Interview with Akira Koieyama

Now we’re ready to kickstart our exclusive series of interviews with the cast of Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist!  First up is our interview with Akira Koieyama, a famed Japanese actor who played Master Gouken, Ken and Ryu’s wise teacher.  A veteran of the movie industry for over two decades he has appeared in such heavyweight movies as The Last Samurai, 47 Ronin, as well as Ninja, Rush, Scopia and Color of Pain.

In this, his first English interview, we reveal a colourful, sensitive, yet lively character as he shares his thoughts and views on the latest Street Fighter offering and his part in it.   Let’s find out more about the man behind the gi of one of Street Fighters’ most respected characters, here’s Akira!

Hi Akira, let’s dive right in with a  bit of background please when were you born and from where do you originate?   

Hi Raj!  Yes, I was born 30th January 1969, in Tokyo, Japan.

What is your height and weight?

I am 6ft, 182cm tall, and I usually weigh 77kg, but for Street Fighter I was 83kg (extra muscle included!)

Akira Koieyama in The Last Samurai

Akira Koieyama in The Last Samurai

How did you first get into the martial arts?  Which types did you train in and how old were you?

My father was actually a judo instructor to the police, so I started in the martial arts when I was a kid.  I did judo, karate, Japanese sword (Iaido), stick fighting and spear.   I started training formally in a karate dojo at about 12 years of age.  Now, I have a 2nd Dan black belt in karate.

How did things progress for you in the early days of your career?

Well,I trained from the ages of 12 to 19 in karate and when I reached 19, I started getting into stage and theatre acting and attended drama school, I did more acting.  I still kept training myself even if I didn’t go to the dojo regularly.   Then at around 23 years old I met the actor, Hiroshi Fujioka, who starred as the hero in the first generation Japanese “Kamen Rider” series.  He’s a 7th Dan sword master that carries his samurai sword all over the world.  He actually introduced me to the sword and taught me personally, I practiced with him in his dojo.  I would go there at 6.am in the mornings and clean his dojo before he arrived.  Then I’d practice some of the old, traditional Japanese martial arts. I did this for over 4 years.  I am pretty well conditioned in the sword by now and I may do sword demonstrations for charity events for example in Japan or on occasion, in the UK.

Who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts?

My father and Hiroshi Fujioka.

Who are some of the top martial artists/fighters in your view?

It’s hard to say, there are so many but definitely Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Muhammad Ali, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, I‘ve watched a lot of these guys!

You featured in Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai”, any memories you’d like to relate?

Yes, well, I recall there was a scene where fire was used in the background and we had to pass between these burning houses which were really hot. Some people got burned accidentally and made a protest due to the safety issues and not having a clear storyboarded idea of what was coming up. So, for a short time there was a dispute between the production team and the actors. Then, one day the director, Edward Zwick, came out on set apologising for what happened and promised the issues would be resolved.  While he was talking, a huge, arching, double rainbow appeared behind us and which pretty much astonished all of us, like it was some kind of sign.  At that moment we all smiled, reconciling our differences -from then on, everything went smoothly, that was a funny and unusual moment that I remember!

You also appeared as a student in Isaac Florentine’s “Ninja”, how was that?

That was thanks to fellow actor, Togo Igawa, who introduced me to director Isaac Florentine.  I was asked to help with the sword and spear choreography, so I gladly helped out, then I ended up getting a part too.  It was great meeting the main star Scott Adkins, and working with all the guys!

Now, let’s get into Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist (which is what we’re sure readers have been waiting for!). How did you get involved? 

Akira Koieyama wielding a stick with authority!

Akira Koieyama wielding a stick with authority!

Actually it was Togo Igawa that introduced me to Joey Ansah and Christian Howard.  We met at the producer’s (Jacqueline Quella’s) house to have a reading session.  To be honest, I struggled reading the English script as English is not my first language.  Later, when they were doing the casting I had an opportunity to screen test, and then fortunately, I heard I had won the part.

Had you been a “Street Fighter” fan prior to “Assassin’s Fist”?

I am more into real martial arts than the games if I’m honest!  (laughs).  It’s also kinda funny that one of my training partners from Japan, Kenya Sawada actually played Captain Sawada in the original Street Fighter movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme!

In the series, you portray the role of Ryu and Ken’s teacher (Gouken) can you briefly describe your role for us?

Well, after Gouken’s parents die in the war he gets adopted by Master Goutetsu and grows up training alongside along brother Gouki.  Gouken personifies the light, the more human side, through love and compassion, whereas one might say Gouki follows the dark, dangerous path of the power-hungry warrior.  They both train hard in Ansatsuken, but after some tragedies along the way Gouken loses his brother and everything turns bleak.  Gouken follows a monk-like existence, quitting the martial arts.  Then, after what seems like an eternity, he finally gets a chance to pass down what he’s learned (to Ken and Ryu).

What can you say about the degree of character development portrayed in the series?

Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, is actually pretty deep if you look into the thoughts and spirit behind it.  Each character is dealt with in a full, in-depth way which makes it interesting to watch.  The fact that the main characters, Christian (Ken), Mike (Ryu), and Joey (Akuma) are all proper, full-on martial artists in their own right I think can only add extra gravitas.  Some might also pick up on the teachings of chi/qi (energy) and how they’re related to the energy centres (chakras) and that when you kick or punch, it depends on you moving your energy around, the source of which comes from the inner body.

What kind of physical training did you have to do for your role of Gouken, was it challenging?

Preparing for SFAF, I would train two days on/one day off sometimes even training twice a day as director Joey instructed me.  I did some upper body, core, and lower body training in the form of kicks and running, I also had to take these protein shakes, and I can tell you, it’s not easy to put on muscle!  My genetics tend toward a lean frame, so in comparison to myself, Chris, Mike and Joey are monsters!   Actually everything was a challenge, but because we loved and enjoyed making the film so much, we were able to help each other and surmounted all of those obstacles.

What was your favourite scene?

Master Gouken receiving some heavy-duty light rays!

Master Gouken receiving some heavy-duty light rays!

I think it would have to be when Gouken, after having been through so many trials and tragedies and losing everything (even the purpose to live) was given a new lease of life. He was brought these two kids, Ken and Ryu, for training.   This special gift was just the reason he needed to share and teach the martial arts he possessed.   Thereafter he happily started teaching the light side of Ansatsuken, keeping away from the dark, destructive secrets of Satsui no Hado.

Can you tell us something unexpected that happened on set?

(Laughs) I was having a fight scene with Mike Moh and just as the word “cut” was shouted, momentum somehow carried me over a bit with the (not so elegant) result of my knee ending up in Mike’s head!

What was it like working alongside director Joey Ansah, Christian Howard and Mike Moh?

Joey gave me all the direction I needed, supporting me and guiding me along the way –from the detailed psychological aspects of being Gouken down to the physical movements involved, so I had total trust in him.   Chris is a funny guy, and is really is talented.  One day, we had dinner and he was able to capture this idea we were talking about so easily.  He was also responsible giving direction on the second unit team.  Mike is a really impressive Taekwondo martial artist with some really powerful kicks.  He would always find humour in things cheering everyone up in a nice, positive way.

What is your overall opinion on the way the movie turned out?  

I feel very happy about it.  I’m keen to watch out for (hopefully) new characters -it will be exciting to see this series develop and I hope I’ll feature somewhere in future episodes! (laughs)

Could you tell us a few of your favourite martial arts/action movies? 

I’d say, Way of The Dragon, Drunken Master, Shaolin Temple, Kiss of The Dragon, Rocky, Ong-Bak, Ip Man, I like so many of them!

Which martial artists/actors would you most like to work with in future?   

Master Gouken is keen to teach Ansatsuken

Master Gouken is keen to teach Ansatsuken

Jackie Chan, Jet Li.  Joey, Christian and Mike again too, I’m really quite open.

What is a typical workout for you?   Is it mostly martial arts, flexibility training, do you combine it with weights?    

I go to the gym and train every day to maintain muscle.  I also like running and swimming.  I do things like sit ups, squats, practicing kicks and the splits.  I also practice yoga and meditation and breathing awareness before I go to sleep. I am quite a sensitive person and can sense energies.

What kind of stunts do you remember, any injuries?

I remember doing a 15 metre high stunt on wires in Japan, I’m not a stunt guy though.  I’ve an old elbow injury from all the punching I’ve done over the years so I do need to be mindful of that.

What kind of diet do have? 

I eat things like fish, vegetables and, every day when I wake up in the morning, I drink 750ml of plain water and don’t eat anything for 45 minutes.  This soaks into the body and is good for blood pressure, diabetes and prevents cancer from developing. It’s something that has been recommended in the Japanese medical industry for years, I’ve been doing this for over 6 years with very good results.  To supplement my workouts in the gym I take soluble vitamin C, and drink protein shakes.  When I need to build more muscle, I increase this though.

What’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?   

Actually, sometimes in the middle of the night around 2.am, I like to watch an artistic or maybe weird film and drink by myself.  Sometimes, I might clean my sword and go outside in the garden and swing it about, while receiving the occasional amused glance from a neighbour!

What do you like doing to relax, any hobbies?  

Martial arts, films, going to the cinema, running and swimming. I love to cook every day, my wife doesn’t, so I do it!  The menu comes up in my mind often when I’m working out and then I buy the groceries…

What’s your favourite music?

Ambient, classical, dance, new age, electro, tribal, quite a mix.

Master Gouken holds a young Ryu

Master Gouken holds a young Ryu

What in life do you really:

Like?   My wife and two daughters, just relaxing and spending time with them.

Dislike?   Getting stressed, lies, I don’t like people who exaggerate.

What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?  

I think SFAF is one of the major ones.  When it comes to telling a story with real substance, it’s definitely one of the highlights of my career so far; a precious achievement since moving here to the UK several years ago.

What are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years? 

I want to get involved in more film and TV work.  These are probably my most important years right now and I hope that more good projects will come my way. I train every day as usual, believe in myself and I’m grateful and thankful for everything. I’ll continue to work remaining true to my goals.

What special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world? 

I really like the idea of Kung-fu Kingdom being from the United Kingdom introducing and spreading knowledge on martial arts and culture from Asia and all over the planet, so keep checking the site.  Please enjoy Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist!  I’m very proud to be a part of this meaningful movie and I hope its popularity will grow and become a hit worldwide.  Just as I was inspired by many action legends, I hope that viewers and hopefully, young ones around the globe watching SFAF will get positively interested in the martial arts, whilst imbibing some of the oriental culture too.

Master Gouken (centre) with Ken and Ryu

Master Gouken (centre) with Ken and Ryu

Finally, what warrior-wisdom would you like to share? 

I think even good things may have something bad within them and some bad things aren’t totally bad but also have something good within them -it’s like what is shown in the yin-yang symbol.  If you become too obsessive, too square or over analytical about one thing, eventually you lose perspective, you lose the joy of it.  When you let go of it, then you’ll get it back again, whether it’s a small or a big job, you‘ve got to shake it up sometimes, just be spontaneous.

Where can people find out a little more about you?

They can find me on Facebook and there’s more on this page too: http://www.alivenotdead.com/akirakoieyama

Thanks so much Akira for participating in this interview.  We can’t wait to see Master Gouken!  We wish you and all the SFAF team much success for this highly anticipated series, all the best moving forward.

My pleasure Raj, thank you so much, arigatou!

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Raj, a wing chun student, enjoys spending time studying various aspects of the martial arts, from theory to practically applied skills. He enjoys interviewing prominent and dedicated martial artists from all over the world, who have something inspiring and stimulating to share. He also manages projects in terms of filming, reviews of movies/books and other quality features.

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