Born in Los Angeles, California, Yuji Okumoto was both an athlete and actor from early on. By participating in sports (baseball, basketball, martial arts) and enrolling in theater classes, he eventually found a home in the world of movie making.Â Yuji’s credits span a wide variety of roles, from the comedic “Better off Dead” to the powerful “Only the Brave“.
These days, Yuji has developed his career into a mix of acting, directing, and entrepreneurship. Making waves with his new online series, Katana, Yuji is undertaking new mediums of entertainment while acting as both co-star and director. Meanwhile, he is running his own restaurant in the Seattle area called Kona Kitchen.
We know Yuji has tackled both the restaurant and movie worlds…but can he survive my hard hitting interview style? Let’s find out –
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MA: Thanks for participating in some Q&A Yuji. Big fan here. For those who don’t know, your new show Katana is actually being aired on Strike.TV, an online hub who’s slogan is “Hollywood Unplugged”. How did you first get involved with them?
Yuji: I walked into my agent’s office one day and mentioned I had shot an internet short. My agent took a look at it and immediately contacted the head of the agency and informed him of the project. I didn’t know this at the time, but the head of the agency was one of the principal partners responsible for spearheading Strike TV. He called me right away and wanted to sign a contract for Katana. This business sure requires a lot of luck and timing.
MA: What inspired you to create the original short, and ultimately the show now being produced?
Yuji: I wrote Katana because it was a project that gave me the opportunity to work with a talented group of actors, stuntmen, and crew. We all know that as an actor, unless you’re calling the shots, you’re basically a hired gun. You do your job and you’re done. With Katana, my objective is to keep our core group together and build an ensemble of talent, much like you have in Repertory Theater. You work toward a common goal and leave your egos off the set.
MA: Have you always been interested in the martial arts? What sparked your enthusiasm (personal training, movie influences, etc)?
Yuji: My interest in martial arts started when I was 13 years old. I was not very big as a kid so I decided that in order to defend myself, I had to study some sort of self defense. On top of which, I was a big fan of the old school karate/kung fu movies of the seventies. My first experience in the arts was Chito-ryu karate. My Sensei was Yukinori Kugimiya. During my senior year in high school I took some time off from karate to focus on my school work. Upon graduating, I took up Shotokan and Judo at a Junior College. Sensei Hayward Nishioka was my instructor. I was also studying acting and dance at the time.
Later I transferred to CSU Fullerton where I majored in communications. It was there that I realized that I wanted to be an actor. I began studying acting full time and worked hard on improving my martial arts. You know, being Asian there’s always that stereotype that we all know how to fight. I figured I wanted to work as an actor so why not. I studied Kajukembo with Sensei Ron Takaragawa. He taught out of his home…in his living room of all places. We’d move some of his furniture out of the way but we still kept breaking things. Pretty soon his wife said, enough and kicked us out of the house. Go figure. We ended up training in his backyard. I had a lot of great memories. I’m sure the Sensei’s wife didn’t.
Later I studied Yau Kung Moon, a southern style gung fu. My sifu, Kevin Quock also taught out of his house. Not inside, but in his front yard.
MA: What were some of the early hurdles to get a show like Katana off the ground? I imagine this was fairly new territory since the show is entirely online.
Yuji: The biggest hurdle to get Katana off the ground was scheduling. Since we were using guys from L.A. we had to make sure they didn’t have another job that conflicted with our shoot. We also knew we only had the guys for a few days so we had to make the most of our time. It was a little stressful, but I knew we could get it done especially with those old pros. Did I say old, I meant experienced.
The second biggest hurdle was losing our monitor before we started shooting. Someone tripped on the cable on the set and ripped the cord out of the camera jack. The DP had to shoot the entire show using just his viewfinder. That was not fun, but you have to keep going.
MA: What are the benefits of having a smaller production and doing things online as opposed to the full-out Hollywood productions you’ve been involved with?
Yuji: The benefit is you don’t have someone telling you what you can or cannot do. Well, unless of course you’re Spielberg.
MA: You seem to have secured a very good cast headed up by yourself and John Koyama. Did you and John have a pre-existing relationship, or did you actually have to steal his daughter to get him involved (which would consequently make Katana a documentary)?
Yuji: Johnny and I have known each other since the early 90’s. And yes, I had to kidnap one of his kids. I’m kidding, of course. I had emailed Johnny the script, he liked it and he came on board. With him came the rest of the guys, Al Goto, Sam Looc and Don Tai. [Richard Cranor’s blog can be found here.]
MA: You played the classic character Chozen in Karate Kid II. Your character Kenji is also a sarcastic, ruthless villain. Is there anything in particular that draws you to this kind of character? Do you find it more fun?
Yuji: I definitely enjoy playing villains. Probably the biggest reason is that you have fewer boundaries. You can get away with doing things that would normally get you arrested.
MA: You’ve been involved with a bunch of great movies (Pearl Harbor, Only the Brave, etc.), but I was hoping you would reminisce about Karate Kid II a bit for us martial artists. Not everyone knows this, but Karate Kid II was actually filmed in Oahu, Hawaii as opposed to Okinawa itself. Was it difficult filming in Oahu yet trying to capture an authentic Okinawan essence?
Yuji: Well, for the people familiar with Oahu, there’s a shot of Chinaman’s Hat in the background. The Hat is such a huge landmark in Hawaii that all the local people who saw the movie knew right away that it wasn’t Okinawa. The fictitious Tomi Village was built on the Windward side of Oahu at the cost of nearly one million dollars. Which, at the time was a lot of money. It was a shame that most of the village had to be destroyed for the final hurricane scene.
One of the main reasons for shooting in Hawaii was that the producer didn’t want to travel all the way to Okinawa. It was a long trip and I think he preferred staying in Hawaii. I wasn’t about to argue.
MA: Are there any particular moments from the movie that stand out to you as special?
Yuji: The most memorable part of Karate Kid was probably getting the job. I remember when I got the audition the casting director told me that they were looking for someone under 6 feet tall. So the day I went in to meet the Producer and Director I made sure to slouch a little. It’s kinda comical thinking back on that.
MA: Did you receive any special karate training to prepare you for this role (as Chozen)? Were there any karate experts on hand during filming?
Yuji: The stunt and fight choreographer was Pat Johnson who had worked on the first Karate Kid. I worked out with him a week before we started shooting and I also spent time working out with Sensei Fumio Demura.
MA: Were you surprised/taken off guard by the cultural impact the movie had?
Yuji: I had no idea the film would be that big. I knew the first one had done really well, but none of us really knew how the sequel was going to be received. After the film was released, I can’t tell you how many kids came up to me and told me they had started taking martial arts because of the movie. One fan even came up to me and said his kid wanted to grow up and be just like me. Let’s hope it wasn’t because I was the bad guy.
MA: Did they let you keep that killer yellow and black vest gi?
Yuji: I wish I had kept it. It would have been hanging on my wall in a frame somewhere in my restaurant.
MA: Yuji, thanks so much for fielding some questions and giving us insight into the Hollywood aspects of martial arts and movies. Keep up the great work.
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As you know Suino Sensei was kind enough to sit down with me not too long ago to discuss budo and swordsmanship. I’m happy to report that I have another special post on the way.
Is it another interview? Is it a guest writer? Is it a shocking reveal about the end of LOST?
Stay tuned to find out.
In the meantime, don’t miss the adventures going on over at Oldman’s Boobishi – I’ve gotten into some hot soup, along with BBM and Colin Wee because of a very troublesome poodle. (start at the bottom here then work your way to newer posts).
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Once protected by a handful of experts, karate and the kata within are now “owned” by millions of people across the globe. Through this diversity and the advent of technologies such as YouTube, we can see more variations on traditional kata than ever before.
Despite our many different backgrounds and lifestyles, kata is still kata. The core concepts that made it work for the Okinawans are the same concepts that can make it work for us. But now more than ever we have to consider the purpose of our kata training and understand how kata beauty, application, and perfection intertwine.
**In this post I’m going to be showing different practitioners performing the same kata – Kusanku. The slight stylistic differences are unimportant. Furthermore, they are all very good martial artists. The comparisons drawn between them are for personal contemplation on how we each perform our own kata.**
Beautiful kata is a desirable thing. Sharp technique, clean transitions, and picturesque stances make for a wonderful display of martial arts prowess.
Consider, for example, our first video:
This young lady has obviously put in good training time with knowledgeable Sensei. She should be commended for her poise during such a stressful event. However, it’s quite clear that her technique is focused on kata beauty. Her kicks are extremely athletic, but not aimed at anything in particular (except perhaps Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s head). If she were to consider application (aka street tactics) she would likely want to lower those kicks dramatically.
Furthermore, her spear hand techniques are aimed toward the midsection. In reality she would want to contemplate the amount of hand conditioning needed to make that effective. Also her deep stances would lock her into each technique completely, minimizing the potential to run away quickly or disengage toward a new opponent.
She performs a beautiful kata with many fantastic snapshot moments, and if it has helped her win trophies, all the better. But there is a problem – beauty can be ensnaring. Like the story of young Narcissus who was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection, beautiful kata can cause us to become locked and unwilling to change.
Imagine having to alter the very techniques that have brought you praise and reward in exchange for something that looks far less impressive. What if you’ve become “known” for those impressive techniques? Could you give it up in pursuit of what kata truly aims to teach? Would you try to put your ineffective techniques in one pocket while keeping your real techniques in another? It’s a slippery slope.
Another example to consider:
“Change is the way of the world”, as George Alexander Sensei said, and kata modification is part of that. I can’t say if this practitioner modified the kata on his own or if his Sensei did, but it’s important to consider the purpose of those changes, including adding very high kicks.
In striking techniques, especially at the end of a series, it is generally a karate ideal to imbue the strike with the power to break, incapacitate, or kill. I wonder if this karateka’s palm heel strike up front had the power to break floating ribs or cause internal organ damage. Again, I wouldn’t presume to know this man’s intentions, nor do I think his kata is less than exceptional. But we must examine ourselves in this way, otherwise we might get trapped staring at our own reflections as they glint off of shiny trophy plastic.
Application During Kata Performance
Application during kata can be a tough pill to swallow because it forces us to question ourselves. Every technique in kata is designed to off-balance, damage, or otherwise negatively impact our opponents in a way that would deter them from continuing their aggression. That means with every block and every punch there needs to be consideration for breath, hip movement, weight shifting, and kime (focus) on the end of the technique. Ignoring these things for weak quick-hand techniques or multi-snap kicks can lead to bad habits which manifest themselves poorly when dealing with an enraged attacker who wants nothing more than to punch your face in.
Consider this version of Kusanku:
Every block and punch in this video is designed to do damage. The kata is unhurried yet quick. The practitioner transitions smoothly and doesn’t loiter too long on any particular technique. The movement is balanced and the koshi (hips) power each motion. To me, this individual is training with application in mind.
Of course, depending on your perspective, this kata is not better than the previous two, nor do I think it would place better at most competitions…yet it contains a subtly different kind of beauty.
Here is another example:
This is a practitioner from a different style, but aren’t the similarities stunning? Pacing, power, and focus are all present on every technique. The karateka here seems like someone who could use their kata for self defense, rather than for athletics and demonstration.
Once again, was this the BEST performance? No – it was unique amongst a series of unique kata. It’s just a matter of differing martial paths.
The Timeless Pursuit of Kata Perfection
Kata perfection should never be confused for kata drama. Excessively loud Kiai and Soap-Opera-Style glares are all part of drama. Although they make the practitioner seem like they are “in the zone”, ultimately it is just another layer of performance. While a performer is busy focusing on how ‘killer’ they look, they should be focusing on moving toward their next opponent or escaping danger.
Kata perfection is the stripping away of the untruthful. When a kata begins to reflect the real nature of the practitioner (and not what they think a martial artist should look like), it begins to chase perfection. I say ‘chase’ because, like most worthwhile endeavors, perfection can never really be obtained.
If we strip away kata drama and pomp…how can there be kata beauty? In the classical sense, kata beauty is far less obvious than one might think. Born from the grit of combat and the integration of proper technique into naturalness, kata beauty is rarely “textbook”, nor is it predictable. Most often created by a combination of application, visualization, and the pursuit of perfect technique, classically beautiful kata takes on the persona of Ichi-Go Ichi-e: one encounter, one opportunity.
As a final thought, I’d like to leave you with one more Kusanku. Certainly this is the least impressive of the bunch…right?
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