When the producers of Netflix hit “Cobra Kai” called Yuji Okumoto back in September 2019 with an offer to revisit one of the glory days of his career, the Seattle actor, producer and restaurateur was more than ready for the meeting.
The truth was he’d long been thinking about the character of Chozen, his ever-so-menacing villain in “The Karate Kid Part II,” the 1986 blockbuster that put Okumoto in the role of bad guy to Ralph Macchio’s titular hero. Okumoto was excited to take the call — but he had a couple of thoughts.
“You want to make sure that the character is well-written, well-developed because that was a huge part of my life,” Okumoto said. “I just wanted to make sure that they paid deference to the character and his development. So they sent me the script and initially I thought it needed a little work. But I gave a little bit of input and the writers and also the producers, they really did a great job in capturing the essence of Chozen and how he would probably be after 30-odd years.”
The story of Chozen plays out over several episodes of Season 3 of the Netflix series that reimagines the blockbuster movie franchise. (Season 3 debuted on Netflix on Jan. 1.) Many of the same actors reprise roles that have evolved in interesting ways since their intense conflicts as teens and young adults four decades ago.
The series is as much fun as a bucket of buttered popcorn served with a soda, but is also a meditation on aging, legacy and life that takes on Shakespearean tones as Okumoto describes his character.
“I think after all these years, after suffering that humiliating defeat in front of the whole village, I think Chozen’s sole purpose in life is to find redemption and get back his honor,” Okumoto said. “So I think he’s been probably plotting all these years to seek revenge.
“I don’t think he’s going to find his enlightenment any time soon.”
Okumoto, on the other hand, has achieved something like it at the age of 61. He had a pretty good run in Hollywood, playing roles in memorable films like “Real Genius” alongside Val Kilmer and “Better Off Dead” with John Cusack. But tired of chasing parts in a Hollywood that seemed closed to Asian American actors as leading characters, Okumoto decided to make a change around the turn of the century after a meet-cute event with his future wife, Angie, that didn’t start that way.
“A buddy of mine who’s a fellow actor called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a golf tournament and I have this gig up in Seattle. It’s for this Miss Chinatown pageant. Can I have you emcee it?’” Okumoto said. “I wasn’t much into doing all that stuff, but I said, ‘You know what, you’ve covered for me on appearances before, I will cover for you.’”
When Okumoto’s plane arrived in Seattle, he had to sit and wait for every passenger to disembark because his suit for the event had been stowed in the wayback of the cabin. Meanwhile, destiny was awaiting him – impatiently – at the gate.
“So she was kind of thinking that I was this big flake,” Okumoto said. “Then she thought to herself, ‘Oh my God, wait, did I miss him? Maybe I missed him.’ And there was a little Japanese guy that was probably 7 inches shorter than me and probably 10 years, 20 years older. And then she thought to herself, ‘Oh my God, is that the guy?’ She thought that maybe the camera adds height.”
By the time Okumoto made it off the plane, the gate had closed and his host was less than impressed. The same could not be said for Okumoto.
“I was the last person off the plane, and so she’s thinking to herself, ‘This guy has to make an entrance,’ ” Okumoto said. “Granted I didn’t make a great impression probably on her the first time we met. But for me it was just, ‘Wow.’ ”
While it did not take long for Angie Okumoto to change her opinion of the dashing movie star, for her future husband, the meeting cemented the thoughts he’d been having about his successful, but difficult, career.
“I met him on Sept. 14 or something, and by Nov. 2 he had proposed,” Angie Okumoto said. “It had been like a month and a half.”
The proposal took her breath away. “The whole thing was pretty whirlwind. He was very romantic.” She thought they’d date for a year before anything got serious, but Okumoto had different ideas.
“He had pretty strong feelings about raising a family outside of L.A.,” she said of her husband, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Hollywood High. “He used to say to me that L.A. is a really tough city for relationships and raising children. And so I think it was something that he wanted to try.”
Not long after, the family opened the Hawaiian-themed restaurant Kona Kitchen and life changed drastically for Okumoto.
“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to try something else, see how that goes. I can always come back to acting,’ ” Okumoto said. “So my brilliant idea was to start a restaurant — not knowing how hard it actually is. I mean, it is a grind. You play a restaurateur on TV and you think, ‘Oh, how hard could it be?’ But when you really do the nuts and bolts of getting in and doing the actual work, it is so difficult.”
Okumoto kept his hand in Hollywood on the side, picking up occasional roles from his new home in Seattle – most notably he appeared in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” during this period. But he was also thinking about new challenges.
“Ultimately, I think what he realized is that he’s still an artist at heart and I think being creative is what really drives him,” Angie Okumoto said. “That’s his passion.”
His experience helping to open the restaurant exposed a new skill set that he employed as a budding producer. At first, he helped local filmmakers with small projects and through that he met Bao Tran, who had something more ambitious in mind with his full-length project “Paper Tigers.”
Tran enlisted Okumoto to help with the film, which he wrote as a way to address underrepresentation.
“I was totally on board,” Okumoto said. “We had to rally the community because there’s really nobody else that’s going to come and help you. The cavalry ain’t coming.”
This point was reinforced when they began seeking funding from Hollywood sources and received interest.
“And we all collectively whooped and hollered,” Okumoto said. “But then their ask was kind of ridiculous. They said, ‘OK, we’ll give you $4 million to shoot this film. But we’re not crazy about the lead Asian characters and stuff like that. So, we’re wondering would you be open to having white actors play the leads?’ It was pretty much a gut punch. They said, ‘How about Bruce Willis?’ ”
The answer, of course, was no.
“Yuji helped us just kind of understand that he’s been in that fight since he first jumped into the industry and all those things that you had to deal with, for better, for worse — probably for worse since these are the same issues that we’re still dealing with now,” Tran said. “So [he taught us about] not being so reactive and being so caught up in it, but more about figuring out how to find a way forward and especially if it means doing it ourselves. I think it was a way to kind of also pay it forward.”
When Tran’s film went into production, Okumoto was a living example, helping to not only raise the money for the shoot, but also helping with locations around the Chinatown International District and making sure the crew was fed every day. He even chased a thief down the street when a crew member’s gear was stolen.
“Yuji was able to coordinate all those things, kind of keep the trains running on time,” Tran said. “Overall he is what we call in Japanese terms or martial arts terms a senpai, an older brother who gave us a little bit of wisdom about how to navigate the ups and downs of filmmaking, because he’s seen it all. He showed us not to get too discouraged and also to see the light at the end of the tunnel when things weren’t looking that great, finding a way to get the movie made.”
If the pandemic allows it, “Paper Tigers” will debut in theaters this spring, giving Okumoto another filmmaking credit long after he thought his career might be over.
“I’m blessed to have had a wonderful career and to have met so many wonderful people on sets and being able to travel and do all that and see the world basically,” Okumoto said. “But at the same time, I think the family life has kind of grounded me. That really helped focus on what is important. And to me, the most important thing is ohana, your family.”