Think of the word “spy” and try to conjure up an image. Is it one of the many iterations of James Bond? Or perhaps some cartoonishly shady Soviets from Cold War-era flicks? It probably doesn’t involve an Asian face. But director Na Hyeon’s recent film Yaksha: Ruthless Operations aims to change that image with a cool spy movie set in Shenyang, China where South Korean, North Korean and Japanese secret agents carry out their precarious undercover operations, chased, occasionally, by Chinese police. It’s all there: the suits, the guns, the luxury hotels, the hackers, all wrapped up in a well-executed multilingual two-hour story. 

The South Korean movie is exclusively distributed by Netflix. It premiered directly on the streaming platform on April 8, 2022. TW sat down with Japanese actor Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, who plays a major role as Ozawa (nicknamed D7) in the film, to talk about spies, martial arts and making movies. 

Photo courtesy of Netflix, Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

Photo courtesy of Netflix, Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

Acting Beyond Borders

An avid traveler, Ikeuchi has always welcomed international projects. The actor thrives both in Japan and beyond its borders, having worked with big names such as Takashi Miike at home and Jackie Chan in Hong Kong. In fact, since Ip Man, his first international production film in 2008 in China, Ikeuchi has gone on to film several times outside of his homeland. 

Shooting Yaksha, however, was only his second experience on a movie set in South Korea, and it was one he clearly enjoyed. Yaksha was shot mostly in South Korea and partially in Taiwan, with Ikeuchi filming scenes in both locations. 

“It was a big effort,” he tells us. “But filming days were usually wrapped up in roughly 12 hours, which is not a lot compared to how much longer filming can sometimes go on in Japan.”

While on set, Ikeuchi marveled at the South Korean hospitality and gastronomy. 

“It’s honestly impossible to pick a favorite dish, I just loved all their food,” says Ikeuchi. 

Photo courtesy of Netflix, Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

Photo courtesy of Netflix, Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

Spies Are Polyglots

The actor also picked up some Korean while there and he does speak it briefly on screen. But mainly, he practiced with speech coaches to work on his Chinese and English. He has many lines in both languages in Yaksha — in addition to Japanese, of course. 

“Honestly, English was more difficult for me than Chinese,” Ikeuchi admits. His professional experience in China in the last decade may have helped in that regard. 

The whole film is a multilingual spy tangle, with South Korean speakers able to discern the North Korean dialect at one point. Ikeuchi praised the Japanese spoken by fellow actors Park Hae-soo (playing the protagonist Ji-hoon, the prosecutor caught up in the fray) and Sol Kyung-gu (playing the titular Yaksha, a ruthless Black Ops leader nicknamed after a human-eating demon). Park, of Squid Game fame, has also said in interviews that practicing Japanese was a challenge.

Despite Ikeuchi being critical of his own English, he delivers his lines convincingly, as any foreign speaker is expected to have a bit of an accent. The half-Japanese actor (his mother is Salvadorian), who used to obsess over being as Japanese as possible in his youth in a small-town in Ibaraki Prefecture, has come a long way to become his cosmopolitan actor self.

Photo courtesy of Netflix, Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

Photo courtesy of Netflix, Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

In the Calm of the Storm 

The black belt judoka is no stranger to action movies. For Ip Man, the movie about Bruce Lee’s teacher, Ikeuchi trained with Sammo Hung, who has experience as a fight choreographer for legendary actors like Jackie Chan. Surprisingly, however, in Yaksha, Ikeuchi plays a more reserved character. A classic spy movie antagonist, he moves carefully, plots behind the scenes and calculates every move in advance. He barely breaks a sweat, save for the fight at the denouement. 

Although expected to use more of his martial art skills, Ikeuchi proves he can play different character types. He has also starred in a few comedies in Japan. He tells us he’d love to do more of those, despite comedy bringing its own challenges. After all, humor is often cultural and notoriously difficult to translate. The sparse comedic moments in Yaksha, for instance, rely on shared global knowledge. Yaksha comments that “this is not James Bond” and his teasing nickname for Ji-hoon is Nike, referencing an old classmate’s pure white shoes that he intentionally sullied. 

“I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to watch it after this,” Ikeuchi admits. “But everyone should watch it as there aren’t many Asian spy movies out there.” 

We can certainly hope, just like the episodic nature of James Bond films, that we’ll see more of Yaksha, Nike and friends in action in the near future.