Kuroda Haruka: Japanese Combat Instructor a Big Hit on UK Stage and ScreenEntertainment Cinema
How old were you when you first realized you wanted to act?
When I was in kindergarten, I remember that I wanted to be front of the line and play the lead even in the small things that the kids put on for their parents. My grandmother found a once-a-week choral group. That teacher found some potential in me, I suppose, and I started learning singing and piano. That was when I was five years old.
At nine, I played Little Cosette in an Osaka production of Les Misérables. That really opened my eyes to the professional world. You could say that I caught the bug.
What brought you to Britain?
Later, when I was sixteen, I met a director who loved the theater scene in London. He said that if you are really serious about this, you should go to London. No one in my family, or even at my high school, had lived abroad. But I did two terms of high school in Japan, and then told my teachers that I was leaving.
I first went to a boarding school in Sussex, then one in Kent. I didn’t speak any English then, though, and I’m not very academic. The first three months were tough. I remember being homesick and crying every night. Suddenly, I was in a dorm with two other girls and I didn’t understand what they were saying. There was no Internet or Skype back then. I called my parents and grandparents every day, collect. The phone bill for the first three months was over a thousand pounds!
When did you get involved in the stage arts, then? What about stage combat?
I was twenty when I started at the Guildford School of Acting, near London. I trained in musical theatre. At the end of the three years I got a pretty good agent and that started my career.
Stage combat is part of the curriculum in drama school. After I graduated, I decided that I wanted to carry on with it, and I was able to train as a stage combat teacher.
What do you teach students first? How do you maintain safety?
The basic technique is unarmed fighting. After work in this area, we move on to a single sword. To be a teacher you have to be able to teach different weapons.
The most important thing, of course, is to do it safely. It has to be 100 percent safe. I tell the actors that if it isn’t completely safe, it isn’t stage fighting.
The actors stand a little farther away from one another than in real fighting, but they stand in a way that conceals the distance from the audience. I tell actors that we are magicians using illusions. The fight has to be structured to create the maximum effect for the audience.
And the performers have to master the moves they are doing. They might do the same punch twenty times or more during the run of a play. So they have to have internalized exactly what they are doing.
Going beyond the basics, what’s the most unusual fight you have ever choreographed?
I’m not sure if you can print this, but I once had to choreograph a fight with rubber dildoes. [Laughs] Actually, though, anything you pick up could be what we call a “found weapon.”
Sometimes, the characters might be ordinary people just trying to fight. But choreographing these untutored moves can be tougher than an expert fight. An actor still needs to know how to fight properly before being able to fight like an amateur. You have to tell a story; when you throw a punch, you’ve got to think about how and why it’s being thrown.
As a woman, do people react to you differently when you teach combat?
I’m a small Japanese woman, just 155 centimeters tall, so when I walk into a room I have more to prove. But so far, I haven’t disappointed anyone, I hope. There are more female fight directors these days.
I’m an experienced student of Sanjuro. My teacher, Glenn Delikan, created this martial art around thirty years ago. It’s a mixed martial art, blending techniques from various other arts. Glenn’s ethos is that martial arts are for everyone. That has led to him training everyone from children to adults with severe difficulties, such as cerebral palsy or blindness. We also train with music—and it could be any music, from classical music to Britney Spears.
What more can you tell us about the craft of stage fighting?
I really enjoy teaching and performing for young people. In doing stage combat, they learn so many other things: working with a partner, building trust, having self-control. Teenagers spend so much time on their phones, but stage fighting means they need to keep eye contact—to have a real connection with another human being.
It’s discipline and trust that makes for really good stage combat. A good fight also relies on a good reaction from the person who is hit, because without that reaction, the audience isn’t going to know what happened. On stage, how the actors position themselves in order to hide the tricks becomes a really important part of the art.
And it’s definitely something to call an art. It can involve truly intricate motions and reactions—the most difficult form I’ve worked with is eighteenth-century small sword fighting. And there’s so much variety! Recently, I choreographed a theater piece in Leicester. The play was set in India and called The Pink Sari Revolution. I had to show how the women moved in the saris, and how repressed women would fight when all they had for weapons were sticks.
You’re a performer in your own right, not just a teacher.
Yes. Most of the theater jobs I have done have been for children. And I’ve worked on lots of TV too. In the theater in particular, if you do a good job you get an instant reaction from children. It makes me really happy when parents tell me that children enjoyed their first time at the theater. Adults are polite—even if the production is bad, they applaud politely at the end. Children, though, will just leave halfway through.
Pretty much my first job out of drama school was providing the voice of Noodle in the virtual pop band Gorillaz. From 2000 to 2002, we toured Britain, France, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and different parts of the United States. I had a real rock ’n’ roll lifestyle for a while. [Laughs]
For the first album, Noodle only spoke in an Osaka accent. In my first voice class at the Guildford School of Acting, I was told that unless I spoke in RP, the standard English spoken in the south of England, I’d never get work in the UK market. Ironically, though, for the first six to eight years of my career I was asked to speak in Japanese, or to speak with an accent.
I hear you hold several Guinness World Records.
I do! Together with Mr. Cherry, the other half of the Japan team on the CBBC program Officially Amazing, I hold four Guinness World Records. One of our challenges was to eat the most jelly from a teaspoon held by a foot in one minute. Another was the most wet sponges caught with a face in one minute. So I have to admit my career has seen plenty of variety. [Laughs]
(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Kuroda instructs a student in a dramatic combat workshop. All photos © Tony McNicol.)