The rhythm of self-mastery

Photos courtesy of Katsumi Sakakura

Katsumi Sakakura is a world-renowned Japanese artist/performer known for his spectacular video projection performances. He syncs his martial arts movements perfectly with a projection of Japanese imagery on a screen, delivering adrenaline-pumping performances. His group ORIENTARHYTHM travels around the world to perform at various events and on TV shows but it has been a long journey for Katsumi to get to where he is today. When we learned that his group will fly to Bangkok to perform at the opening of the Asian Football Confederation Annual Awards on Nov 29, we couldn't resist an opportunity to talk to this fascinating man.

Please introduce yourself to our readers!

My group ORIENTARHYTHM is comprised of three members; myself, Eiko Iwaki and Mami Yanagida. We are Japanese artists who express our work through movement, rhythm and a spiritual essence unique to the Japanese martial art of budo. Therefore, our work is not just for entertainment, but it also expresses the philosophy of the traditional Japanese budo spirit. Our most notable work, Projection Live, synchronises live body moments with projected images on a screen. It has been performed in 40 countries and on TV in 19 countries. Currently, there are many performers around the world involved in this fusion of video images with live performances but we were the first to pioneer this performance style.

How did ORIENTARHYTHM come about? How did you go from someone with an Economics degree to the unique performer you are today?

Actually, I was not interested in economics at all but I made a very important discovery at university -- the difference between karate and boxing. I was training hard every day at the university's boxing club. This greatly contributed to the foundation of ORIENTARHYTHM. But before I got there, it was a long way. I had many jobs -- being a cook, a car mechanic and probably eight other types of jobs -- after graduation. None lasted long. In most cases, I quit in a day. One day I met a dance instructor at the gym I visited for training. I quickly became fascinated by dancing. I began to love to expressing various things through my body. This was the beginning of everything.

You love hip-hop and used to think American culture was way cooler than Japanese culture. But now you're spreading this very cool take on Japanese culture across the globe. What was the turning point?

When I was young, I loved hip-hop culture. I darkened the colour of my skin with a tanning machine and permed my hair to look like someone of African descent. Wearing big-sized T-shirts with basketball shoes and all that jazz. I impersonated MC Hammer to a tee. I didn't see it as poor cultural imitation. I thought my style was very cool.

One day, I worked with a famous African-American dancer whom I admired. I thought she would praise me for my style. But she said to me, "Don't you know our history? We faced troubles because of our skin colour. And, we love Asians' straight black hair. Why do you want to change? Japan has such a cool culture, why don't you do that rather than copy ours?"

I was so shocked. I never thought that Japanese culture was cool. My life changed from that moment. From then on, I researched Japanese culture extensively and experimented with many things. I thought maybe one of the cool things to be found in Japanese culture could be found within karate, based on experiences during my college days.

How would you describe your performance? How did you come up with the concept?

I love action movies. The image displayed on the big screen is very powerful. The spectators are overwhelmed. I was jealous of it as a performer. I cannot express such power with just my body. But, I know that there are some energies that only living humans can radiate.

In 2004, I performed at the JAPAN EXPO in LA. The event's organiser said, "There is a screen on stage, I will project your name behind you during your performance." At that moment, I was struck by lightning! I said "This is it!". It inspired me to combine the power of the big screen with the human "living power" to create one huge power. I immediately made a simple CG video. The red sun slowly rose from the bottom. And a Japanese character for "peace" was drawn according to my karate moves. That was only one minute long but the audience applauded so loudly and for a long time. The next day it was published in a newspaper. That was how the world's first "Projection Live" performance was born.

When you spoke at a TEDx event in Tokyo, you mentioned "Japanese cool" and the principle of "sokuin". Can you explain what this is about?

We Japanese have a special way of thinking called "sokuin". The meaning is very simple, "to think from the others' position". You imagine results before you act. And when you know that your action may cause trouble for others, you stop that. Have you ever seen a sumo match? The winner doesn't express happiness of victory. This applies to all traditional Japanese martial arts. When you win, someone loses. He might be hurt so you should not be excited. This compassion for others is called "sokuin". If someone ask me "What is real Japanese cool?", I'll answer without hesitation: "We have sokuin". I believe that "sokuin" can bring world peace.

What can you tell us about your performance in Bangkok?

We are very honoured to do the opening performance of the football awards because, we were chosen as the representative performance of Asia. This time, we will perform Samurai Spirits, expressing the philosophy of the traditional Japanese martial art, budo. When you aspire to reach the highest point, it's necessary to train three qualities: your spirit, technique and physical strength. When these become united by good balance, a great result will be produced. We add football images throughout the performance. I'm looking forward to seeing the reaction of the audience in Bangkok!!

You've been to Thailand several times. Have you had the chance to travel around?

I did three performances in Bangkok. And privately, I took a sightseeing trip with my wife. We love Bangkok! First of all, people are kind. And of course, Thai cuisine is our favourite! We love the Chatuchak Weekend Market too. I go there every time. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time during this visit.

As someone who has had his fair share of trial-and-error and rejections but who eventually triumphs, what advice do you have for someone who feels like giving up?

I'm 54 years old. When I was 47, my work suddenly gained worldwide recognition. Before that, nobody cared to see what Eiko, Mami and I did. But we did not give up because we believed in our work. No matter how painful it is at times, you must not stop believing in yourself. People around me -- except Eiko, Mami, and my wife -- told me when I was 46 that I was already too old and should give up yet now we are travelling and performing all over the world! We recently were in Prague which is the 40th country we've performed in. My name (Katsumi) means "to conquer oneself". If you do not trust your own power, no one will ever believe in you. If you give up, everything stops there. May you always conquer yourself.