Samurai get put through paces

Kenji Tanigaki is one of Japan's busiest and best action-film choreographers

by Mark Schilling

Anyone who knows anything about musicals knows they require endless rehearsals in order to be staged successfully. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers didn’t just jump up and glide around a sound stage as the cameras rolled; they had to practice each step of those seemingly effortless dance routines over and over, for weeks at a time.

There is even a subgenre of movie musicals about the sweat and glory of putting on a musical, with the choreographer usually looking impatient and irritated — or nearly dying of a stress-induced heart attack, as did Roy Schneider’s character in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979).

Not always so obvious is the intricate choreography required for action scenes, from the apparently chaotic bar-room brawls in classic Westerns to the death-defying stunts of Jackie Chan in his Hong Kong martial-arts extravaganzas.

Some directors do this choreography themselves — Akira Kurosawa was known for running his samurai relentlessly through their paces — but many use the services of action choreographers.

Among the busiest of these specialists in Japan is Kenji Tanigaki who, in his late 30s, has the muscular build, springy step and lithe moves of an Olympic gymnast, but with the open, encouraging manner and quick, crinkly smile of a popular sports-club trainer. Over the course of a two-decade career, he has done everything from stunt and acting work on Hong Kong and Hollywood action films to shooting motion-capture scenes for video games.

One afternoon earlier this year, I watched Tanigaki work with actors on the blue-screen sound stage of Waseda University’s Honjo Campus in Saitama Prefecture. The film, “Yamimusha 2” (“Samurai in the Dark 2”) was a straight-to-DVD actioner for the Museum Soft label based on the classic tale of Miminashi Hoichi (“Hoichi the Earless”), with the blind biwa (Japanese lute) player of the story transformed into a sword-wielding hero.

Tanigaki was full of energy and ideas as he rehearsed the stuntmen, including the one performing star Kenichi Matsujima’s action scenes, while consulting with the smiling gray-haired cameraman, seated behind his DV (digital video) camera, and the tall, laconic director, Hitoshi Ozawa, who was happy to let Tanigaki take the action lead, while making the occasional comment or request.

On the shoot, Tanigaki focused mainly on the sword moves by Hoichi and his demon opponents — two stuntmen in full costume, including grotesque masks that made them look inhumanly formidable — until they started speaking in normal human voices.

Taking his actors and stuntmen aside, Tanigaki tried out swordplay combinations with a casual speed, fluidity and concentration, like a chess master running through familiar openings while looking for interesting variations. Veteran stuntman Takahito Ouchi, who was playing Hoichi in action scenes, instantly followed Tanigaki’s lead, while suggesting ideas of his own. Within five minutes, they had worked out and rehearsed a complex series of moves that Ouchi was soon performing flawlessly for the camera.

“I’ve been working with (Ouchi) for five or six years,” Tanigaki commented in fluent English. “When I say one thing, he understands everything.” At the same time, he brushed aside the suggestion that finishing an action scene in one or two takes was anything to be proud of. “In Hong Kong they use at least 20 takes for a scene like that, to get it right,” he said. A low-budget action film, with a razor-tight schedule, didn’t have that luxury.

At the same time, Tanigaki wanted to make every scene as eye-catching as possible — thus the swirling, flashy sword moves from wushu (a Chinese martial art often seen in Hong Kong action films). “I don’t really like the wushu style personally,” he commented. “I like something more realistic, but for this film wushu works best.”

It was Hong Kong action movies, however, that turned Tanigaki toward his present profession.

Born in Nara in 1970, Tanigaki learned trampoline and gymnastics as a boy, but starting at age 10 he focused his training on martial arts, in imitation of his idol, Jackie Chan. “I used to make my friends play out scenes in Jackie Chan movies,” he said. I didn’t have to ask who played Chan.

As a teenager, Tanigaki joined the martial-arts school of Yasuaki Kurata, who had appeared in dozens of Hong Kong action films, as well as a series of karate movies with Sonny Chiba — Japan’s answer to Bruce Lee — in the 1970s. Kurata is still active as both an actor and action choreographer.

At age 18, Tanigaki began working as a stuntman in Kyoto — the center for period-drama production in Japan. After four years of fighting losing sword matches with the various heroes, he moved to Hong Kong. “I preferred Hong Kong movies,” he said. “Also, there was no chance to express myself in Kyoto — I was feeling frustrated.”

Then 22, he landed in Hong Kong knowing no Chinese and no one in the local film industry. He started as an extra, but soon caught the attention of directors and producers, curious to know why a Japanese guy had come all the way to Hong Kong to be in the movies. “I learned how to answer that question in Chinese, so they had the impression I could speak the language — though I really couldn’t,” he said.

He was soon working with such top Hong Kong action stars as Andy Lau and Stephen Tung Wei, who had appeared with Bruce Lee in the 1973 martial-arts classic “Enter the Dragon,” but his mentor was Donnie Yen, a Chinese-born, American-raised actor and action choreographer. “Kurata taught me how to move. Donnie taught me what and why to move,” Tanigaki explained.

He has continued to work as an actor and stuntman under Yen throughout the current decade, including the films “Blade II,” (2002), “Kill Zone” (2005) and “Flash Point” (2007), but the decline in the Hong Kong film industry, hastened by rampant piracy, has also sharply reduced its demand for action experts. “A lot of stuntmen in Hong Kong are driving cabs now,” Tanigaki comments. “The Hong Kong action DNA has gone abroad.”

Foreign action specialists like director Tony Jaa (“Ong Bak,” 2003, “Ong Bak 2,” 2008) and action choreographer Cyril Raffaelli (“Banlieue 13 — Ultimatum,” 2006) have not just imitated their Hong Kong models, Tanigaki notes, but added local elements, such as Thai martial arts (Jaa) and the French movement discipline of Parkour. “I want to do something similar in Japan — create a new style of Japanese action,” Tanigaki says.

He was able to put some of his ideas in practice in “Kamui Gaiden” (“Kamui”), a new ninja actioner to be released later this year, and which is directed by Yoichi Sai, for whom Tanigaki served as a stunt coordinator. “The movements are not 100 percent my flavor, but the style of storytelling is something new,” Tanigaki says.

A key to good action, Tanigaki believes, is good acting. “For action roles, actors are best, followed by stuntmen. The worst are martial artists,” he says. “There’s a saying in the Hong Kong film business — if you can help it, don’t have anything to do with animals, children or martial artists.”

Actors, he notes, don’t have to be great martial artists to play them well, while martial artists are seldom any good as actors. “Many Hong Kong action stars have had training in Beijing Opera,” Tanigaki says, “They are used to imitating people, which pure martial artists are not.”

In the same way, Tanigaki does not care for action that is all style, digitally aided or otherwise. “You don’t feel any blood running through it,” he says. “Action should engage the emotions.” It should also, he believes, not stand alone as a set piece, but be in service of the story. “Good action direction is good storytelling,” he says. “That’s why a film like (Jackie Chan’s) ‘Project A'(1983) has had such a long life. It tells a great story with great action.”

Tanigaki finally had a chance to work with his idol in “The Twins Effect,” a 2003 martial-arts comedy directed by Donnie Yen and Dante Lam. Chan used a stunt double in his action scenes, which did not shock Tanigaki (“Actors use stunt doubles all the time,” he noted, “though not all of them admit it.”). Instead he was impressed by Chan’s acting chops: “In the closeups, Jackie Chan’s acting had so much power. That was the secret to the success of Hong Kong action movies — the actors were so good. It wasn’t just Jackie Chan doing stunts.”