Every so often, a mysterious new talent will emerge for the shadows to breathe life into the world of action cinema. Enter MASUMI. Already an undeniable force in the world of music, she has spent the better part of the past decade blazing her own trail as a singer/songwriter. A multi-faceted performer, she takes on every day armed with an amazing skill set, incredible range, and unrelenting drive.
In 2021, MASUMI will hit the silver screen with her debut performance in the gritty, martial arts action thriller, ‘Yakuza Princess,’ from Brazilian filmmaker Vicente Amorim (‘Motorrad,’ ‘Dirty Hearts’). Set in the expansive Japanese community of Sao Paulo in Brazil — the largest Japanese diaspora in the world — ‘Yakuza Princess’ follows Akemi (MASUMI), an orphan who discovers she is the heiress to half of the Yakuza crime syndicate. Forging an uneasy alliance with an amnesiac stranger (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who believes an ancient sword binds their two fates, Akemi must unleash war against the other half of the syndicate who wants her dead.
MASUMI’s performance in the film, coupled with its gripping storyline and dynamic cast of characters, paves the way for what could become one of the more gripping sagas in modern genre film! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with MASUMI to discuss her incredible journey as an artist, the challenges of bringing ‘Yakuza Princess’ from script to screen, and what the future might hold for both her and this franchise in the making.
Magnet Releasing will release YAKUZA PRINCESS everywhere September 3rd, 2021.
Your career has taken you down a rather unique path. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. How did you first get involved with the creative arts?
The first thing I started doing was Japanese drums when I was in third grade. I was in Japan, and I was at a festival watching people play. It was something I really wanted to do, so I asked to be joined. I started very early, so I became really good and did that for the next nine years. That was my first start.
You’ve spent the past several years making a name for yourself as a professional musician. Was there a point in time when you knew it was a passion you had to pursue professionally?
I would say that I always loved music, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence in it at all! I started singing and playing on the streets in Tokyo, but I was a very shy, unconfident singer. When the 2011 earthquake hit Japan, I had the experience of getting trapped in an underground bar. When I survived the earthquake and was able to get out, I had a moment of clarity of what I really wanted to do in my life. After that day, I decided to move to the United States and pursue my career as a singer/songwriter.
As a singer/songwriter you are baring your soul to your audience. Is that something that has gotten easier for you over the years?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if that nervousness ever goes away exactly. You just learn to embrace that feeling. That feeling is always important. It’s also important to recognize that people are giving you time from their life to listen to you. I think I’ve learned to embrace that.
Who are some of the people who had a big impact on you creatively?
I had a lot of people who believed in me. Ever since I started music, I felt like I always had supporters who believed in me and who wanted to help my career. If I were to mention someone that’s really close to me, it would be my family members — my father, my mother and my brother. I say that because we all went through the earthquake together and all feel that it is important to live now because we never know what would happen in the future. Their support was very genuine to me.
What drew you to acting as an additional creative outlet?
Like you said, I was doing music for a long time. I came to a point where I needed to take a small break for myself. At the time, my husband suggested that I keep being creative in a different art. He suggested acting and his acting school as a way to continue being creative. Three months before I got the offer for ‘Yakuza Princess,’ I was at his acting school only focusing on acting. I wasn’t doing music at all, which is something that I had never done before. It was the first time I had put music aside. That’s how I got started.
I definitely wanted to ask about your husband, Kenny Leu. You two have such a great connection and are so supportive of each other. How did you initially cross paths?
I was on a commercial shoot for a bank. He was there! We were talking and, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about acting. He told me that he was a full-time actor, and I didn’t believe that anybody could be a full-time actor in Los Angeles and survive! I said, “I’m very curious. Could you tell me more about your full-time actor career?” [laughs] That’s how we became friends!
‘Yakuza Princess’ is your first feature film and I loved everything about it. Your performance was terrific, and the supporting cast was amazing. All the characters had such dimension to them, and it made the film truly jump from the screen. How did this opportunity present itself to you?
Thank you for saying all of that! That really makes me happy! As I said, I had enrolled in acting school and after three months, I got this opportunity. How that happened was I was in acting school when my husband called me and said, “Hey MASUMI. You have to come home right away. There is big news!” So, I rushed home! It turns out that my husband’s manager was at a meeting with Tubaldini Shelling, who is the producer of ‘Yakuza Princess.’ He had heard that he was looking for a lead. My husband’s manager happened to have my self-tape from another audition, and he showed that to the producer. He wasn’t my manager at the time, so it was really interesting how everything happened. He showed the producer my audition and he liked it. I had a meeting with him right away and he asked me to audition for the film. I did, and two weeks later I got the news that I got the role!
What spoke to you about the role of Akemi in ‘Yakuza Princess’? Were there elements of the character you related too?
Absolutely! Because I was born in America and grew up in Japan, having these two cultures was something I dealt with growing up. There was this identity crisis or belonging question — “Am I Japanese or American?” Akemi goes through that same feeling as she is Japanese but in Brazil. This movie talks about the two cultures, and she is in between the two. I understood that struggle right away and felt it was a big part of Akemi. There was a lot of fear that I had to overcome from the beginning to the end, so I felt I was going through this journey with Akemi. That was one of the biggest things that drew me to her.
What can you tell us about your process for bringing this character to life?
I did take some inspiration from ‘Lady Snowblood’ and some of the other films Vincete Amorim has created. I spent a lot of time creating her memories around what happened to her in Japan. For the most part, like I said, I used my experience of knowing how it feels to be from two different cultures.
Landing this role and being the lead in your first feature film is a big step. I imagine there had to be a tremendous amount of pressure.
Yeah! I auditioned, two weeks later I got the notification, and four days after that I moved to Brazil! Everything moved very quickly! Going to Brazil on such short notice didn’t give me a lot of time to think. I just got packed, I got married, and then I was in Brazil. There was a point where I was getting in my head a lot, but I realized that the 300 people who were on the team, even more than that honestly, had a big impact on me. I could see how much of themselves each and every person was giving of themselves every day! 90% of the scenes were night shoots, which aren’t exactly easy. Watching these people working so hard made me want to give my best. I thought, “I don’t know if I’m going to do great but I’m going to give my best!” That is what went through my mind.
What can you tell us about your time in Brazil as you prepared to shoot the film?
I have to say that most of my time there was about training. It was my first-time training with stunts and swords. Everything was the first time for me! I needed to spend almost all of my time there preparing for the role. I did have some time to find a few things that I liked. I really liked this fish stew in Brazil called Moqueca. I also realized that the pizza there has so much more cheese than the pizza we have in America! The people of Brazil were so warm to me. The food was great, and it was such a beautiful country that I wish I had more time to explore!
Tell us a little about the training you took on for this role.
Prior to the movie I didn’t have any stunt experience or martial arts experience. I was very lucky that my husband is a US Champion Martial Artist. When I got the role, I immediately asked him to start training me on basics. I had a month to prepare for the rehearsal. I had sword movement stunts, along with the martial arts aspects for it. There was also Kendo as well. We went to a Kendo dojo a few times to prep for that aspect, but there were a lot of other movements that we had to prep. We would rehearse at the rehearsal studio for the day part, and then I would come home and rehearse with my husband at night at the apartment we were staying in. It was rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal! [laughs] That’s how I approached it!
It definitely paid off because you look like you’d been doing it for years! You and your husband also share some screen time together in the film!
Yeah! That scene where we fight together wasn’t in the original script. We had created the choreography for that in our spare time and we wanted to show it to them. They were so open to seeing the choreography we’d done, and we are so happy that it made it to the final cut! I mean, how cool is that? [laughs]
Did you find yourself gravitating towards any of the disciplines you were being exposed to?
I have always had a phobia about sharp things, so I was able to overcome that through this movie. I don’t know what happened, but I dealt with it so much that I don’t really have that anymore. I will say the martial arts fighting parts really appealed to me. I always liked kickboxing and that type of movement, but I’d like to get into even more of the fighting choreography in the future.
What do you remember about meeting director Vincete Amorim for the first time and what did he bring out in you creatively?
Before I met him, I had watched his movies and TV shows, so I knew who I was working with, and I was very comfortable and felt I was in good hands. From the casting that he had and the shots that he would get, I was very impressed with his work. When I met him, he was such a warm and funny person. This was my first time working with a director, so I don’t have any other experience to compare it to, but he was so warm and funny that it made me feel like it would be a piece of cake. We worked together in a very open manner where I communicated all of my ideas and he communicated all of his ideas. It felt very much like a co-creating process. Although he would include a lot of my ideas, he had a very clear vision as well for every scene. He was a great communicator and knew what he was doing, so I was very lucky to work with Vicete!
Looking back on the experience, what do you consider the most challenging part of this project?
That’s an interesting question. There are a few things, but I think it being my first time was the biggest challenge. I didn’t know how movies work. For example, I didn’t realize that most of the time movies are not shot in the order you see it on screen. It’s not chronological. I didn’t know that! [laughs] For the first day of the shoot, I had no idea that it wasn’t going to start from the very beginning! Things not being in order was difficult. However, in the beginning, it was difficult to master my mind and not get so in my head about being the lead and it being my first time.
Another interesting aspect of this film is that it incorporates some of your music. Tell us “Run, Baby Run” and what it means to you?
I wrote that song when I was going through a low tide in music. I was struggling with music, and I wanted to write that song as a fight song for myself. That was about 4 years ago, when I released it. When they asked me if there was a song that they could use for that karaoke scene, I presented it and I thought it fit very well because that’s exactly what Akemi is going through. She is up against this obstacle, and, in a way, she needed to believe in herself and her own abilities. I thought the song was perfect! However, it was difficult to sing my own song having been a singer and being given a scene where I’m not supposed to sing very well! [laughs] We struggled a lot with that and at the end of the day, we decided to do the scene with me singing acapella. We approached it as an acapella and I was singing it like I was very drunk. They added the music on later to add on to the not so great at singing vibes! [laughs]
What is the best lesson we can take from your character’s journey in this film?
I think it is about taking your own path. That is what Akemi does and she gets empowered at the end of her journey. I think it’s really important for us to know what the truth is for ourselves and choose our path on our own and not because someone says so. Be empowered by the path you choose to take. I think that is the lesson of the movie!
I have to ask you, did they let you keep Akemi’s sword after you finished shooting?
No, they didn’t! [laughs] They might need it for the next thing!
I’m going to take that as promising news and I truly hope we get to see you wield it again in the future! If this film were to spawn a sequel, what areas do you hope we see explored with this character?
That’s interesting. My mind hasn’t even gone there yet. I would like her to evolve maturity wise. It would be nice if there are a few years between the last time we have seen her, so that we can see how she has matured. It would be a different aspect rather than her coming of age. I hope that makes sense.
It certainly does. The final showdown on the rooftop is spectacular and the final frames of the film really stick with you. I think it sets up what you are saying perfectly.
Thank you. That’s one of my favorites too!
From what I’ve seen from your online presence, it seems you’ve been working on some new music. What can you tell us about that and where you see yourself headed?
Music is my soul, so I’m never going to stop doing music. With acting, it’s been a juggle to do both. I will be releasing a few new things with the launch of ‘Yakuza Princess’ on September 3rd, so I hope you guys check that out when it launches. I hope I get to keep on doing both!
What do you look for in the material in the projects you take on?
I really appreciate that Akemi was not written in a very sexualized manner. I feel like that is a common thing that we have seen with Asian females. We all have very different layers and sides to us. What I look for in a script is where a character is described with layers and is not just a plain, sexy fighter or something of that nature. I think there is more and more material like that coming out, so I am very excited about that!
You seem like a person who is very self-aware. When you look back at what you have accomplished over the past few years, it is very impressive. How do you feel you have most evolved as an artist?
What an amazing question. When I had started music and came to the United States, I was very insecure with my English and my skill set. I wasn’t sure that I had even chosen the right path for myself. I was always questioning myself. I think now, when I look back, I feel very confident with the path that I chose for myself. You know, people didn’t necessarily think it was the greatest path to take, being a singer/songwriter and coming to the U.S., but I feel what I built is a very authentic path for myself as a musician and artist. Who knows what will happen next!
Thank you so much for your time today, MASUMI!
Thank you so much! Hopefully, we will talk again!
I’m sure we will, and I truly look forward to it.
Magnet Releasing will release YAKUZA PRINCESS everywhere September 3rd, 2021! Connect with MASUMI on social media via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.