Cover Japanese actor Shogen plays Nao Tsuyama in 'Gensan Punch'

Okinawa-born actor Shogen sits down with Tatler to talk about why his latest movie, Gensan Punch packs a punch

If anyone knows how to pack a punch, it’s Brillante Mendoza—one of the Philippines’ most renowned directors and a Tatler’s Asia’s Most Influential honouree. His latest movie is a boxing biopic, based on the life of physically disabled boxer, Nao Tsuyama who dreams of becoming a professional boxer despite having a prosthetic leg. Hoping to gain success overseas after being rejected in Japan, he travels to the Philippines—to General Santos city or Gensan—in the hometown of boxing legend, Manny Pacquiao to train.

The movie premiered at the Busan International Film Festival where it took home the Kim Jiseok Award, receiving praise for its strong story of not only a hero’s path to victory but also of the relationships formed along the way. Marking a new leap in his career, Okinawan-born actor Shogen took on the role of Nao. Fighting prejudices in his own country for not being Japanese enough, the movie propelled Shogen to become an in-demand rising star.

Gensan Punch recently screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Tatler had the chance to sit down with Shogen to talk about how he prepared for the physically demanding role, the similarities between Japan and the Philippines and why he considers working with Mendoza as his life’s treasure.

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Gensan Punch is filled with heavy boxing sequences. How did you prepare for your role? Did you have any specific diet?

Since I started this project by myself, I had time to prepare—unlike the Japanese industry. I started to constantly work out a year and a half before filming started and I went to train five to six times a week. I found a couple of Nao Tsuyama’s real fights on YouTube so I know about it and I tried to do it as he did. But director Brillante Mendoza said that it’s not necessary to copy Nao’s style. The movie is inspired by his life story but I had to bring myself into the movie. I did some training to fight like I had a prosthetic leg.

There’s no particular diet I had to do because I’ve already spent time training, like a real boxer. Nao is also of similar height as me, maybe just a bit taller. When he fought, he was 63 kilograms so it was my goal to weigh around the same. Before filming, I was just training to lose weight but that’s all.

Did you also meet the real Nao Tsuyama to prepare for the role?

Actually, when I started this project, I already met Nao and I got his permission to tell his story about seven years ago. We’ve been friends for 10 years already. I got inspired by his life and I thought it’s a great story to tell. I also have a lot of sympathy for him so I asked him when we were drinking that one day, I’d like to make a film about him and he said yes. And now we’re here. It’s overwhelming, at the Tokyo International Film Festival, we’re just standing on the stage together around our friends and families and everyone seems so happy.

You filmed Gensan Punch in both Japan and the Philippines. Since you’re from Okinawa, I’m curious how the filming experience was in Gensan?

I’m lucky because Brillante gave me time to immerse myself in the environment. I had time to stay in Gensan for a couple of weeks—one day, I’d just hang out, the next day it’s location scouting and then they’d usually just leave me alone and I stay there. I also spent time training with the real local boxers, hanging out with them and eating together. I appreciate that time because it allowed me to feel a connection with them, learn their culture, their life and even a little bit of the local language.

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This film will encourage people to pursue their dreams and to never give up
Shogen

How was it like working with Brillante Mendoza?

It’s like my life’s treasure. It’s really one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, in my acting career. He believes in me and I also have faith in him. He taught me and guided me patiently. Working with him, allowed me to learn a lot about what it means to be an actor—to be spontaneous and roll when you’re in front of the camera, those kinds of things.

To you, what’s the overall message of Gensan Punch?

I think this film will encourage people to pursue their dreams and to never give up. It’s like filmmaking itself, somehow like my journey to pitching this project and then making it, starring in it. It’s like my dream. In Japan, actors pitching in projects isn’t that common so it was a big challenge for me.

Other than you pitching this project, what else makes this movie different from the ones you’ve worked on?

You know Brillante’s style is that he never shows you the script. I already knew about that before. He brought me to the Philippines and we exchanged ideas and secrets so we already have that trust—at least I have. (laughs) Whatever he said, whatever comes next, he trusts you so I let myself live as the character and not try to do anything. I enjoyed the moment. That experience was new for me.

Since you played a Japanese boxer in the movie and then went to meet other Filipino boxers, do you think there’s a difference between the two?

This was described in the film too. Most of the boxers in Japan fight against themselves to prove something. But in the Philippines, Filipinos fight for their family in order to make a living. I really saw those boxers in real life and I got very inspired by their story. They’re very close to their family and they’re happy. I love how they’re just good at showing affection. Of course, Japanese people have those too but our culture is also a bit different.

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Gensan Punch also focuses on human relationships especially as the lonely Nao comes to the Philippines, he becomes close with his boxing coach. Can you tell us about their relationship?

Coach Rudy (Ronnie Lazaro) is like a father figure to him. Relationships is also one of the most important things in the movie—for Nao and for myself. We both grew up without fathers and we were both close to our mothers. The father is a missing piece in our lives, both in the movie and in real life. Coach Rudy also has a son in the movie but they’re separated already. The relationship between the boxing coach and the boxer is also like a father and son and that’s very important to highlight, it’s essential. In order to portray our relationship, Ronnie took me out drinking so we bonded quite well.

Do you find any similarities between Okinawa and Gensan?

Oh, we’re quite similar. We’re both not punctual. (laughs) But we’re also very happy people and we love music and dancing. I think our affection towards things are also similar probably because we’re islanders, people living in the South so we have the same kind of spirit. I loved it in Gensan because it felt like home.

Despite the hardships that your character faces, he never shed a tear until the last scene when he was watching TV back in Okinawa. Let us about that scene.

I have felt a similar moment myself. But I’ll leave it to the audience to sit down and decide what that scene meant and what Nao was thinking.

As I mentioned before, Brillante doesn’t give us scripts so he didn’t tell me what to feel or what to say. In some way, the emotions during that scene piled up from the beginning. Everything was just there. Of course, if your friends succeed, you’re happy. But at the same time, you feel envious but that’s normal, that’s human nature. You can’t feel just one emotion, you can also feel other things. So if you look at my eyes in that scene, I want you to feel something—but what it is, that’s up to you.

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Gensan Punch will be released in HBO Asia as an original movie. Please stay tuned for more details.

 

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