"I started as a stuntman when I was 13 years old — from acrobatics to movie fighting. I did that for 10 years," Kenji Sato quips. Later he moved to the United States to train himself in Jiu Jitsu, alongside variants of Chinese martial arts before returning to Japan when he heard that there was a major audition upcoming. "It happened to be the audition for 'The Last Samurai', and I went for the casting. During the audition, they cast 30 professional stuntmen and a few hundred extras — all were from Japan."
Through The Last Samurai, Sato established contacts with the American market and subsequently filming for movies such as '47 Ronin' and 'The Wolverine'. Having traversed both the Japanese and American stuntman industries, Sato realised that they were vastly different in many ways.
Sato recount that in The Last Samurai, stuntmen were paid according to the intensity of their stunts. "[For instance,] if it is a soft hit, it is US$300. If it's a so-so hit, it's US$500 to US$700. A big one is US$1,000," Sato laughs. "I did US$1,000 ten times. I saw my bank account and I was amazed. That was unheard of in Japan — because of this fact, nobody has money. The stuntmen in Japan [find themselves unable] to get married nor have a wife." Salary aside, stuntmen in American films were given due credit at the end of the films. "In Hollywood, even the stuntman will get his name and credit on the film. In Japan, this doesn't usually happen." Yet, what struck Sato the most was the training programme for stuntmen. "In Hollywood, you get half a year's training, and then start filming. In Japan, you start filming on the first day... I had a question. I felt like this was questionable — the difference between these two."
To Sato, the minimal training provided in Japan shows how little the film industry thought of professional stuntmen. "I wanted the industry to reconsider the way it's executing things, which includes [allocating more] respect for stuntmen."
On the far left, Kenji Sato in the midst of a training session with three participants.
Participants correct their grip of the katana (samurai sword).
From left: the Samurai Film studio and the aisle where the samurai-themed filming takes place.
Sato then started his own film studio, Samurai Film, in 2016. The studio is located in Tokyo's Haneda airport. Visitors basically make an appointment on his website, samurai-film.com, prior to dropping in for a three-hour training and filming session. These customers can be anyone — locals, foreigners, adults, or even children. And they will be trained to fight against professional stuntmen from the studio. It was first, an avenue for local stuntmen to earn extra income. It was second, a way to spread the understanding and his passion for samurai action films to the general public. Yet, more than that, it was Sato's challenge to the local action film industry. "The problem that I learnt about Japan is the way they do things — they train on the same day and shoot. That's what I'm doing. I am recreating that... if these people can do this, what do the professionals think of this?" This is a conversation that Sato does not have with his clients, neither does he see a need to.
At the studio, he sees up to 40 sessions on a busy month. Sato does not advertise his studio but purely relies on word-of-mouth marketing. For that, the customers who walk in are mostly locals — Japanese and foreigners who reside in town.
Throughout the past two years, customers could only opt for the samurai-themed film, where both men, women, and children are dressed in the traditional Japanese kimono (literally translated to robe) and hakama (trousers). They wield katanas (samurai swords) and valiantly defeat assassins.
Earlier this year, Sato expanded his repertoire to include a wider-scale Ninja-themed video, which involves five more stuntmen. He will soon launch another Hong Kong street gun-fight theme — one which requires a larger crew and will be shot in the city instead of the airport.
Visit Samurai Film's website, and a full version of the final samurai short film here.
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