living on opposite sides of the globe presents obvious problems for the company and its master. "When he's not here, it's hard to see what is right or not," Kanome says. "When we don't have Keiya, we don't have instructor. We don't have direction to go to. It becomes kind of casual."
The Western style of theatrical martial arts involves flashy flipping and jump-kicking. Tabuchi teaches a more historically accurate style of combat.
Seeing the actors goofing around one day, he lectured them about how, in the Edo period, a man's average lifespan might have been 50 years, but it was not uncommon to die at 18 if your swordsmanship sucked.
"You either kill the person or you get killed," he told them. "Every moment might be your last life moment."
There was less goofiness after that.
Kanome, for one, likes to imagine he is really fighting, that he is a samurai warrior, not a part-time actor who waits tables at a Studio City sushi restaurant. Those times, he says, are the purest high, even when he gets hurt.
The three founders discuss last year's play, Utsutsu, over teriyaki eel bowls at a Japanese café. Utsutsu ran for six nights at Barnsdall Art Center and starred Yamakita as a blind swordsman, a familiar character in Japanese tales. In lieu of a cane, the blind man uses a sword, and he fights holding the sword backward.
Describing the action, Yamakita grabs a knife from the table and flicks it upside down with obvious delight. He summarizes the plot as "lots of fighting. Lots of killing."
In August, the samurai will again face off against their sworn enemy, the yakuza, in a new play. As with the previous production, the narrative won't be nearly as important as the fighting.
Just before opening night, Kanome and the other actors will don kimonos and spray-paint their wood swords silver. Kanome has never held a real katana. But Yamakita has. Overwhelmed by the thought of it, he lapses into Japanese. Kanome translates: "He says he had a chance to hold a real sword. He saw Japan's No. 1 human treasure sword maker. He saw the process of making it, the pounding of the steel. It takes six months to make one sword."
That swordsmith, Yoshindo Yoshihara, once made a blade so sharp it cut through a 2-inch-thick iron helmet. Swords made by the man named a Prefectural Living Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government sell for upward of $60,000.
Of the sword she held, Ryuji recalls, "It was really heavy."
"You're not supposed to touch the blade because the oil from your fingertips ruins it," Hayashi adds. "There is a way to observe the blade with a paper in your mouth." She tucks a paper napkin between her lips. "It's to catch the saliva."
Kanome says he would love to observe a katana up close, to feel the heft of the blade, the warmth of the warehouse where it was forged.
"I would understand more about what samurai think. Maybe there will be many feelings and emotions that will come to me," he says. "We will have to see."Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.