"Burai" cast members take a moment from rehearsal to pose for a picture. From left: Hiro Matsunaga, Miho Ando, Kyoko Okazaki and Masa Kanome. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
“Burai” cast members take a moment from rehearsal to pose for a picture. From left: Hiro Matsunaga, Miho Ando, Kyoko Okazaki and Masa Kanome. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

One death, one false accusation leads to a downward spiral for a samurai sword instructor. For another, it forces him to take up the sword. Blood lust and vegeance. Love and redemption.

These are part of the premise of “Burai,” an original play set in feudal Japan. Packed with seven or eight sword fighting scenes, the play promises to be entertaining. But “Burai” is no mere action show. It delves deeper into the human psyche.

“I wanted to show the American audience not just sword fighting but the Japanese samurai spirit as well,” said playwright and actor Naoki Fujiyama.

“Burai” loosely translates to “standing alone,” to symbolize the external and internal battles that each character must wage.

“In the play, the characters have to fight their own battles,” said Fujiyama. “No one else is going to hold the other person’s sword or fight for them. That’s like in life, where you sometimes have to make your own decisions, independent of others.”

At the same time, “Burai” reveals the importance of companionship. Masa Kanome, the play’s assistant director and one of the lead actors, explained it this way: “By standing alone, a person comes to understand how hard it is to live by yourself. And from that, you appreciate the support and love of others.”

Fujiyama set his play in 1840, towards the tail end of the Edo period (1603-1867). “I always enjoyed the stories from the end of the Edo era, which were such dramatic times with different styles of sword fighting,” said Fujiyama. “It was the time when things were just about to change. Around 1870, we were no longer allowed to carry swords. It was the ‘Last Samurai’ period (referring to the Tom Cruise movie). But I’m amazed that it was only 160 years ago. It’s not so long time ago, you know?”

While Fujiyama was familiar with the Edo era, he did require some research to ensure the feel of authenticity.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve always loved Japanese history and watched samurai shows, so I was pretty familiar with that time period,” said Fujiyama. “But I still had to research how they talked or other customs specific to that time.”

Although real katana are not used in “Burai” since it would be too dangerous for the performers, it is no accident that the fight scenes have the feel of a real battle. Kanome and the other performers have been training, intermittently, for the past six months with world-renowned sword fighting choreographer Keiya Tabuchi and sword fighting trainer Tadahiro Nakamura.

Tabuchi’s credits include “The Last Samurai,” “13 Assassins,” and “The Floating Castle,” among others, and earlier this year, he was awarded Japan’s Action Award 2014.

Nakamura, a stuntman and actor, has worked on “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “The Last Samurai,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” and the “Power Rangers” television series, among others.

Fujiyama is very appreciative of Tabuchi’s and Nakamura’s support.

“When I approached them about this play, they both came on board without a second thought,” said Fujiyama. “I’m very grateful to them. Keiya has a very busy schedule but he flew to Los Angeles from Japan just for this project and recently worked with the actors for ten days.”

With their help, Fujiyama was able to write in realistic duels, rather than fall back on special effects.

“In Japan, nowadays, even in samurai programs, they use a lot of computer graphics or wires to make it look more like Spider-Man, where they’re flying around or jumping,” said Fujiyama. “It’s not real action. Here, we don’t use wires or other special effects. When the performers are fighting, they’re really fighting.”

Kanome joined “Burai” with some sword fighting experience. “I’ve been working with the choreographer (Tabuchi), off and on, for almost four years,” said Kanome. “I’m not constantly practicing but every time we have a project like this, we get together and intensely practice.”

Hiro Matsunaga, another lead actor, has also had some experience working with Tabuchi, but in order to make his character more believable, he flew out to Tokyo and underwent independent training.

“I only worked with Keiya for about two weeks, two years ago for ‘Katana’ (another play),” said Matsunaga. “But in this play, I have a role as someone who grew up with sword fighting, so I went to Tokyo and met with Keiya and another group of people associated with Keiyo and had a couple of sword fighting practices with them. Then, I came back here and started taking iai-jutsu classes, so that’s how I’m trying to catch up with the other guys.”

Iai-jutsu is similar to kendo and uses controlled movements of the sword.

Both performers found the fight scenes most challenging.

“We’re acting but we want to make it look real,” said Matsunaga. “We use iai-jutsu but some portions (of the stylized form) are cut out so we don’t get injured or get killed. But sometimes, when we get really focused, we lose ourselves in the role, so we have to make sure no one gets hurt.”

“Once you draw your sword, it’s either live or die,” said Kanome. “We want to convey that feeling to the audience, but at the same time, we want to be safe. So we keep doing the choreography routine over and over and over again so our body memorizes it.”

Kanome jokingly added, “I count my fingers at the end of each rehearsal to make sure I still have ten.”

Kyoko Okazaki plays a lead female role as a samurai wife. Among her challenges was depicting the unspoken love between her character and the character’s husband.

“These days, even Japanese women are Americanized,” said Okazaki. “And that’s not a bad thing. But back in the Edo period, it was natural for women to stand two or three steps behind her husband and to believe in him and to support him, no matter what, without saying much. So as the wife of a samurai, I had to understand that importance and accept that that’s the way samurai wives lived.”

Miho Ando portrays the wife of another samurai. “When Naoki offered me this role, I found it quite interesting and challenging so, of course, I accepted,” she said.

Akiko Katagiri was cast into a male role. “It’s been very difficult because it’s not just the physical differences, but vocally, I don’t sound like a male,” said Katagiri. “But a lot of my part requires a lot of ‘umph’ in my voice. I spoke with the director a few times about how believable I was as the character but he said, ‘It’s just a show. None of us are real samurai. None of us lived in those days.’… I’m still trying to figure out certain aspects of this role, so it’s been challenging. But I love challenges.”

The performers will be garbed in authentic period pieces, courtesy of world-renowned costume designer Sueko Oshimoto of Suehiro Kimono Agency. Her kimono design won fifth place in the Miss Universe 2013 pageant, the highest ranking ever for a kimono design in the beauty pageant. She has also provided kimono styling for the movie “The Wolverine,” starring Hugh Jackman.

• • •

It took Fujiyama a month and a half to complete the script for “Burai.” He originally wrote it in Japanese and had Okazaki translate it into English. This is Fujiyama’s third play.

Masa Kanome in period costume as a swordsman.
Masa Kanome in period costume as a swordsman.

Fujiyama wrote his first play more than 10 years ago when he got tired, as an actor, waiting for a script he could relate to. That’s when he tried his hand at writing an original play.

Fujiyama’s first script was a bilingual comedy set in contemporary Tokyo, which focused on the interplay between an American exchange student, who spoke no Japanese, staying with a Japanese family, who spoke no English.

The play was performed at Centenary United Methodist Church in Little Tokyo and was well received.

Fujiyama’s second play, however, came out just when the triple disaster of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown occurred. His play became an afterthought to the tragedy unfolding in Japan.

For “Burai,” Fujiyama initially envisioned a small cast and production crew. However, there was such overwhelming interest that the cast ballooned to 20, all of whom, with the exception of a Korean American and Taipei-born performer, are Japan-born. In addition to the performers, there are another 10 to 15 people associated with wardrobe, make-up, lighting, music, set design, etc.

“When Naoki was first writing the show, we were going to stick with a few people,” said Okazaki. “But so many people started supporting him that it became bigger and bigger. Now, it’s almost out of our hands because it’s gotten so huge.”

The outpouring of interest is perhaps evidence of the dearth of appropriate roles for minority performers. Foreign-born actors also have the added disadvantage of not being native English speakers.

Kanome shared about auditioning for a popular children’s show about ten years ago. Although he was told he had the acting chops, the casting director said they couldn’t hire him because he spoke with an accent. He has since improved his English.

As a result of his past experiences in Hollywood, Kanome realizes how special “Burai” is.

“You know, I’m playing the lead in this production, but outside of this theater, I don’t get to do that often,” he said.

Matsunaga, who has been working in Hollywood for the past three years, voiced similar sentiments. “It’s not easy to break into television or commercials or films. I’m still aiming at it, but there’s no lead for us. We may get a one-liner or two-liners here and there but even at that, we’re competing against other Asian guys and American-born Asians.…But I’m still enjoying the process.

“When I read this script, it was very raw and heavy, and I knew it was going to be a great production. That’s why there was no way I was going to pass this up because it’s such a great role. As an actor, I don’t know how many times you’d come across a role like this, maybe once in a lifetime, so I said yes right away.”

Despite cultural differences, Fujiyama is confident the American audience will be able to relate to the characters. “We may have different cultures, but we’re all humans,” he said. “And I’m sure the audience will, for example, have similar feelings as the character when a family member is killed.”

In closing, Kanome said, “It’s not often that people get to see a live-action samurai play, especially from an original script. This has a very different tone compared to other shows offered in the Los Angeles theaters, so I hope people will come to watch it.”

* * *

“Burai”is being performed at Theatre Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, until May 11, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 online, $25 at the door, and can be ordered at www.eventbrite.com. For more info, visit the play’s Facebook page.

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