Another round of Naga Sakes?
Fuck Pat Morita. Between Karate Kid and his tragic turn on Happy Days as the resident “Counter Nip”, he did more damage to the image of the proud Japanese people than most of the guards leading the Bataan Death March.
If you really want to embrace…and savor….the most badass professional in Hollywood’s soiled yellow trunk of East Asians, you have no further to look than Mako.
What couldn’t this guy do? No – this isn’t going to be some flippant piece about a guy and a few good movies. I intend to introduce you to THE MAN. Why? Because Mako was more than the sum of his (more than) 150 roles. He wasn’t just some convenient caricature for Hollywood to call on whenever they needed “chink cool”. He was a gentleman. Proud. Distinguished. And imminently talented.
He kicked the ass of the Sleeping Giant.
Makoto Iwamatsu was born in 1933 in Kobe, Japan. His father was a famous children’s book author and illustrator…his mother an occasional substitute teacher and homemaker. In the short months before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, young Mako was living with his grandparents while his parents studied art in the United States. While too young to fully understand the true impact of the conflict, Mako acknowledged (later in life) that the radio stories of “Japanese heroism” made him fear for his parents’ safety….while the rumors of the Japanese soldiers’ barbarism and savagery in China and the Philippines manifested a deep distrust in him for the imperial ambitions of the Rising Sun. At the conclusion of the war, he was sent to live with his parents in New York (they had been granted US residency due to his father’s notoriety). So moved was he by the generosity of the country who had once fought his own, Mako joined the United Stated Army in 1952. A noble gesture by any means…but even more deeply felt when one learns that Mako didn’t even become a naturalized citizen until 1956. This was a man who was willing to defend the nation he loved and admired…when they didn’t even yet call him their own.
It was in the Army that Mako found his natural gift for acting. His striking looks, graveled baritone voice and affable charisma made him the perfect cast member for the Army’s drama program (then run by the USO). Upon completion of his military service, he joined the Pasadena Community Playhouse (where he honed his skills)…and also realized the great adversity that Asian actors faced in the 50’s and 60’s – their roles were merely supporting in nature (at best); and were often (almost entirely) comical buffoons that paraded the hurtful stereotypes of the day.
I did it...WITH MY SPEAR!
He appeared in his first film in 1959 – a forgettable bit of Sinatra-starring propaganda known as ‘Never So Few’ (a farcical tale about soldiers fighting the Japanese in Burma during World War 2). In fact, the film’s sole redeeming quality was a young actor by the name of Steve McQueen (who became close friends with Mako during the filming).
By 1965, Mako had grown disenfranchised with the quality of roles available to him. Every studio he met with wanted the same thing – “a Chinese cook”, “an evil Jap soldier”, “an opium den sage” etc. There were simply no roles of substance available; Hollywood catered strictly to a White crowd; and minorities were considered box office kryptonite. But out of his frustrations, Mako took an action thought to be taboo for that day: he and six others formed the East West Players (an Asian theater group based in LA that is still very active today). This theater troupe has trained some of the brightest Asian stars ever to grace the silver screens of Hollywood…and their educational programs remain a proud testament to Mako’s unbelievable cool.
But not even “white bread” Hollywood could ignore this man’s great work. In 1966, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Sand Pebbles (a feat very few Asians have ever matched…acting Oscar nominations for Asians have been scant at best). He then went on to act in (and even star) in over 150 movies and television shows. M.A.S.H., The Incredible Hulk, The Killer Elite, Highlander 3, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pearl Harbor, Seven Years in Tibet, Rising Sun, The Hawaiians and of course, the Conan films. This man had a career that spanned decades…and gave us some of the most memorable roles of those times. Few Asian actors have ever been as memorable or as beloved.
The Man of 1,000 Young
And, during these great years, he met the woman he would marry: actress and director Shizuko Hoshi (with whom he had two daughters). She went on to win an Oscar for her direction of an animated short…and to this day, remains an active directing advisor to the East West Players.
I smell a dirty rat!
But as for the films….My hero worship (ok, let’s call it what it is – a love affair) with Mako began in 1982. I was 11…and my dad (probably not wisely) agreed to take me to see Conan the Barbarian. Sure, it was R…and it had the blood, guts and tits to back up the rating – but the film was a masterpiece. I was moved. That, Jaws and Alien (which I’d seen a couple years prior) made a huge impression on me…and turned me into the rabid cinemaphile I am today. I could go on forever about what makes Conan so great (the somber reflective tone, the stark barren sets, the eerie landscapes, and the musical score that still staggers me even today); but what made it truly special was the crazy wizard who narrated the tale. With a rusty voice that sounded both harsh and wise, Mako was chosen to not only play a large part in the story…but to also serve as the teller of the tale. And his voice gave every scene such a gravitas that Hollywood has (unsuccessfully) tried to repeat that narrative success in numerous other films.
And, even in his 70’s, as Mako struggled with esophageal cancer, he lent his legendary voice to ‘Splinter’ for the animated T.M.N.T. film (which was dedicated to him). His vast library of voice-over work remains a terrific tribute to his memory and skill.
A man of grace, dignity and bearing. You wonder why so many older Asian chaps are cast as ‘wise men’ or sages? He is a big part of that…his roles displayed a wit and humanity not often seen in other performances. Whether playing a mistrustful Pacific Islander, the weary CEO of a mega-corporation or a Japanese Admiral struggling with the ramifications of attacking the world’s most powerful country, Mako injected a sense of humility and thoughtfulness into his performances.
He is missed greatly.
Hollywood's Cock of Fame
10 Epic Examples of Why AIBN Has Yellow Fever:
1.) Conan the Barbarian: Brutal, reflective and unrelenting, it launched the career of Arnold ‘I likes me some Mexi-maids” Schwarzenegger and renewed interest in the lauded fantasy series.
2.) Seven Years In Tibet: The movie where Mako made Brad Pitt look like a fucking amateur. A fine film, indeed. But also a great example of the zen master’s immense talent.
3.) Rising Sun: A kick in the pants to watch…a movie that tries to dispel every myth about Japanese corporate ambitions in the United States – but only exceeds in exacerbating them (but it does give Wesley Snipes some excellent opportunities to break out with some nifty Tai Jitsu).
4.) Pacific Heights: Michael Keaton is such an outlandishly villainous freak in this movie that he manages to both shoot Matthew Modine as well as scare poor Mako right the hell out of the co-op. Scary scary stuff.
5.) The Killer Elite: Not even the grandiose cock-throbbing badassery of Robert Duvall and James Caan could subdue Japan’s finest export since Teriyaki sauce.
6.) The Sand Pebbles: C’mon. Do I even need to explain this one? He’s a 5’4 Jap that got nominated for an Oscar. I can’t begin to underline how fucking HARD that is to do.
7.) An Eye For An Eye: Chuck Norris and Mako were close associates for virtually all of Chuck’s adult life. Chuck cast him in pretty much EVERYTHING. I guess this calls for a predictable Chuck Norris joke: “Chuck is so tough, the only thing he fears is his own reflection…and Mako”.
8.) Testament: A horrific story about families living through the aftermath of a Nuclear War. My personal theory is it was Mako’s testicles erupting that caused the radioactive carnage….but that’s just a theory.
9.) T.M.N.T.: The most balls-out of the theatrical releases (if only because it’s so much easier to draw Ninja Turtles than stuff a bloated Corey Feldman into one). His voice, ravaged by cancer, still sounded proud and certain. A moving voice performance by any measure.
10.) Cages: Mako starred in this baby. Seriously. Check the poster. And besides, the guy got away with just a single name. How many people do that who aren’t epic (even if we hate them)? Oprah, Prince, Madonna, Cher, Sting, Bono, and Mako. That’s a righteous fucking crowd to be in.