Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa: Action Master

To see the tiger inside Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa just look at the kind of roles he has played. They’re confident, smart and powerful fighters, on more levels than the physical.

“Half the reason I’m in the acting business,” Tagawa told Goldsea, “is because I care about how Asians are perceived. The worst thing about stereotyping in the U.S. is that Asian males are shown as weak. That really burns me. What I see in Asia is that they are much stronger than Western men.” That’s why early in his career Tagawa turned down more roles than he accepted.

On the screen Tagawa oozes power, coolth and virility — precisely the traits American stereotypes have denied Asian men. In the context of the then prevailing social climate, Tagawa’s most memorable role was a slick, high-powered Japanese playboy-gangster named Eddie Sakamura in Rising Sun (1993), based on the Michael Crichton novel about the growing Japanese influence in America. It was in the days when some Americans feared that Japan would literally buy up the choicest parts of America. To that fear Tagawa’s character convincingly added the specter of Japanese men using white women as sex toys and sushi platters, raising an outcry from the some quarters of the Asian American community that the movie would fan the flames of racist anger.

Tagawa himself was far more sanguine about the impact the film would have on the American psyche. He saw the role as a “major turning point” in the way Hollywood presents Japanese, feeling that the book and film presented “an intelligent and objective view of what the Japanese believe.”

Tagawa’s first stereotype-buster was playing the only Asian member of a chicano gang in American Me (1992). His convincing tough-guy portrayals segued inevitably toward another old Hollywood stereotype — the diabolical Asian villain endowed with mystical martial arts prowess like the shape-shifting sorcerer Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat (1995) and the deadly pirate leader Kabai Singh in The Phantom (1996). In such roles Tagawa typically elevated each one of his action sequences by his commanding physical presence and emotional intensity. In fact, Tagawa has turned himself into a virtual trademark in the action and horror genres as the most convincing of potent antagonists.

In recent years Tagawa has earned notice and appreciation for his evocative and richly nuanced facial expressions in more mature productions like Pear Harbor (2001), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Hachiko: A Dog’s Story (2009).

Tagawa’s fierce readiness to defy expectations and conventions owe to an unusual background. His late father was a Japanese native of Hawaii who was serving in a U.S. Army counter-intelligence unit in Japan when he fell in love with a Japanese actress. She had taken the stage name Hata Mari because of her fascination with Mata Hari, the real-life German World War I spy. Hata Mari was from an aristocratic family. Her father Nakayama Motoharu was secretary of architecture in the Imperial government and her mother’s grandfather was a count. Over her family’s objections Hata Mari ran away from home to join the Takarazuka theater, an all-female review specializing in Western musicals. Hata Mari played the strong male roles.

Tagawa’s father was from a working class family. But as a soldier of the victorious American occupation forces, he treated his future brothers-in-law harshly on first meeting them. He never spoke of his war experiences to his son.

Cary was born in Japan on September 27, 1950. Years later in Duarte, California when Cary, a high school student, wanted to take the entrance exam for West Point, his strict, uncommunicative father exploded with anger and put a quick end to the boy’s infatuation with the military. Later Cary wound up protesting the war in Vietnam. (Later, his only militarist fantasy would be to play Genghis Khan. The closest he would come would be a supporting role in the Russian production By the Will of Genghis Khan (2009).)

“There’s something natural about the warrior-consciousness in my being,” Tagawa says. It was already there when that six-year-old boy watched the men going to their separate toilet facilities in North Carolina. “I felt that Blacks expressed subservience and fear,” he notes. “The Whites were arrogant and abnoxious. Although I didn’t relate to that completely, it seemed a better choice because the Japanese do have a superiority complex.”

Despite his pride at being Japanese, Cary was buffeted by feelings of loneliness and a strong sense of individualism whether he was one of the few Japanese boys growing up on southern U.S. Army bases or the American relative visiting his maternal grandparents in Japan.

After moving every two years to different southern army bases, the Tagawas went to Pasadena when Cary’s father retired. It was a mixed neighborhood with many Japanese Americans and a Japanese American community center. “In a way it created security to find a place where I could be accepted, but on the other hand, I found that kids who had all-Japanese friends tended to be followers. I didn’t find individuals like the kind that I thought myself to be. My best friend was Caucasian. My early years were influenced in my heart by being Japanese, but outwardly a lot of it was Caucasian. I was definitely raised in a White environment.”

Cary grew up constantly in search of a place where he could fit in. In Duarte he was the new kid in high school and one of only two Japanese kids. Tagawa became vice-president of the sophomore class and president of the junior class. He played King Arthur in Camelot and Plato the teen philosopher in Rebel Without a Cause. His mother, who used to take him to movies all the time, discouraged him from becoming an actor because she thought that Asian roles in America didn’t have substnace. Tagawa found encouragement from his drama teacher who told him to get experience with life in order to portray life.

While attending USC Tagawa participated in an exchange program that allowed him a year in Japan. That was followed by intense involvement in the anti-war movement. In the late 60s he had started studying martisl arts and connecting with Japanese culture. Feeling that he was missing out by training only his body, Tagawa studies metaphysics and Native American views on nature and the social structure. He related Indian heroes like Geronimo to Japanese samurai and to the horsemen of Mongolia who also possessed a deep interest in nature and spiritualism. Tagawa ultimately developed his own synthesis of the physical and spiritual and called it Chuu-Shin. Literally, Tagawa explains, it means centered, to be inside the heart and mind.

For a few years after college Tagawa taught Chuu-Shin, worked out, did massage and became a Venice street performer. His long hair and Indian necklace became a familiar sight on the streets. Crowds gathered to watch him demonstrate exercises to the tune of New Age music. Tagawa was still leading that free-form life when in 1984 a friend introduced him to Sally Phillips, a San Diego artist who, at 5-11, was the first woman with whom he could relate eye-to-eye.

Sally talked Tagawa into joining her on a trip to Colorado to participate in a Ute celebration called Sundance. An earthly, unpretentious woman, Sally proved to be a good listener. For the first time, Tagawa felt free to confide his interest in acting. She encouraged him to commit himself to succeeding in that profession.

Her mother took an instant liking to Tagwa, but understandably, her father, a retired math teacher, was wary of “this long-haired guy off the boardwalk”. At the San Diego Yacht Club Tagawa tried to ignore all the glances he received. “I was more conscious ot it than Sally was,” Tagawa recalls. Whatever reservations Sally’s father may have had, they vanished when he saw how much Tagawa cared for Sally and the children.

Tagawa’s first acting break was as an extra in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). He fell in love with the whole process during the few minutes he got to stand in front of the camera. That was followed by a bit part in Armed Response starring David Carradine.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s casting staff was given Tagawa’s photo by a friend.

“They called me in for a reading,” Tagawa recalls. “I never read in my life and had nothing to lose. I overacted but the casting woman liked it.” With some discomfort he read the lines of a Japanese soldier. “All the Japanese parts were horrendous, horrible, showing the most negative aspects of the Japanese. I read through four different Japanese roles and each time I thought I blew it, but the part I finally got was the chief Chinese eunuch.”

That role would give Tagawa and his physical presence the attention needed to put his acting career on track. His next big break in Rising Sun owed more to Kaufman’s vision as to the original Crichton novel in which Eddie Sakamura character is a “druggy playboy, a fairly throwaway character”. Kaufman built Sakamura into the film’s fourth most important character, an ideal showcase for Tagawa’s tiger charisma.

Tagawa is now divorced from Sally with whom he had two sons. He currently lives in the Diamond Head area of Oahu with his girlfriend.

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Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa: Action Master

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