NINJA VS. PIRATES: Martial Arts COSPLAY to the Max
By Dr. Craig Reid
The cosplay (short for "costume play") phenomenon has extended beyond the Japanese subculture of kids who dress up like manga, anime, tokusatsu and video game characters, to where actuaries embrace their virtual alter egos, spread their wings, and don the costumes that afford them a sense of illicit and enigmatic adventure, where no one is who they were, and who they are is springs from their own imaginations.
There's a group of savvy Southern Californian martial artists who have taken this evolved virtual reality to corporeal reality in the form of a novel stage play that not only entertains audiences of all ages, but uses talent of all ages. Born of the innocent passion for kung fu that flowers in today's budding martial artists, the play these kids perform is something that thousands of people in the martial arts entertainment industry have no acquaintance with something performed just for fun.
While talking to the show's San Diego-based producer Jing Jing Evans, former darling of the wushu tournament circuit, Jing Jing shares why she made the jump from martial art demonstrations to demonstrative martial arts action on the stage. "It is just a lot of fun," she says. "A few years ago I helped start up Anime Expo, and they had this intermission show and I thought we could do a show for them. I thought about the previous wushu and tai chi performances we've done and recalled how just doing martial arts gets boring after 15 minutes, especially for audiences that have been sitting on their rear ends for two hours or standing in line for six. So it was decided to put martial arts to a cool story, make them laugh a bit, and enjoy and appreciate Chinese martial arts."
Thus was born their first 45-minute theatrical extravaganza PIRATES VS NINJA (PVN), which pitted sword-wielding, gun-toting and break-dance flipping pirates against shinobi ninjas skilled in a wide variety of martial arts and kung fu weapons, which was boldly featured at last year's Anime Expo and San Diego's Comic Con.
PVN is a collaborative effort between the JING Institute of Chinese Martial Arts & Culture of San Diego, South Coast Martial Arts (SCMA) in Costa Mesa, San Diego's Squids of Fury break dancing and acting troupe, Keith Cooke's Champion Martial Arts in LA, and Hollywood Dropout Productions. JING had been the main performance at Anime Expo Masquerade halftime since 2004 and logic allowed that they would be involved in future Expos, but they had to contend with several other groups for the right to perform at the 2007 Comic Con. PVN shivered their timbers.
One Sunday afternoon I found myself at SCMA, watching these young lads and lasses in a 4-hour dress rehearsal, preparing for their latest show while most people their age would be home watching TV, playing video games or hanging out doing nothing under the guise of doing something.
"What I love about this is bringing together a mix of schools and friends to create a family," Jing Jing enthusiastically explains. "Like Philip (Sahagun; pirate), we met at tournaments and I first saw him doing a very impressive bullwhip demo at the Disney Martial Arts Tournament in 2006. He asked if he could come to our studio and buy wushu silks for his sister (Nicole; pirate) and when that happened I made sure all our kids who are wushu performers were at the studio so when Philip and Nicole came, they could "play" together. Thus began the friendship between the JING institute and SCMA."
War erupts between the ninjas and pirates when the leaders of their respective clans are out hunting a "vicious killer" bear, and each claims to be the victor. Thus begins an epic battle that features elements from STAR WARS, ONG BAK, 300, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN and MATRIX. They even have an old-style wu xia sequence where warriors use their minds to move objects and people across the stage, which is done in a very entertaining and comical fashion; people dressed in solid black become invisible shadows on stage that can make things "magically" fly around stage without the audience noticing it. It is a stage technique used in Japanese Noh and Shakespearean theatre.
With performers as young as 14, at age 27, Jing Jing is the matriarch. When asked the goals of doing a show like this, she reflects, "There are no outside goals, but rather they are inside. My husband asks me every time this happens why do you do this, you wake up early, go to bed late, it is not necessary and it doesn't bring a cent into the studio. I really love working with the people and creating this show. This thing came from nothing, has grown, and to see everyone together, well that just makes me happy.
"Kung fu, wushu, are the most wonderful things. They're good for the body, you can meet amazing people and it's a great art. I also love doing do tai chi, and love the feeling I get when I practice and finally realize and understand something new. I love to watch it, because it's one of the most amazing things a human body can do, the choreography, artistry and creativity in it. Yet with all these things, there is still the martial spirit, it is strong and that grips me more than dance."
Head of the ninjas, director, and co-writer of the show, Ernesto Matamoros, began practicing martial arts at age three in Spain, as his mom thought it would be a great outlet for his hyperactive behavior. Matamoros developed a profound love for the arts from learning tae kwon do, boxing, judo, and Muay Thai. He now practices wushu at JING's. Although he took part in the stage show because of Jing Jing and for the pursuit of fun, Matamoros' involvement in the martial arts runs deeper.
"As I got older and started to take martial arts more seriously, they became a way to express myself and my creativity," Matamoros says. "I feel that there are a very few ways that people can see what they're really about. For me, martial arts is one of those things that can show somebody what you're about inside.
"It took me a long time to learn to be myself and it is important to express yourself as who you are as compared to what other people want you to be, because when you look back at the end of your life and say what was the meaning of life, if you look back and say, now, I spent my whole life being someone else that I didn't want to be,' that's not right. You must be who you want to be. I'm in that place right now trying to figure out who I'm supposed to be as opposed to who people want me to be.
"What I do know now is that I find it a blessing to be doing what we're doing today and that we're able to accomplish it the way we set out to do it."
The show's other writer, Wilder Herms, echoes, "It's really great to be a part of this and I'm glad to have the opportunity to be involved. What I get out of martial arts is that it makes me physically better. Emotionally, you go through a lot in order to be able to continue doing martial arts, and to keep going when you're hurt and tired. This builds confidence and gives me a sense of calm, which is hard to find in LA."
Gio Espinuvea, 14, the youngest of the troupe, simply says, "My uncle wanted me to have more hobbies because I never had any, so he introduced me to wushu and I fell in love with it. I'm just in junior high school, but I do like the discipline that martial arts is teaching me and it's also good for my health."
Two of the troupe's featured and highly-skilled wushu artists, Philip Sahagun and Wesley Gonzales, also happened to be two contenders on Jackie Chan's DISCIPLE television reality series. Sahagun was close to making the final cut and that says tons about this young man when you consider he is not Asian, which was one of the main prerequisites of the show.
Sahagun began training in martial arts at age five with his father, Joaquin Sahagun, after the family opened the SCMA School in 1993. When I ask Philip what he learned from his father, he respectfully says, "First of all, he taught me how to defend myself (slight snicker), then second he taught me how to understand what it meant to grow up, to be something and to do it well. If you want to be good, then try to be the best, and start pushing forward to develop your character as a human being. It's the same spirit he had when he was younger. He passed that on to me, and I hope that I can pass that on.
"You can look at martial arts two ways, the western way as a sport or the eastern way as a way of philosophy and well being in life. If you want to practice martial arts and be good at it, try to gain an understanding and appreciation for what you're doing, then you have to look inside yourself and find if you have that dedication to make it a lifestyle. Every day I wake up and live in my school, and that's my life. I wake up and practice 6-8 hours a day. With that kind of training people look at me and say that's ridiculous and say I have no life. But I say this is my life and I'm happy doing it."
Younger sister Nicole, 17, who also began training at age five, adds, "Martial arts keeps me in good shape and keeps me disciplined. It's our family business, there are good people here, and I am here everyday training to be better."
Of note, the SCMA School has created the Walking Tall Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth (ages 5-16) by providing full and partial scholarships for martial arts training to those who can't afford it.
Emily Hsu, the Sakura ninja character, who also trains at JING's, offers a different reason for getting involved in martial arts, specifically wushu. "Apart from the exercise and the peace of mind I get when I do forms and think about my motions, which removes stress from my life," she says, "practicing martial arts puts me in touch with my culture and gives me my identity as a Chinese, and helps me connect with my family. I can morph myself into both cultures, I don't consider myself just American or just Chinese, but Chinese American. As you have heard, doing this show is just so much fun and if there are any young girls out there wanting to learn wushu, it takes time and dedication. It's not like a bicycle, you can't go off, then come back on and pick up where you left off. You have to be willing to make the commitment, but in the end everything is worth it and you can only know that feeling if you do it."
Other young participants I briefly spoke to all echoed that the show was fun to do and martial arts was a tool for flexibility, discipline and better health. Keep your eyes open for future appearances by monitoring www.sdtaichi.com.
Some of you may have read about last month's Shaolin Temple of Zen exhibition at Otis College of Art and Design, which featured the phenomenal photographs of Justin Guariglia who documented the private warrior monks of the Shaolin Temple in Henan province in China. During that event, Gene Ching (associate publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi), Justin and I were part of a panel discussion about Shaolin. I was sad and disappointed to learn that near the Shaolin Temple, there are over 60 kung fu schools and that kids from opposing schools occasionally brawl with each other in the streets to vie for superiority and to attract foreign students.
Perhaps, although the young lads and lasses of NINJA VS PIRATES are doing a cosplay, for them the ultimate purpose is to spread the brotherhood among different styles of martial arts, proving that with dialogue and fun there can be a unity among schools. Hopefully over time the bickering and subplots behind schools and differing styles can find unity and peace. Although pirates and ninja may indeed be enemies, these different martial arts schools are friends, and shouldn't that be one of the main goals of practicing martial arts too? If these kids can continue to grow together the way they already are as individuals and martial artists, then the outlook for the world of martial arts remains rosy.