Koh-Ichi Kashiwaya is a professional Aikido Instructor, 8th-degree black belt. He was born in Yamagata, Japan. He moved to the US in 1977 to teach Aikido in the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Thailand, and the Philippines.
This is his very first feature film. He has written, produced and directed this film.
Hello Koh-Ichi san, welcome to Focus. Looking for Ai is very inspiring. What prompted you to write this story?
Thank you! Well, there are some good Japanese Martial arts films, personally, I like Samurai
films like Akira Kurosawa’s. However, I have not seen films that represent our Aikido well. Most of them are portraying too much fighting for the sake of fighting. Aikido is not really a tool for fighting, so I decided to make one so that I can watch it comfortably as an Aikido instructor.
You’ve been an Aikido instructor for a large part of your life. What does the game mean to you? It’d be great if you could tell us something about Aikido.
Yes, I have been practicing and teaching Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (Aikido with mind/body
coordination, or Ki-Aikido in English) for over 50 years now. Ki-Aikido is not just self-defense or combative skill, for us, it’s self-development to be a better human being. Ki-Aikido can change the way you see the world. It is a part of my life, and it will continue.
In the movie, we see the main character is slowly embracing her true potential. How was your experience of writing such an amazing character?
You can imagine how hard it was to write a script since I have never done that before, so I decided to write a story based on my own experience such as: Going to another country but was not able to speak the language well, and encountering new people, new culture. By overcoming some difficulties, gradually I started to figure out what it means to be in another country, and make my life keep going.
I put those experiences toward the plotline. I also divided myself into 4 characters, Ai, Jim, Rose, and Gorge. I can say the main character, Ai, was developed by me knowing Japanese actress Izumi Sano. Since I had a chance to see a few of her stage performances as well as
knowing her for several years in person, I wrote Ai’s character according to my observation of what she is capable of. Since she didn’t speak English at that time, I wrote the script in both
English and Japanese for her. On the other hand, she had to memorize all lines in English and also she experienced cultural differences in a new country like the fictional character during
filming. I think she did an excellent job articulating her role. I am really grateful to her, not only as a professional actress but also for her genuine personality.
How was your experience of making a film? How different is the movie world from your world of Aikido?
We filmed mainly in Colorado. I thought the grand scale of the Rocky Mountains fit this story very well plus I have many Aikido students there, so they helped my filmmaking as well.
Adjusting the cast schedule was the hardest part of the production since all the main characters were from Japan, Washington state, New Mexico, and Missouri. We only had 3 days for their schedule to match, so I had to figure out their scenes like a game of puzzle. I can say I had the first-time film-making syndrome for sure and enjoyed it very much. (laugh)
I think fundamentally there is no difference between Aikido training and film making, it’s about a human relationship. I only see the main difference is the technical aspect. I just applied the teaching in Aikido to my filmmaking. As you know independent films like this have to be very flexible toward all kinds of obstacles that may occur. It’s hard work, but well worth it.
You said earlier that it took nearly three long years to finish the project. I am sure there have been trying times. How did you come out of those? What kept you going?
Yes, it took me about 3 years to finish this film project. First I tried to produce my film with a Japanese cast and stuff in Japan, but it didn’t work out at that time, so I had to start it all over
again. I decided to move my film project to the US where I live and hired Izumi Sano to play the main character, so I had to re-write my script accordingly. In addition, the director who I hired had to quit in the middle of pre-production due to her health issues, so I took over the director’s position. Since I had to learn quickly about directing a film, I thought I might not be able to make my film anymore at that time. I had to keep convincing myself that I am the only one in the world who can make this film, over and over again. (laugh) After we filmed most parts in Colorado, the COVID-19 hit in the US, so I couldn’t finish filming for a while. On the other hand, I was taking this positively because I could spend more time on editing. (laugh)
Of course, I had my family, friends, and Aikido students, all supporting me. If not for them, I would not be able to go through all those.
Your movie also has multiple action sequences. Why did you pick up this genre? Tell us how you planned the scenes?
It’s the nature of the story which is based on Aikido teaching, it must have some action sequences. Actually, we filmed more action sequences with my Aikido students but I had to edit some out. I thought it’s better to focus on the story of Ai. Making action scenes, especially the Aikido action scenes, was relatively easy for me since I am doing it professionally but the
challenging part was how to fit it into the story. Because I want my first film to not be too serious looking at martial arts, I made some action sequences to be a light comedy so that a wide audience can enjoy it.
The movie is based on true events. Are there any other stories you wish to tell?
Yes, my plan is to write three stories Ai, Ki, and Do. The first one was Ai, so Ki and Do will
Koh-Ichi san, Aikido is not only a game but also a way of life. And throughout your narrative, you have tried to show us that. It was very insightful. I’d love to know how you began with Aikido?
Thank you for talking about Aikido. I really appreciated it. I started Aikido with the Rissho
University Aikido club in Tokyo. I did not know much about Aikido at that time but I wanted to train in Japanese martial arts. First, I was recruited by the Kendo club but went to the wrong
room for an introduction. It was the Aikido club room and I liked the atmosphere. You know all College martial arts clubs back then were very aggressive, but Aikido people seemed all gentlemen. Well, I found out later that I was wrong about it. (laugh)
During my senior year in the University, I met Koichi Tohei sensei who was 10th dan, the highest-ranking Aikido Instructor at Aiki Kai Honbu (the world Aikido HQ). I felt something very right about doing Aikido by his teaching. Later, Tohei sensei started his own Aikido called Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (Ki-Aikido) and I became his Uchideshi, inner disciple, to polish as a professional Aikido Instructor. After I graduated from the Uchideshi training, I immigrated to the US to teach Ki-Aikido in 1977, which seems a long time ago but it went through as fast as the speed of allow. Yes, as people say, time goes fast when you have a great time!