Yakuza Princess star Masumi breaks cultural barriers in her film debut

Singer-actress Masumi stars in the Brazilian samurai film Yakuza Princess, and reflects on her dual identity as a Japanese American.

Masumi stars in Yakuza Princess, a Brazilian samurai action film

From Tokyo to Los Angeles and now São Paulo, Masumi has lived and worked across the world her whole life, breaking barriers and bringing a uniquely cross-border perspective to her work.

The Japanese American singer-actress makes her acting debut in Yakuza Princess. It is a Brazilian samurai action flick based on Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel Samurai Shiro.

The film tells the story of Akemi, a young Japanese woman in São Paulo who finds her mundane life violently disrupted when she discovers her identity as an heiress of a major Yakuza family — and a target of one of the syndicate’s factions.

Under the neon lights of São Paulo’s Liberdade district, home to the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan, Akemi fights for her life and her family’s honour. She also wields an enigmatic katana that attracts the attention of a strange, amnesiac man.

Cold Tea Collective spoke to Masumi on her big screen debut, the values of samurai culture, and her and Akemi’s shared experience as Japanese women living outside of Japan.

How Masumi landed the role as the Yakuza Princess

Initially, Masumi tried acting school for six months to get her mind off of her music career.

One day during class, her husband, Kenny Leu, known for his role as Gohan in Dragon Ball Z, called her and told her to come home immediately — his manager had news for her. Leu’s manager was at a meeting with the producers of Yakuza Princess and had shown them one of Masumi’s self-tapes.

The next day, she met with the producers and did another self-tape. Two weeks later, she landed the role of Akemi. And four days after, Masumi flew out to Brazil to film.

“I knew the moment I got the role, it was a miracle,” she said.

MASUMI in YAKUZA PRINCESS, a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Masumi in action in Yakuza Princess. Photo credit: Magnet Releasing.

Her goal was always to play empowering and powerful female fighting figures ever since she started attending acting school. So when Yakuza Princess came to her, it was like “bingo.”

Not only was Akemi the “fighter girl” story Masumi pursued, she also related to Akemi’s identity as a Japanese Brazilian woman who struggled with belonging.

“That’s something I grew up with too, because I was born in America and  grew up in Japan. That transition wasn’t easy,” she said. “To be kind of both Japanese and American wasn’t easy for me, because I felt, and still feel, very Japanese. But the way the world saw me was always different.”

See also: Creating community through music as a mixed Asian Jew

Filming in São Paulo

São Paulo’s Liberdade district is the main setting of the film. Akemi flows through underground clubs, brightly lit Japanese knick-knack stores, and bustling street markets in a sea of other Japanese Brazilians.

Filming and working with Brazil’s Japanese community for training came with its own set of challenges, including the language barrier. 

Vicente Amorim, director of YAKUZA PRINCESS, a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Director Vicente Amorim on the set of Yakuza Princess. Photo credit: Magnet Releasing.

“Not everybody spoke English. But actually I think I’m really comfortable with that kind of environment because English didn’t always come easy for me,” Masumi said. “I’m always overanimating myself so I can communicate with other people, and they were doing that same thing for me.”

Yakuza Princess is packed with brutal action sequences: gory fights, dangerous stunts, and fast-paced parkour through São Paulo’s unique architecture. All of which Masumi had to learn from scratch.

She trained for a month in stunts, martial arts, kendo, and the katana, spending the whole day at the studio. Then she would return home to her apartment gym and practice some more with her husband. 

“I didn’t have any basic knowledge about martial arts so I needed to learn all of these elements very quickly,” she said. “It was a lot of training. It kind of felt like I was in the military or something.”

Akemi’s — and Masumi’s — growth

Yakuza Princess takes place over a span of a few days during which Akemi goes through life-altering changes. From working part-time at a Japanese gift shop to battling yakuza members, Akemi is forced to grow up fast once she learns of her family lineage.

Masumi describes Akemi in the beginning as very insecure, “very much within herself.” A lack of parental figures, loneliness, and a sense of rootlessness play into Akemi’s reserved nature at the start of the film.

MASUMI in YAKUZA PRINCESS, a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Masumi in Yakuza Princess. Photo credit: Magnet Releasing.

After she’s abruptly thrown into the yakuza underworld, she quickly has to learn about her family history, come to terms with her grandfather’s death, and figure out her role in all of this. Akemi goes through a journey of self-discovery, finding her own “power and voice.”

Masumi noted that it is similar to how Asian Americans, and herself, navigate their sense of self.

“I went through the same path of not really knowing where my power was, if I meant anything to anybody, or if I was valuable in this country, both in Japan and America,” she said.

“And then eventually, you find your own voice and your own power and where you belong, and you feel empowered. That’s the same journey we can all go through.”

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Honour and family in yakuza culture

Masumi always held a different perspective on samurai culture compared to how it is perceived in the West. Her grandfather used to attend a samurai training school in Japan, learning about the values of samurai and skills like kendo.

“It’s something I really respect, but when it comes to the way it’s portrayed [in Western media], it’s a little bit more… embellished,” Masumi said.

“I [also] grew up with friends in the yakuza, so it’s also very much close to you. It’s not a really crazy, mafia scary mob.”

For Masumi, certain values in samurai and yakuza culture — notably family honour and tradition — are ingrained in Japanese culture, and are major themes in the film. In Yakuza Princess, many characters hide their true intentions, but loyalty and honour are common traits behind their actions and motivations.

MASUMI and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in YAKUZA PRINCESS, a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Masumi and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Yakuza Princess. Photo credit: Magnet Releasing

In Japan, she said that honouring one’s family lineage and immersing oneself in traditional ceremonies are important parts of how people are raised, even if they’re not involved in any yakuza.

“This concept of honour is in all Japanese people,” Masumi said. “The concept of honouring our families is a little bit stronger in Japan, and it makes sense because we’re a small island. We’re a lot closer family-wise than maybe in America, where a lot of people are more independent thinking.”

Impact of Yakuza Princess, and looking forward

Masumi said leading an action movie as a Japanese woman has been extremely special to her, especially since there is a general lack of Japanese women in lead roles.

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“To be able to be powerful, empowered… that means a whole lot to me because I feel like as a  Japanese [person], I see so many powerful women in Japan. But it feels like they never really get portrayed that way,” she said.

On top of that, she feels like Asian women in these types of fighting roles have to be sexualized in order to fit the part.

“I’m grateful that with this movie, I’m not sexualized. I’m just a badass, you know?” Masumi said. “I’m just a badass because I overcome these obstacles. And I hope that more movies that come out [in the future] will portray us in an authentic way.”

Looking forward, Masumi hopes to balance both music and acting, and progress her career in both industries.

“I just want to immerse myself into doing a lot of things,” she said. “If [something] comes to me, I’m down to do anything, really.”

Yakuza Princess is currently available on demand and in select theatres.

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