Okinawa-born actor Shogen used to be told he didn’t look Japanese enough for the Japanese film industry. Now he is not only one of the most requested rising stars, he is also the instigator, co-producer and star of the film of triumph over adversity “Gensan Punch” which has just been featured on – premiered at the Busan and Tokyo film festivals and was picked up for HBO.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza (“Kinatay”, “Alpha: The Right to Kill”), the factual account sees Tsuchiyama Naozumi, an Okinawan man with a prosthetic leg, moving to the Philippines to become a professional boxer, after being stranded in several times in his country of origin.
Shogen’s recent work has taken him across Asia, earning him credits on Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Shop”, the “Death Note” television series and the Chinese blockbuster “Detective Chinatown 3”.
Training for the film landed Shogen at gyms in the Gensan district of General Santos City used by Filipino boxing superstar and presidential candidate Manny Pacquiao.
In your own words, describe the role. How real is this?
âMy character is a Japanese boxer with a prosthetic leg who defied all odds to become a professional. He was refused to become a professional boxer in Japan and instead traveled to the Philippines. This is his journey to overcome obstacles. We don’t call it an adaptation. But he is inspired by his real story.
How much did you have to research in preparation?
âIt was I who started this project. I met Tsuchiyama ten years ago. I was so inspired by her story that I thought it was worth telling. I talked about it with Japanese producer Yamashita Takahiro and then, because I’m a fan of Brillante Mendoza, I asked to be introduced by Eric Khoo, who is a mutual friend. Eric suggested that I come to Busan three years ago and connect there.
“Shortly after, Brillante [Mendoza] came to the Tokyo International Film Festival, as president of the jury. We continued to introduce it bit by bit there and on a trip to the Philippines. Brillante was busy and also uncertain, as he had never done a film brought in from outside. But we ended up getting out of it out of passion.
Why were you so determined to work with Brillante Mendoza?
âI had already watched ‘Ma Rosa’ and ‘Kinatay’ and his other films. Eric [Khoo] and Taka [Yamashita] wanted something documentary style and thought Brillante was right. We didn’t want to make a “Rocky” movie.
âTsuchiyama has become a champion, but it’s not really a success story. Learn more about the challenges ahead. It’s a great story, but it’s not like he becomes world champion. “
What did you learn from Brillante Mendoza?
âFirst of all, he never shows the actors a script. All he wants is realism and spontaneity. So that you inhabit the role.
âBefore the film, we talked at length about my character. He took me to the Philippines to talk about the character. I would stay in General Santos to train, spend with boxers and immerse myself in the environment.
What was the hardest part? Getting back in shape? Working around a CGI prosthetic leg?
âThere were many challenges. The four fight scenes scared me. They weren’t choreographed, just improvised fights. We never knew what was going to happen in the ring. All of my opponents were professional boxers and when they’re excited you never know what’s going to happen. Brillante said not to knock herself out, just hit herself.
âMaybe it’s not as beautiful as a choreographed fight movie. But it was real. And it hurt. I have bruises all over my face. I spent a year and a half with boxers. They said they too were afraid before the fighting.
âThe shouts and applause from the audience encouraged me. And I felt blessed and overwhelmed. It was then that I understood why boxers step into the ring.
Your career has seen you make dozens of films. And in many different places across Asia. Is there a reason?
âOne of the reasons I got inspired by the boxer is that when I started playing Japanese producers told me I wasn’t Japanese enough. My look is not typically Japanese. This is because I am from Okinawa and am an (ethnic) minority in Japan. I was shocked.
âIt was my childhood dream to become an actor. And like the Okinawan boxer, he was turned down too. That’s why I decided not to stay in one place, to leave the country and to challenge myself outside of Japan, including studying in New York.
Do you think that there is in Japan a young generation of actors more international than their elders?
âFor my generation, it is not common to go to work abroad. Watanabe Ken and (Hiroyuki) Sanada-san are frontier actors for us. Now things are opening up.
âWhen I was at the Busan Film Festival, I met filmmakers who told me that Japan is like the Galapagos and conservative. Internationalization begins now.
What are you working on these days?
“I’m getting ready for a movie with Gordon Maeda [son of Sonny Chiba and brother of another atypical Japanese rising star Mackenyu] on the Okinawa War. I did research by watching a lot of documentaries. It is difficult to face the truth about what happened during the war.
âAnd, starting in February, I have a big project (‘Rainbirds’) with the Indian director based in Japan, Anshul Chauhan. His latest film “Kontora” won the Grand Prix at the Tallinn Black Nights Festival in 2019. It will only be his third film, but he is already being offered some very big budget films. This one is an independent film. A very good story [about a young manâs path to self-discovery after his sisterâs murder]. “