Tom Smith talks to Gouken actor Akira Koieyama
“I bought a pint of milk yesterday and the guy behind the counter went ‘Hadouken!’” a rather bemused Akira Koieyama recounts as he bites down on a sandwich in London’s Green Park. “I’ve yet to work on a project that’s had the same kind of reaction from fans as this one. I’m not used to it, but I sure am grateful for everyone’s kind words.”
The Japanese actor is referring to his role as Goken in Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist – and it’s already received the seal of approval from fans and critics across the globe.
IGN is hailing the series as not only the best live-action interpretation of Street Fighter to-date (which wasn’t exactly hard. I’m looking at you disapprovingly, Van Damme and Minogue) but as “the best live-action adaptations of any video game”, while Den Of Geek calls it “a long-awaited love letter” to the franchise. And let’s not forget Akira’s local newsagent’s hadouken of approval too. All in all, the general consensus is SF:AF is the greatest homage to Ryu, Ken and new challengers that’s ever been put to film.
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The project originally started when martial artists Joey Ansah and Christian Howard released a short film on YouTube as a tribute to the classic fighting game. Over five million people watched it, including the right people at Capcom. At the San Diego Comic-Con 2012, the company announced that they would be granting Joey and Christian the rights to go ahead with a full-blown series. Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist was born.
Akira plays Goken, the mysterious mentor that taught Ryu and Ken how to brawl, and the former training partner of Akuma, a regular secret boss character across the video game lineage.
“It’s a great honour to play such a character! My father was a judo instructor; he used to train the police in Japan. And my dream used to be to become a karate instructor. When I was 19 I had to think carefully which route my life will go in; acting or martial arts… I chose acting but I never stopped training during that time. When studying for the role of Goken, I reflected upon all the great martial arts instructors I’ve experienced through the years. So I combined those memories with watching countless videos of masters in action to prepare.”
That wasn’t the only training Akira had to undergo when taking the part. He also had to bulk up to match Goken’s mighty stature.
“Actually, I didn’t know who Goken was. To be truthful with you, I didn’t know so much about Street Fighter before I worked on this project. My friend Kenya Sawada was in the original Street Fighter movie, so I decided to watch that to get an idea about what the series was all about… but by the end, I still had no idea! And when they showed me a picture of Goken I was like ‘oh my god… he has a half-skinhead, whitebeard, and muscles like a wrestler! I’m a spindly Japanese man! How can I ever look like that…’, but Joey was very kind, and he taught me how to get my body ready for the part. It was tough, for six-months I trained every day, drank plenty of disgusting protein shakes and slept. That was it. At first I trained too much, my body became lean but not big like Goken. Joey told me I was concentrating too hard on exercise and not enough on protein and rest – it’s like a triangle, all sides have to be equal to succeed. That was really good advice.”
Before playing the wise and peaceful Goken, Akira had mostly been cast as bad guys. “I don’t know why that is! I try to be a gentleman wherever possible! But since I moved to London I’ve been able to expand into other things, including comedies and some major films too.”
He’s not wrong. From humble beginnings in 1996’s Yamato Takeru (Orochi: The Eight-Headed Dragon, from Godzilla director Takao Okawara), to 90s TV drama B-Fighter Kabuto (“They killed me TWICE in that one!”), he did the rounds on a number of martial arts flicks at home and in Hong Kong before having a go at anime with a role as Mama in the anime Blood The Last Vampire. But since moving to London with his wife and kids, his careers really blossomed and saw him star in proper full-blown Hollywood blockbusters such as The Last Samurai and 47 Ronin.
“Right now I’m filming for the next series of the British secret service series Strike Back too, I’m off to Thailand to reshoot a few scenes. And right after that we’ll start work on the next series of Street Fighter – and I can’t wait! Those guys are seriously the best to work with. We’re like one big family.”
As well as being a family, the cast and crew are crammed with some of the best in the business. “The costumes on the set are epic! Harry Potter costume designer Emily-Rose Yiaxis did such a fantastic job in Assassin’s Fist. And the guys playing Ryu and Ken, I can’t think of anyone better in the industry. Ryu’s actor, Mike Moh is American-Korean and he’s a real-life Tae Kwon Do dojo owner! Ken is played by Christian Howard, who oozes in talent – he’s also a great artist, with a sharp eye. He’s written the whole project with Joey Ansah, who plays Akuma.
“Joey is also an amazing guy to work with. I believe he’s the best action choreographer right now on a worldwide level. I saw that Esquire rated Joey’s scene with Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum as one of the five best fight scenes ever filmed.”
Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist is available courtesy of Manga Entertainment from 27th October on DVD, Blu-ray and as a limited edition steel-book Blu-ray. All versions include a bonus never-before-scene episode – and fistfuls of dragon punches.