In the bloody action thriller Yakuza Princess stars singer-turned-actor MASUMI as Akemi, a young woman who is just minding her business living a quiet life in São Paulo, Brazil — which has the largest Japanese diaspora in the world outside of Japan. Her life is turned upside down when she is chased by mysterious Japanese gangsters who want her head. That is when she finds out to be the heiress of a great Yakuza empire. It doesn’t really mirror MASUMI’s real life, but the singer-turned-actor felt a connection to the character of Akemi.
“I felt like the character was sort of written for me so I was very surprised because I don’t read a lot of characters that talk about the difficulty of being both Japanese and Brazilian — or Japanese and American in my case,” MASUMI told Diaspora. “I was born in America, but then I grew up in Japan, I always had this sort of not belonging anywhere feeling that I had to grow up with. The reason why I came out to America was because I experienced the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and I had thought that that was going to be my ending.”
She continued, “The fact that Akemi also goes through that moment where she feels like she has to go through a serious obstacle in order to survive, I kind of felt like there was a lot of things that happened in my life that I could relate to her situation very easily.”
MASUMI moved from Palos Verdes to Japan at a young age. Her mom said she was three, while her dad says she was five. Either way, that journey sculpted her identity in a major way. While growing up in Palos Verdes, she spoke mostly English, but when she moved to Japan, she didn’t speak the language. “When I moved to Japan, I stopped speaking English completely so I could quickly learn Japanese, which took me a long time,” she said. “Kids at the time were all Japanese. So they kind of had a hard time accepting this person that had an accent or spoke Japanese.”
The Magnet Releasing film directed and co-written by Vicente Amorim (Motorrad) marks MASUMI’s feature acting debut — and it’s quite a thrilling debut. Yakuza Princess, which opens in theaters nationwide on September 3, is based on the graphic novel “Samurai Shiro” by Danilo Beyruth and features MASUMI kicking some major ass and literally slicing people’s heads open.
MASUMI stars alongside Tsuyoshi Ihara, Toshiji Takeshima, Eijiro Ozaki, Charles Paraventi and Jonathan Rhys Meyers — but the road to her first starring feature was interesting.
“I was doing music for a long time and I came to a point where I had to take a break for myself,” MASUMI told Diaspora. “I had walked away from this really big opportunity and I wasn’t exactly sure if that was the smartest decision for me, although at the moment, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
MASUMI admitted that she didn’t want to music for a while and her husband suggested that she use her creative energy in acting. She went to acting school and after three months, she got the role in in Yakuza Princess. “I didn’t think that I was going to get the role,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have basically no credits, no experience and it’s great that I get to audition for this’ and then I got it, so it was like a miracle. It’s not so much that I chose for [Yakuza Princess] to be my debut, it just sort of happened that way.”
Diaspora sat down with MASUMI to talk about Yakuza Princess, navigating her nuanced culture identity, the portrayal of Asian women in film and how a woman can be a bad-ass fighter without having to look sexy.
DIASPORA: You went to acting school, but while you were in the throes of your singing career, was there any desire to be actor?
MASUMI: Yeah. The interesting thing is I really wanted to get a manager and there was this big management company in Japan that was also in the U.S., so I approached them saying, “I love to be managed by you.” The response was interesting because they asked me to go to this audition. Of course, in the beginning, I thought it was a music audition and it turned out to be acting audition. I kind of felt I was tested somehow that I needed to prove them in order to be considered as their talent as a musician.
I took the audition and I ended up getting called back for five, six times, and that turned out to be Deadpool 2 audition. And so, they asked me then to become their talent for their theatrical side. Again, I was thinking maybe if I do well in this theatrical and commercial, then maybe one day they’ll think of signing the as a musician. It’s not that I really thought about wanting to do it, I just really saw that as a step to being recognized for my music, I was very used to not being recognized for my music side of things. I just felt like it’s another way to work my way up there. It would fit in that way.
DIASPORA: You were born in the U.S. in Palos Verdes but then moved to Japan at a very young age. How have you just even navigated that with your own personal journey when it comes to your Asian American identity?
MASUMI: Thank you for asking that. I think it was hard because both of my parents are Japanese. Although my mom, she spent a lot of her younger years all over the world. She’s more open-minded, but they’re both Japanese. My brother also mainly grew up in Japan, so they didn’t quite understand what I was going through. How can you? And so, I didn’t understand how Americanized I was at the time when I moved to Japan at the age of five. I couldn’t tell. I just thought I looked like everybody else. When I was growing up, kids would talk about how expressive I am and how you’re not supposed to be that expressive.
If people ask me, which do you identify yourself with more? I feel very Japanese, but I always grew up with people looking at me like I wasn’t quite Japanese and that was always a little painful. If I come to America, I don’t feel very American, honestly, but if I go to Japan, they look at me very much like American especially if you can speak the language.
DIASPORA: How does all that factor in with your perspective on representation in film and TV?
MASUMI: I think growing up in Japan, because I’m surrounded by Asians, seeing media with myself being represented, I never really thought of that question or representation as an issue. I think what was more an issue for me was the sexualizing or portrayal of the woman in Japan. You have the very polite, pretty and humble women — and I just wasn’t like that. I liked playing soccer with boys and always playing sports. I just didn’t really fit in.
I started realizing issues of representation when I moved here. When I became an actress and started to take auditions, the parts were written for a Japanese person. They have to speak Japanese. Then I see the person who gets the role and it’s a person who is half Japanese and American, but then she can’t speak the language. Language carries the history. Part of saying the language right is also paying respect to the culture and the history of it. That was the first time, which is really recent, that I realized, “Oh my gosh, I now understand how it feels to not be represented.”
DIASPORA: Many may be surprised to hear about the huge Japanese diaspora in Brazil, where Yakuza Princess is set. The film is made by non-Asians and the Asian community is super hyper-vigilant right now in terms of representation in front of and behind the camera. For you, how did you approach the film because it seems like you were spinning all these plates and trying to balance these issues and be mindful of authenticity?
MASUMI: With Yakuza Princess, it’s not about a Japanese story. It’s a cross-culture story. It’s about Japanese and Brazil. And like you said, the largest Japanese community next to Japan. So there are Japanese Brazilian Yakuzas in Sao Paulo and it’s interesting because we see Japanese Yakuza and then we also see a Japanese Brazilian Yakuza and you see a Japanese Brazilian, Akemi — and that’s a big part of the story because she goes through this themes like identity and belonging kind of issues. I think that’s why it had to be shot by a director that was an authentically Brazilian, so we can both bring the authentic aspects of it. I feel like we were really able to do that because Tsuyoshi Ihara and Ozaki Eijiro San — they’d done a lot of period pieces in Japan. They’re very specific about how it should be portrayed, especially when it came to swords and the way we spoke the Japanese and the way we phrased it and things like that.
Even with the Yakuza scene in Osaka, the Osaka way of speaking is very specific. Osakan is a dialect. It’s like we were just saying, if you’re not from that place and if you’re speaking the dialect, then you can tell right away and it just kind of takes you out of it a little bit, but he was from Osaka and that was one of the very powerful moments for me watching the movie. So yeah, I’m actually really grateful in a project that’s cross-cultural.
DIASPORA: You mentioned your feelings about female representation and the sexualization of Asian women. With Akemi, she’s a bad-ass but also there are moments when she gets harassed basically, but she easily handles the situation. Still, there seems to be elements of the movie when it comes to having agency of yourself as a woman. How did you approach representing your character and giving her that power while being mindful of her abusive journey?
MASUMI: The domestic violence is prevalent in Brazil and I think they wanted to showcase that this happens in the country — and before it used to be a little bit more than what you see in the movie. When I read the script, it was like, “oh my gosh, this is really heavy.” I was actually sad when they cut it off shorter because as a woman — as an Asian woman in the states and for me on Japan side, I experienced it too. I’ve experienced a lot of scary sexual situations where there’s nobody else, but yourself that has to take care of the situation if you want to protect yourself. This is not just a movie thing, I think it happens daily for us.
I was really proud to be a part of that section of the story and show how we’re not going to just take it. This is how we stand. We fight back. I mean, women are not just meek. We fight back and I think I channel those experiences that happened to me and all those times that I couldn’t necessarily stand back.
I also want to put out there that a lot of when it comes to Asian woman fighting, they’re over-sexualized. You can’t just be a fighter, but you also have to be a “sexy fighter” and that’s not they way its portrayed in Yakuza Princess. I think that’s what I’m really grateful about. I don’t have to be a pretty, sexy bad-ass. I am just a bad-ass for being able to overcome these crazy obstacles. I think that’s a message I want women to take away from this movie.
DIASPORA: Yakuza Princess is very much an action genre film. Do you want to kind of continue down this path in terms of being an action star or are you open to all things?
MASUMI: Naturally when you do an action film, you get more action-related opportunities and because I’m very new to it, I want to say whatever comes to me, I want to do. Of course, there is this there’s a tendency and formula where an Asian female always plays a fighter girl-type but I just feel like there can be more diverse stories. We don’t have to just be bad-ass fighters. There’s so many stories that we can tell like being an Asian American. I have my own stories. Everybody have their own stories. I would love to be able to play different stories and show different layers of all females.