Kenya Sawada is a seasoned veteran of the Japanese and Hong Kong movie industry with over 25 years in the business, as well as being a serious martial artist. Possessing a 3rd dan in Shorinji kempo he has also practiced kickboxing extensively in Thailand. As far as his acting goes, he’s a recognised face that is well known for often playing villains or the antagonist in his various roles.
A long time, close friend of Jackie Chan (having featured in Thunderbolt and Shinjuku Incident), Kenya’s acting skills have also won acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix for the dark comedy war movie, “Devils On The Doorstep”. In real life, he’s a sincere, open and generous personality and we had a lot of fun discussing all manner of topics with him, so let’s hear what Kenya-san has to say!
Hello Kenya! Honoured to get connected with you! Let’s get into this by asking, what is your DOB and from where do you originate?
Hello Raj, thank you! I was born on 28 Jan 1965, in Kanagawa, Japan.
What are you vital stats, height and weight?
I am 173 cm (5’ 6”) tall and weigh 75kg (11st 8lb).
How did you first get into the martial arts, how old were you?
Like many action actors, I was influenced by Bruce Lee and was so really impressed by him that I started studying karate when I was nine years old. Since I was a bit of a wild child, my mother said I should use my energy constructively in martial arts like judo or karate.
When I started training karate my first sensei instructed me not to hit, but only to just make contact, but that was a bit boring for me as I didn’t have a chance to have a proper street-style fight, so I quit!
Two years later when I was 11, I found a small dojo teaching Shorinji kempo. My sensei who trained me for 10 years there said I could use what I learned on the street if needed and I loved that! By 15 years old, I had a 3rd degree black belt, I was also teaching back then and I practiced Shorinji kempo until I was 19. One day, I fought a huge judo guy, but my Shorinji-style punches and kicks didn’t work, I mean, they’re quick and often used in a flurry but they’re not extremely hard. I sensed then that perhaps I should look into another style, so I practiced several martial arts before settling on kickboxing. I went to Thailand many times for several months at a time, learning from and sparring with different teachers.
I had already started acting by that time in Japanese TV series Kisuu-Kazoku (“The Odd Family”), when I was around 22-23 years old, and I remember my agents telling me not to go into kickboxing and to be careful, so as not to get injured or break my nose and things like that!
Which martial artists and actors are you most influenced by?
I’d say Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, and Robert De Nero.
Who are some of the top fighters in your book?
Tough question! I would say Rickson Gracie, his aura, his energy, was not like anything I’d seen before, his aura was more like that of a monk not a fighter, I think ten years back, no one could beat him. I’d also say, Mike Tyson, Benny The Jet Urquidez (we’re good friends), Wanderlei Silva, and I also know quite a few K1 fighters who are friends of mine.
How did you become involved in the American-made “Street Fighter” (1994) movie?
At the time, there were no great TV action dramas being made in Japan. I heard there was a movie being made based on the Japanese video game (Street Fighter 2) in the US, so I made up my mind to go to LA. After some initial trial and error I got through to the casting director, Mary Joe Slater (actor Christian Slater’s mother) and she recommended I submit my acting showreel and faxed me requesting my profile. She introduced me to producer Edward Pressman (Wall Street) and director Steven de Souza (Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard). I couldn’t speak English back then, so placed more emphasised on my physique and action abilities. I didn’t give up, and finally they gave me the role of Captain Sawada.
Briefly tell us something you recall from that experience?
Yes it was interesting to work with all the cast including Jean-Claude Van Damme of course, he was friendly and could really move! There were many stunt guys and martial artists, Benny The Jet was there too!
Have you heard much about the “Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist” series directed by Joey Ansah with Christian Howard, Mike Moh and Akira Koeiyama?
I’ve heard quite a bit about it. So far, it looks really nice, much better than our one, (laughs) and I’m looking forward to see it soon when it’s released this month!
Looking back, what were some of the more challenging action scenes you’ve worked on in your previous movie roles?
The hardest action scenes I did were in Jackie Chan’s “Thunderbolt”. Punching with that kind of power, I’d say his style of action was very demanding both mentally and physically. If you watch me in that movie, you’ll see my shirt was really wet from sweat, it was a really tough shoot. I also know action director Sammo Hung very well, he’s the “da ge” or big bro and also Jackie’s big bro, so no one disputes his decisions! He has similarly high standards, he never compromises. I remember filming in Hong Kong in the height of the humid summer temperatures, shooting in an old Golden Harvest studio without air conditioning, filming for twenty hours a day over a month and a half, he would keep saying “one more” take to get the shot as perfect as he imagined it.
Backtracking a little then, you work quite frequently with Jackie Chan and also respectfully refer to him as “big brother”, how did you first meet Jackie?
My friend, a famous singer in Japan was a good friend of Jackie’s and he invited me to dinner with them. I sat at the opposite end of table, far from Jackie. I was only 22 years old then, young, with no career, nothing…just watching Jackie from a distance. Jackie apparently had asked some people about me and they told him I was an upcoming actor who could also do martial arts. Then, after dinner, Jackie caught up with me, we chatted and said I’d feature in a movie with him in the future. Of course, I was thrilled! When Jackie visits Japan he would often invite my friend Kane Kosugi and I to meet him for dinner. He loves Japanese crabs (laughs). I was glad to go along to Jackie’s 60th birthday recently, I was asked to recommend a Japanese singer for Jackie’s concert.
You also appeared with Jackie in the film, “Shinjuku Incident”, can you tell us something about that?
It was a challenge for Jackie, as there wasn’t any martial arts action. I play one of the Yakuza and there was a more realistic style of fighting; it was the first time Jackie broke all taboos this time, using guns and shooting people dead, it’s also the first time Jackie dies in a film and it’s me who finishes him off! The director, Derek Yee, suggested it was time for Jackie to change roles and play a baddie role for once. Because Jackie has always been well known for playing the good guy for so long, he had a bit of a tough time from the press on that one.
What was an interesting, maybe a funny, unpredictable or cool thing that happened during your time on Shinjuku Incident?
One evening, there was a knock on my hotel door room. I looked through the spy hole and it was Jackie Chan with drinks and snacks! I was very surprised, and we had a great time just he and I chatting about how the movie and things in general were was progressing until 3 o’clock in the morning!
What other projects have you got planned alongside Jackie Chan?
You can never tell what projects Jackie may need Japanese actors for, whether it’s for me as a villain or someone else. Someday, I’d like to make a real samurai movie that gets a global release and have a chance to show the world what real samurai is really all about. Samurai movies I like include “Seven Samurai”, “Yojimbo” and the “Zatoichi” TV series which is also great.
Can you give us your views on some of the current martial arts actors: Who do you most admire in the martial arts movies? Give us your brief views on:
Donnie Yen: Well, I have to say Ip Man is really good, not only for the action, but also the acting which I sense came from within. It was a very humbling and mature portrayal of Ip Man. By the way, I was in “The Legend Is Born – Ip Man” playing “Kitano Yukio”, a Japanese soldier commander during the Second World War.
Jet Li: He moves really very fast, he’s a great martial artist and actor too! In terms of his movies, I like the old school Shaolin Temple ones he did where he plays the monk. I also liked his Hollywood ones, “The One”, “Unleashed/Danny The Dog” and “Fist of Legend”, which is a classic! I had a chance to work with him, but it didn’t happen due to scheduling conflicts.
Mark Dacascos: He’s fantastic; he played the assassin in “Crying Freeman”, based on the Japanese manga comic I thought he played that role nicely. I also like his capoeira-oriented movie, “Only The Strong”. I recall meeting Mark a couple of times and noticed his eyes were very bright and clear. I could sense that he has a wonderful heart.
Tony Jaa: He’s got some amazing movements, as shown in “Ong-Bak”, and “Tom Yum Goong”, I was so surprised by those crazy moves that he did!
Iko Uwais: I enjoyed The Raid. I think his moves are very good, they look real and direct, and he’s great to watch for his action as well as his acting. He’s obviously well-trained and highly disciplined.
What are some of your top kung-fu movies of all time?
Oh, that’s hard to say!
- Enter The Dragon
- Way of The Dragon
- Fist of Fury
- The Big Boss
- Project A
- Drunken Master
- The Shaolin Temple
- The Raid
What is a typical workout for you, is it mostly martial arts and flexibility training, do you combine weights with that too?
Well, I weight train quite intensively and go to the gym 4 times a week. I bench press (140kg, my best was 155kg at 73 kg bodyweight lifting without a weightlifter’s supersuit) shoulder press, do lateral raises, and pull-ups with a 20-30kg plate hung on my belt, this is good for the back muscles which I believe are more important than the front muscles. For squats, I don’t go too heavy due to knee and ankle injuries. I use 60kg, and do 5 sets of 20, for calves I use the full weight stack and some extra on top. I daily do push ups and sit ups, and like to run and swim 3 times a week. I also do sparring, including punching and kicking the bag; I like to combine all these together.
What’s your favourite exercise and what special training techniques, if any, really work for you?
Many people talk about kicks and punches, there’s nothing new about that. Of course, some strength and muscle is needed, but, your foundation, the central focal point of your energy needs power which comes from rotation and speed –these have wider applications and effect. Rotation and twisting (moving side to side) is the most important, all power comes from rotation. Using that, we have power: rotation, turning and speed has no limit. You also need balance and flexibility and to be aware that when kicking for example, your energy is flowing through the centre line. I’m not a huge guy by any means, so I need to use other elements to win, like speed, flexibility, snapping-out and pulling-back the move to in order to be prepared, ready to block and defend.
What do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity?
Well, I love motorcycles and I like to hit the open road and ride my Harley by myself, at my own pace and go where I please which often means heading down to the seaside. I like to drink coffee and smell the ocean breeze.
What kind of diet do you follow?
I pretty much eat all normal food which includes meat, fish, vegetables, and everything in moderation. I don’t usually drink sake or eat much sushi. I eat what my body needs, I ask my body what it feels like and follow my instincts. I’ve followed that way for 40 years and it works for me! I don’t take medicines, drugs, steroids or even vitamin supplements of any kind so I think my inner organs are in good shape, and not over burdened with too many toxins! Look at the animals, they don’t take any medicines or proteins and look how strong they are, notice the energy they get?
I think if you take vitamins it might make your organs lazy. If I drink (wine), I enjoy it, and can relax, but I never let it control me. Being relaxed, happy and grateful creates energy chemicals (endorphins) that help you stay in an energized state. People at the gym always ask me what supplements or special magical shake or powder I take, and the answer is always the same: nothing.
I think if you over indulge, your inner organs won’t feel great, if they are relying on drugs or medicines, then what happens to them after you reach 60 years old? I’d rather not have to worry about that! Everything is fine if it’s in balance.
Which foods do you find work for you to remain at your most energetic, what is the best fuel for your workouts?
Everything gives my body energy, I believe gratitude keeps my inner organs strong; with that people look at you as if you’ve been taking something! I like apples, bananas, persimmon, pears, blueberries and Okinawan mangoes are very tasty too. I also love Indian curries, there are so many Indian restaurants here in Japan!
What’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?
I had a son last year and people were thinking that at 48 years, that I was too old to become a father and that it’s officially hard to create a baby, but in a way I’ve proved them all wrong! My son is 10 months old now and doing very well.
If you could be a superhero, who would you be?
I would be Kenshiro, the cartoon character from “Fist of The North Star”.
What do you like doing to relax, any hobbies?
Yes, I like jazz music, one of my friends (Toku) is a famous jazz musician and singer.
What in life do you really:
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
Glad that I’ve been true to myself, I don’t flatter myself or others. I stick to my own ideals and principles, I don’t change my attitude no matter who it is, treat everyone the same whether it be a high or low person in society. I’m consistent, I think it’s important to have respect, and to be humble and down to earth.
What’s next for you? What are your plans, what are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?
China and Japan have some tense politics at the moment, so things are difficult. Chinese films are totally controlled by the Chinese government, so censorship is tough -there a little bit of a waiting game going on. My feeling is that fundamentally, there are no boundaries so whether it’s, Thailand, USA, or Europe, I’m open to new projects!
What advice would you give to a beginner who is considering taking-up a martial art?
First of all, have mental flexibility, don’t think you need to be tied down to any one martial art style, be free and flexible and open-minded in your thinking, taking an objective view of what you want while finding out which art best suits you.
What special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?
Have a no limit mentality, don’t make excuses and you’ll be able to be and do what you want. Think there’s no limit to what you can do, have no boundaries!
What warrior wisdom quote could you share with us?
“Even if the body is discarded, your name can never be discarded, today, train to beat yourself yesterday.” -Miyamoto Musashi
I read the old philosophical books, and sayings such as those contained in the Spirit of Samurai, The Warrior Manual Collection of poems, I respect Miyamoto Musashi’s philosophical teachings such as “The Book of Five Rings”.
If people would like to find out more about you where’s the best place to go?
My IMDB page, check out my movies, showreel, and my new website coming up (there’s an English version coming soon) so stay tuned!
Thank you Kenya-san for your kind participation in this interview. It’s been fascinating sharing all this with you, we wish you all success with your next movies! Keep in touch and do say HI to Jackie from us when you next meet him!
Arigatou (thank you) Raj, yes I will! I really enjoyed this, speak soon.
Video of Kenya-san as playable Street Fighter game character “Captain Sawada”