Reprint: Takeshi Kitano Interviews Kazushi Sakuraba

From Winners Dead or Alive Vol. 1 (Nov. 2000)

Translated by Yoko Kondo
Reprinted From Global Training Report

Sakuraba: To tell the truth, I used to watch “Take-chan man” very often when I was in an elementary school. When asked who was my favorite, I always answered, “Take-chan man”. [Translator’s note: Take-chan is the affectionate name of Mr. Takeshi, who is a popular actor and comedian in Japan, as well as an internationally famous film director].

Takeshi: I’m glad to hear that. I’m a fan of yours too. When I am watching your fights, I feel that you are very smart. “Smart” doesn’t mean intelligence at schoolwork, but intelligence which enables you to look at the position you are placed on objectively. There are fighters in kakutogi who blindly make themselves high by uplifting their fighting spirits. But they will lose themselves in that case. The same thing happens in manzai too [translator’s note: manzai is a form of Japanese comedy involving two players]. Uplifting fighting spirit is necessary, but what is more important is having a sense that there is within you another self that controls the self that is actually fighting, a sense that you can coolly observe yourself standing in the ring with the eyes of a second or spectator. That is, you can explode if you want, and you can brake yourself if you want.

Sakuraba: To be sure, too much excitement makes my view narrow. What comes into my sights is only my opponent. If he attacks, I will attack back out of anger. If I am very excited, I will attack his face. If I can coolly observe the situation, I will see there are other parts I can attack other than his face, such as legs or waist.

Takeshi: Like sumo and judo, kakutogi requires imagination, with which you can judge the power and ability of your opponent merely by touching a part of his body.

Sakuraba: I think so too.

Takeshi: You showed up with two fellows putting on the same mask all together in the fight with Royce Gracie at Tokyo Dome in May. I thought it was not merely a gag, but a kind of psychological strategy. It seemed to me that you were intentionally driving yourself into the corner by showing up like that, namely, you tried to put pressure on your opponent, but at the same time on yourself too.

Sakuraba: I thought it would be embarrassing if I lost so easily after such an extravagant display (laughing).

Takeshi: It seems that you were making fun of them all along.

Sakuraba: They made a lot of demands about the rules before the fight. It annoyed me off, so I tried to make fun of them a little bit (laughing).

Takeshi: If an opponent complains about a rule or something before the fight, a fighter in general tries to mess him up in the fight out of anger. But it happens that the fighter loses because of unexpectedly higher power brought by that anger. I had the same experience in a four-round boxing match a long time ago. I fell down within two minutes from the start. I punched and flailed recklessly, my mouthpiece fell out, and I punched my opponent until I couldn’t’ t open my hands anymore. It is like a 100-meter sprint. It can not be possible to keep such a pace until the end. A blind fight out of anger doesn’t last even two minutes, does it?

Sakuraba: That’s right.

Takeshi: You have fought with foreign fighters with very muscular bodies. Have you ever felt that your victory was assured from the first moment of contact?

Sakuraba: Yes, I have.

Takeshi: So you found him not so strong as he looked?

Sakuraba: Yes. “Oh! It will be easy….”

Takeshi: You must be filled with a lot of joy in that case!

Sakuraba: Yes.

Takeshi: When I became well-known as a comedian in Tokyo, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to make audiences laugh in Osaka [Translator’s note: people in Osaka have a little different sense of humor from people in Tokyo]. So I was very nervous when I went to Osaka for the first time. I was restlessly pacing back and forth in a waiting room, or looking at the stage from the wings. Then I went onstage. When I did my first bit, the audience started giggling. “Oh! I caught them!”, I thought. I was so happy, and started thinking about what I should do next, or how I should finish with it.

Sakuraba: It is exactly the same as kakutogi.

Takeshi: After that, I can manipulate them the way I like. They already know my routine from TV, so it’s not a good idea to use the same bits to make them laugh there. I surprise them by intentionally using different bits from their expectation. It was a great moment for me. I felt as if I found their weakness at that moment. In the same way, I have a moment to feel in your fighting, “Oh! you’ve seen through your opponent!”. You must have a sense like “Oh, the time has come!”.

Sakuraba: Yes.

Takeshi: In the fight with Royce in May, you were standing back with your face pushing out of the rope, and were getting punches from the back. I was watching it on TV feeling that you were enduring with knowing from which direction the punches would come.

Sakuraba: Yes. Royce was standing on the left side, so I knew powerful punches would come from only the right side. I didn’t get any damage from his punches.

Takeshi: You observe things coolly like that. Were you sure of your victory then?

Sakuraba: Yes, I had such a feeling. He was so excited and just pushed me to the rope. I hoped he would run out of stamina. The brain doesn’t work properly without stamina, because of lack of oxygen. I was saving energy to avoid that condition. By the way, when did you start watching pro wrestling?

Takeshi: I started it from Rikidozan. [translator’s note: Rikidozan was a Korean pro wrestler, immensely popular in Japan after WW II. Rikidozan teamed up with judo champion Kimura (the one who defeated Helio), for tag team matches against American and other opponents, and was later stabbed to death in 1963 by a fellow Korean for being insufficiently patriotic]. My family bought a TV set to watch him. A masked wrestler named Mr. Atomic was so sensational. But I gradually realized that pro wrestling was a show. Then my interest turned to boxing. But I was using pro wrestling as bits of manzai for some period.

Sakuraba: The beginning of my pro wrestling history is Tiger Mask. I watched him in a comic book at first when I was the first grade of middle school [that would be 7th grade in the American system]. Then I lost my head over him who in reality showed up in the ring. He was cool. Butcher or Sheik pair vs. Funks [the names of American pro wrestlers] are still vivid in my memory. Pro wrestling program was broadcasted mainly at midnight in my home town in the countryside, and I could seldom watch it. There was an evening program, but I was attracted by a cartoon program (laughing).

Takeshi: I see.

Sakuraba: I was an amateur wrestler before becoming a pro wrestler. In the case of amateur wrestling, there was no spectator. All I had to think about was my win and my team’s win. That’s all. And then I joined U-inter as a pro wrestler, where I had to think about attracting a lot of spectators to make a living. I was taught there like this. “It is important to show my enthusiasm for fights at first, rather than try to respond to the expectation of spectators. As long as I do it, a result is the second matter. After that I should start selling my name little by little, and then showing my technique”.

Takeshi: Pro wrestling in the Rikidozan period was so to speak W. Kenji of manzai. They got a big response by showing just what the audience expected. But my style was vale tudo, that is, anything was OK to make the audience laugh. When the mood of the audience was down due to a boring manzai performed before me, I started my show by saying how bad that manzai was. I was scolded at back stage later, but that was exactly what the audience felt. Then when their mood was up, I segued into my shtick. Pro wrestling, in the meantime, had changed a lot after the Rikidozan era. Getting into the era of Mr. Inoki, it started to show its dark side, with conflicts between groups or various factions before getting into the ring. And now it has become real fighting.

Sakuraba: Compared to the old days, there are many changes in pro wrestling including environment. I think it is changing for the better. When I see it from the viewpoint of spectator, boring is boring.

Takeshi: Spectators showed a big reaction on only one motion of a Gracie [Royce] who faltered by getting a kick on his leg. They are maniac [hard core fans] with trained eyes, so they react to each motion fighters do by interpreting their strategy.

Sakuraba: They know well about technique. The technique we used is interpreted in magazines too. For example, even if I am on the top over my opponent on the ground, my position will get bad if he holds me with both of his legs. So at the moment when I pass over one leg, the fans react with a big shout. It is good for fighters that the fans are acquainted with technique. It is very interesting to watch the video made around the second year since my debut. It was so quiet there, because spectators didn’t know anything about technique and I was a new fighter at that time. I can’t stand that mood.

Takeshi: No matter how good you are, it takes time to be recognized by the public, doesn’t it?

I thought I was performing a good manzai a long time ago, but only a few maniacs were laughing then. Once we were recognized as a manzai pair named “Two Beat”, however, the audience laughed at anything we did regardless of quality. In fact, our act became worse and worse under this situation, because we didn’t practice much, and didn’t think up any new material any more. We could manage to do it somehow simply by improvising. The manzai boom was finished at the moment we thought it easy to make the audience laugh. I consider the audience the most fearful. The best people in our side is the worst enemy.

Sakuraba: When in a boom, a lot of people come and watch kakutogi, even people who don’t know anything about it. To be sure, I have to do my best, but all the fans might be gone some day (laughing). It was a good experience for me that the fans were gone and I lost the group I belonged to. I always keep it in mind from that experience and try to give the fans a good show, a fight which remains in their mind as the most impressive fight compared to other fights. Otherwise, I can’t leave my name in kakutogi and I can’t make a living either.

Takeshi: There are two or three styles in both kakutogi and TV programs. First is so called “Mitokomon” style. Namely, it shows the same thing every time with a happy end. [Translator’s note: in a TV series based on the life of the Edo period character General Mitokomon, the hero defeats his evil adversaries every time by showing them his inro (a case which indicates his noble position) at the end of the show.] It is a style in which the hero defeats every opponent in the end. The outcome is obvious, but people continue watching it for many years to see Mitokomon showing his inro. Second is to show a different technique every time, which is harder than the first one. It is like Sawada Kenji [the Japanese singer], who changes his costume every time. Third is neither of them, a style in which you ad lib. But in the case of kakutogi, you have to change your style according to your opponent every time, don’t you?

Sakuraba: Whoever my opponent is, fighting is the same to me as long as there are no special demands about the rules from their side. But when I fight with a no-name fighter, I have to think about showing something unique to give the fans their money’s worth.

Takeshi: But now you are getting to be a target of all the fighters. Who will defeat you is a big matter to everybody. By the way, I heard that your training is very unique. Don’t you do too much weight-training?

Sakuraba: Well, maybe it looks unique to others, because I primarily do only sparring every day. I spend only 20 or 30 minutes on weight-training.

Takeshi: Speaking of training, Mr. Yokoyama Yasushi [a comic dialogist] was famous for disliking practice. Mr. Nishikawa [Mr. Yokoyama’s partner] criticized him for it. But Nishikawa was wrong, because Yokoyama’s private life itself was a form of constant practice. That is what is amazing about him. He was practicing from the moment when he got in a taxi, or when he met somebody. “Idiot! Move on! The light is green!”, says Mr. Yokoyama to a taxi driver. Then the driver answers, “No, it’s red”. “Isn’t the next light green?”, he closes it like this. He brought his life to the stage as it was. He is a genius in that sense. Mr. Nishikawa asked him to do some practice together offstage but Mr. Yokoyama answered, “I never practice”. He was really smart, so he never stopped digging into conversation with a hostess having drinks. And he brought it to the stage as it was. Maybe he was most diligent for practice, I think.

Sakuraba: My sparring might be something like that (laughing). Each person has a different uniqueness in the function of body, such as which side is stronger in holding down according to right-handed or left-handed. Naturally it is easy to do it with the right arm. I usually hold down my opponent with my right arm. In my training, however, I try it sometimes with the left arm. Interestingly, my opponent escapes from it by a different way from usual.

Takeshi: An opponent for me is the audience, isn’t it? Practicing without the audience is useless, because there is no reaction. I would rather talk to a taxi driver or hostess in front of me. They are my audience, and it turns out to be a good practice after all. In the same way, it seems more useful in kakutogi to train with a live opponent than to spend two hours on abs. So when you touch his body, you can sense how powerful he really is, or how he will react to your move. If you continue this training, it will give you a better result.

Sakuraba: My training partner is chosen in order by “jyanken” [a Japanese finger-flashing game of paper-scissors-stone] among the fighters who happen to be there at the time (laughing). I don’t have any special sparring partner. It is better to spar with various kinds of people, because every fighter has a unique style and personal strengths. If I spar with the same person all the time, I will become strong in his uniqueness, but not in others. I spar for about 90 minutes. Then I have lunch, and take a little break. I do weight-training for 20-30 minutes after that. Otherwise my weight will go down. And if there is a class for ordinary students in dojo, I join it. If not, I go back home and do the same routine as an ordinary salaried man, like watching TV while drinking beer or shochu [a powerful gin-like concoction] and playing with my child. I shouldn’t drink alcohol, but I drink almost every day (laughing). I don’t care about diet so much.

Takeshi: Haven’t you ever tired of training?

Sakuraba: Yes, I have (laughing). I don’t feel like going to the dojo occasionally. But it is my job, so I have to go. Moreover, consistent training gives rise to a good result in a real fight. Even if you train hard every night one week before a fight, nothing will come out well. It is much better than that to train every day in the gym the same way you are going to fight. And if you get relaxed in a real fight, you can show your ability exactly the same as in your routine training, I think. I take two days off a week. If not, my brain doesn’t work properly.

Takeshi: Don’t you mimic somebody’s move in your training? For example, the Gracies?

Sakuraba: I do (laughing).

Takeshi: It must be interesting if you beat an opponent at his own style.

Sakuraba: Actually, I don’t mimic their style. Instead, I form an image of the style of a strong attacker in my mind, and then I imitate his move. It often comes out well. It seems to be difficult for a fighter who lacks the power of imagination to have a sense of how to position his body when he attempts kansetsu-waza [joint lock, submission].

Takeshi: A person who is good at imitating is a good player in baseball or golf too. By the way, your opponents, especially foreign fighters, are very muscular, aren’t they? If anything, you are typical Japanese with a white skin. Judging from appearance, they look very much stronger than you (laughing).

Sakuraba: I feel the same way before a fight. But once we go on the ring, we are even. It sometimes happens that even a very muscular fighter turns out to be unexpectedly weak when we grapple with each other. A muscular body is not relevant to its real power. Royce, for example, was thin but quite powerful.

Takeshi: When I went to Europe for my movie for the first time about five or six years ago, I was interviewed by foreign reporters from famous French magazines and newspapers like “Le Monde” and others. I am a mere Asian movie director, so I was very nervous. But I carefully listened to their talk, and realized that they were not so smart (laughing). I did as much as I could at the interview then, but I got used to it lately. When I went to Venice a little before, I thought in my mind, ”what an idiotic question is that?” Once I got to know their real ability, I realized that an idiot is an idiot no matter how famous is the university he graduated from, like Harvard or Oxford. If I say, “Stop the stupid question!” to him while smoking with indifference, that’s it, I think. To be able to do this, of course, I have to get used to it by going through many reporters. It is hard in the beginning, isn’t it?

Sakuraba: Yes, It is.

Takeshi: Well, your entrance scene is really funny. You come out trudging, just like a farmer working in the fields (laughing). But once you get in the ring, you are strong. I can’t help laughing at it. Foreign fighters, on the other hand, come out showing off their fighting spirits like “I am the star!” or “I am strong!”

Sakuraba: I feel embarrassed while walking to the ring. Besides, the spotlight is shining on me.

Takeshi: And a Japanese ring announcer calls your name in a loud voice. You are trudging along under the light. At first I thought it was a maintenance worker coming to repair the ring (laughing).

Sakuraba: I always look at my feet not to stumble.

Takeshi: Why don’t you stumble one time, hit on your face and bleed at nose, something like that. It would be funny (laughing).

Sakuraba: But I’m OK once I get in the ring.

Takeshi: I have the same experience too. I felt anxious when I stand in the wings, especially when a comedian before me was doing good. But once a back music played, my look suddenly changed to the professional and went onstage greeting the audience. My teacher did the same way too. He was turning round and round at the wings. When I got near to him once, he was mumbling, “I am funny, I am the most funny in the world!” (laughing). It was funny to see that even my teacher felt like this .

Sakuraba: Some people are like that. I know a younger fighter who was getting angry at something banging on a table, saying “Oh! Shucks!” I soothed him, “Chill out!”

Takeshi: What are you doing in the waiting room?

Sakuraba: Well, I get some sleep (laughing). I don’t like the waiting time before a fight. I lie down and concentrate on falling asleep, then start to fall into a doze.

Takeshi: How many minutes before a fight do you get up?

Sakuraba: I don’t sleep just before a fight. I slept only one time until just before a fight.

Takeshi: How was your brain? Did it work properly?

Sakuraba: No, it didn’t until the time of entrance. My body was dull. But once the bell rang, I felt alright.

Takeshi: Even baseball players get up around six o’clock in the morning when they have a day-time game, and do warm-up before the game.

Sakuraba: In my case, I can relax myself by sleeping. I was told I shouldn’t do it, because the body gets dull.

Takeshi: Let me ask you the last question. Don’t you ever feel like giving up out of fear during a fight?

Sakuraba: No, I don’t during a fight. In training, however, I’ve felt a deadlock when I couldn’t move at all under my opponent’s control.

Takeshi: How do you feel before a fight?

Sakuraba: I have a fear coming from a feeling that I would be miserable if I lost.

Takeshi: When I talked with Tatsuyoshi [Japanese boxer] before, he said, “I am a coward, in fact. But I have enough courage to run away from the waiting room in the world title match”. It didn’t make sense to me then. I thought too much punches on his head made him say something odd (laughing). But it seems as fearful as he said so.

Sakuraba: Is he in fear of getting punches?

Takeshi: Well, losing must be the biggest fear.

Sakuraba: If I lose in spite of a hard training, I feel all I have done so far will be wasted. It is just feeling though. Nothing goes to waste in reality.

Takeshi What is most fearful for you?

Sakuraba: I’ve never thought about it.

Takeshi: Then how do you think about death?

Sakuraba: Mmmmm… something like it can’t be helped.

Takeshi: It can’t be helped (laughing). Kakutogi is the most dangerous sport, isn’t it? Don’t you have a fear of death?

Sakuraba: No, I don’t fear anything during a fight. I think when it comes, I die. I might die of a traffic accident on the way back from this interview (laughing). But I have a feeling of sadness about death. I would miss my family members and friends.

Takeshi: Aren’t you interested in religion?

Sakuraba: I don’t believe in god.

Takeshi: Don’t you do “kurushiitoki no kamidanomi” [pray for divine aid in your hard time] at all?

Sakuraba: Well, just occasionally, when I have a stomach ache, or something like that (laughing).

(c) 2000, Yoko Kondo, all rights reserved.

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