Interview with Actor Yuji Okumoto From 'The Karate Kid Part II', 'Better Off Dead' & More

(This interview was originally published September 27, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Yuji Okumoto. He is probably best recognized as the bad guy in The Karate Kid Part II. He was also the hilarious guy who talked like Howard Cosell in Better Off Dead. Two awesome '80s roles! But he has gone on to work regularly with dozens of roles over the years in both movies and television. Find out a little about him, making those two films and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Yuji Okumoto...

Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? Did you ever have any formal acting training? When did you think that it had the potential to become a career for you?
Yuji: I started acting in 1979 at a place called East West Players. It is an Asian-American theater company based in Los Angeles. I began my career in theater and highly recommend it for young actors as a foundation. Over the years, I have studied with various acting coaches, mostly training in scene study workshops. My primary training was under the Milton Katselas organization at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. 
My belief on acting is that it is very difficult as a career choice. You act because you love the craft of acting. I believe if you go into acting for the money, you're going in for the wrong reason. It's an art form, which is so subjective; no one can predict what will be successful and what will fail.

Q: How did the role of "Yee Sook Ree" in 1985's Better Off Dead come your way? Those drag racing scenes are so surreal and absurd, but so funny too. I know the Howard Cosell imitation we ultimately hear in the film is done by Rich Little. Did you ever try to do your own Cosell impression? Were you just speaking in your normal voice during actual filming of those scenes?
Yuji: Caro Jones was the casting director who cast me in that movie. She was also the casting director for both 'Better off Dead' [1985] and later 'The Karate Kid Part II' [1986] as well as 'Aloha Summer' [1988]. When the call came out for someone to do a Howard Cosell impression, Caro called me and asked if I could do one. I told her sure. As soon as I hung up the phone, I tracked down every Wide World of Sports video I could find that Cosell had done commentary on and watched them for a week straight. I went into the Better Off Dead audition ready to go. Knowing that this character learned English by watching the Wide World of Sports, I decided to do my Howard Cosell with an Asian accent. The producers and director thought it was funny and I got cast. Before the film came out, one of the producers called me to tell me that they brought in Rich Little to dub my voice. They explained that they wanted to make sure the audience understood the dialogue. It was a little disappointing but, hey, it's their film.
Better Off Dead was released in August of 1985 and the surreal comedy has gone to become a cult favorite developing a growing fan base over the years. It was written and directed by Savage Steve Holland and starred John Cusack as a high school student who becomes suicidal after his girlfriend breaks up with him, ends up agreeing to a ski race down the deadly K-12 slope, gets chased by a paperboy who just wants his two dollars and ends up with a new girl in the end. Yuji Okumoto and Brian Imada play Japanese drag racing brothers with Okumoto's character learning the English language from listening to Howard Cosell. Here are two wonderful scenes from Better Off Dead featuring Okumoto's character...



Q: Did or do people come up and ask you to talk like Howard Cosell after they saw the film?
Yuji: After the film came out, there were some people who wanted me to do the Howard Cosell impression. I explained to them that the voice was actually done by Rich Little. They still wanted to hear it. So I obliged and did the Cosell with an Asian accent.

Q: What can you tell us about Savage Steve Holland and your experience working for him? What direction did he give you on your character? What kind of atmosphere did he create for you all to work in on the set?
Yuji: When I worked with Savage Steve, he had a real boyish quality about him. I mean that in a good way. You can see a sparkle in his eye when he comes up with some crazy idea. I loved the way he worked as a director. He was very passionate and always open to input from his actors. I think your director always sets the tone of the set. And because Steve was crazy and fun, it made coming to work not feel like work. On top of working with Steve, the cast was great. My scenes were with John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Daniel Schneider and Curtis Armstrong. They were all a lot of fun.

Q: What were your feelings about Better Off Dead back when it was first released in 1985? What are your feelings about it now?
Yuji: I thought the film was very quirky when I first read the script. I loved all the crazy characters that Steve came up with. I still get people who recognize me from the film and love talking about the movie to this day. I think Better Off Dead is one of those '80s cult classics.

Q: Next, how did you get cast as the small role of "Fenton" in 1985's Real Genius? What do you remember about that experience making that film?
Yuji: I was cast in Real Genius by auditioning like everyone else. I was already cast in the film Better Off Dead, so when I received the call that I got a roll in Real Genius I was really excited. I thought the script had a lot of interesting characters in it, and with Martha Coolidge at the helm it was going to be great. Val Kilmer was awesome to work with. He has impeccable comedic timing and the delivery of his dialogue was so matter of fact that it really worked for his character. And of course, I loved Martha Coolidge. What a fun director to work with. She has such a great sense of humor and smiles easily.

Q: Then how did the role of bad guy "Chozen" in The Karate Kid Part II come your way? What do you remember about the audition process? Did you have a strong martial arts background prior to that?
Yuji: The first thing that comes to mind from during the audition process was when my agent told me the casting director was concerned that I may be too tall to play the villain opposite the Karate Kid. I told them I could slouch. I guess I slouched enough and got an audition. I met with the director, John Avildsen, first. I was a huge fan of the film Rocky so I was a little intimidated meeting him. I had a great meeting with him. He was really easy going. After getting past the director, I met with the producer, Jerry Weintraub. I remember meeting Jerry for the first time and in his heavy Brooklyn accent he said, "How you doin'?"

After getting past him, I guess I was doing alright. The last hoop to jump through was getting approved by the studio heads at Columbia Pictures. When I got the call from my agent, she told me that I would be flying to Hawaii to shoot The Karate Kid Part II and I remember thinking life is good. Hawaii/Karate Kid 2, hell yeah!! 


As far as the martial arts were concerned, the producers wanted to see where I was skill-wise. Luckily, I had studied karate and judo as a kid, so the meeting went well. I would not call myself an expert fighter by any stretch, but I can at least hold my own. Nowadays, I simply train to stay in shape and train my three daughters on how to protect themselves. Ahh... fatherhood.

Q: You played a character that was so easy to dislike. Do you find that fun and enjoyable playing a bad guy character like that? After that popular movie came out, did people connect you personally with that terrible character or do most people separate you from the character?
Yuji: When I got the role of Chozen, I was ecstatic. I love playing bad guys in movies and this guy was pretty bad. I wrote out a personal history for the character so he had some sort of family background. The character was living with his Uncle so I wrote about why he had no parents. I think that caused him to be rotten besides living with his mean Uncle. The one thing about playing bad guys that I really enjoy is the fact that you can almost do whatever you want in the film and not get arrested. Haha. 

When the film came out I had a lot of people approach me and tell me that they hated my character. Sometimes they'd just flat out say they hated me. Or better yet, they'd say, "you were such an ass----". It didn't bother me however, because I knew then, that I did my job.

Q: What can you tell us about Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio and your experience working with them on this film?
Yuji: Pat was awesome! During the filming of 'The Karate Kid Part II', he'd give me acting advice to make a scene better. Or he'd tell stories during his breaks between scenes. He'd talk about everything from doing stand-up in Vegas back in the '60s to getting interned during World War II. He was always full of stories and full of life. I had the pleasure of working with Pat in two other films besides Karate Kid 2. Whether months or years passed between us crossing paths, we'd pick up our conversation as if it were yesterday. [Morita passed away in 2005 at the age of 73.] 

Ralph was a lot of fun to work with. During the shoot he was always professional. Never complained or acted like a star. He was very down-to-earth with a great sense of humor. When we had our epic fight scene at the end of the film, we'd always joke that Tamlyn Tomita, who plays Ralph's love interest in the movie, took the best punch in the film. 

The ultimate moment for me during the filming of The Karate Kid Part II was when I got to block the crane kick. That was, of course, the signature move from the first movie. Unfortunately, my character was not trained well enough and never learned about the "drum technique". What a shame. I never learned to simply change it up and maybe throw a kick! Haha. Lesson learned.

The Karate Kid Part II was released in June of 1986 and went on to become the fourth highest grossing film that year in the U.S. When Mr. Miyagi finds out his father is dying, he and Danielsan travel to Okinawa where they find that Miyagi's former best-friend, Sato, still wants to kill him. Yuji Okumoto plays Sato's vicious nephew "Chozen" who does one nastier thing after another during the film causing the audience to build a healthy disdain for his character. Okumoto does his job and plays his role to perfection. The film culminates when Daniel must battle Chozen to save his own life and that of his new love. You can watch parts of that final scene from The Karate Kid Part II here...


Q: What were your feelings about The Karate Kid Part II back when it was first released 27 years ago? What are your feelings about it now?
Yuji: I remember seeing the film for the first time in Westwood at the Mann Theater. We pulled up in limos and the line to see the film stretched around the block. There was so much anticipation. After the film was over, the audience cheered loudly. What an awesome experience. 

I always look back fondly on my experience working on The Karate Kid Part II. I also think about the impact it had on a lot of people. In fact, to this day, I still get people coming up to me and telling me that I was the reason they started studying Karate. Some wanted to actually learn the art and others wanted to learn it in hopes of one day kicking my ass.

Q: Do you get recognized in public a lot? For what role do you feel you get recognized for the most often? Do you enjoy your strong connection to these '80s classics?
Yuji: Yes, I still do get recognized in public today. Sometimes it's from 'The Karate Kid Part II' or 'Johnny Tsunami' [1999] or maybe 'Better off Dead.' But mainly it's for my photo on the Post Office wall... Kidding, of course. I love the '80s! What a great time. Don't know about the fashion though. Never looked good in neon.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your filmmaking career has taken you since the '80s. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments? Please also tell us a little about Kona Kitchen.

Yuji: My proudest film I worked on to date is 'True Believer' [1989]. I had a great acting experience on that project. Working opposite such talented actors like James Woods, Robert Downey Jr. and Kurtwood Smith made me really appreciate being in the business.

I am currently living in Seattle, Washington. I own and operate a restaurant with my wife, called Kona Kitchen. It's a Hawaiian-American restaurant that is very family friendly. My wife and I are both strong believers in Ohana (Hawaiian for family). The place has been around for eleven years now. Wow, time flies when you're working your ass off. Okay, my wife and mother-in-law work their asses off. I just eat.

Opening the restaurant did teach me a lot. Besides the lesson of never doing it again, I learned the importance of perseverance. I think that's why I segued into producing and directing now. (Don't get me wrong I still love to act.) I produced, wrote and acted in two projects shot in Seattle. I also produced, directed, wrote and acted in a project that I am currently editing.

If you're ever in Seattle, you can visit Kona Kitchen. You can find out more on the restaurant's website at KonaKitchen.com. Here is a humorous commercial starring Yuji himself...


Q: What else is Yuji Okumoto up to nowadays? What can we expect in the future?
Yuji: Recently, I worked on a web series project called 'Awesome Asian Bad Guys' which will be debuting towards the end of this year. I also just shot an episode of Grimm. As for the future, who the hell knows...? I'm just glad I have the life that I have today!

I am so honored that Yuji was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. He's not just an "Awesome Asian Bad Guy", but a good guy who's pretty awesome as well. I want to take this occasion to again thank Yuji Okumoto for his contributions to '80s pop culture and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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