Kunoichi Productions: theater and culture collide

California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and the Otter Cross Cultural Center (OC3) hosted a virtual live presentation and discussion with Kunoichi Productions on Feb. 18 – part of the Writers from the Edge series – highlighting Japanese cinema and philosophy. 

Founders of the group include Japanese-born playwright and poet Ai Aida, actor, designer and co-writer Keiko Shimosato Carrerio and actor, director and singer Nick Ishimaru. The trio hoped to inspire audiences with comedy while infusing Western and Eastern theatrical elements. 

Humanities and Communication professor Kristen LaFollette led the discussion, asking questions on the origins of Kunoichi, the traditional story of Princess Kaguya and expectations in theater, such as gender norms. 

“As a company, Kunoichi Productions was officially founded last February in 2020,” Aida said. “But we have a history together, so it was more like, three friends, three theater makers and three like-minded people getting together and collaborating.”

Aida and Carrerio share similar passions: puppets and Japanese theater. Ishimaru, who has an extensive background in Japanese theater, joined forces with Aida and Carrerio on a 2019 Puppet Show put on by Aida, beginning the blossoming of a beautiful work relationship. Then fast forwarding to 2020, a PlayGround Innovator Incubator opportunity arose. PlayGround Innovator Incubator is a program that advances and launches theatrical companies. The group jumped at the opportunity with the program and Kunoichi broke ground.

Reflecting on childhood memories and experiences growing up, and how those influenced their approaches to storytelling, Carrerio found it hard to identify with both Japanese and American traditions, but learned to embrace each culture. Third-generation Japanese American Ishimaru was surprised to find out there was an English word for soy sauce and not every home contained rice cookers. He felt a disconnect from his native culture until he studied Japanese folklore and theater.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered more and more that I don’t really know the traditional Japanese stories,” Ishimaru said. “I grew up with American fairytales and Western European tales.”

Kunoichi Productions has created their own tale of Princess Kaguya. Throughout the event, interactive videos were shown from the theatrical play. Adapting to technological disadvantages and social distancing guidelines, filming over Zoom proved to be challenging, as actors’ lines would be overpowered by background music or noise. 

Despite the setbacks, Kunoichi discovered Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) and was able to move forward with recording and live streaming, enabling them to utilize advanced graphics and leaving the team with valuable lessons on improvising and accommodating script changes.

“When you are editing or rereading your script, if you are saying an action the audience can see, cut it,” Aida said. “You don’t need to have your character say things that have been seen by the audience.”

LaFollette asked a final question for guidance on how to stay creative during a pandemic. Carrerio suggested having a trusted group of advisors who you don’t feel afraid to share your work with, Ishimaru encouraged viewers to find a platform to express and promote their projects and Aida enforced the importance of a finishing date to stay motivated and inspire thoughtful, read worthy material. 

“Try to create something and try to find some kind of deadline,” Aida said. “Work with your friends, share your work and enjoy the process.”

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