The Invisible Strength of Cary Tagawa
By Terry Wilson
Cary Hiroyula Tagawa is rapidly becoming one of the most recognized faces in Hollywood. Readers will probably recognize him from just two of his many co-starring roles — the soft-spoken bad guy opposite Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes in “Rising Sun” and his role of Shang Tsung in “Mortal Kombat,” which made him a cult hero. Tagawa’s dramatic looks and on-screen charisma, coupled with his considerable martial arts skills, has put this actor on Hollywood’s “A-List” talent pool.
One has only to watch Tagawa in action to know that he is the real deal when it comes to the martial arts. He may not flaunt his skills like some celluloid black belts, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that this is one actor who isn’t acting when it comes to the martial arts.
“I was born in Tokyo and began training in the martial arts when I was five years old. Later, when I was in Junior High School, I studied Kendo,” he recalls. “Then we moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That’s when I got my first real lesson in how to use the martial arts.”
An army brat, Tagawa found himself moving every time his father transferred to a new base. When his dad was sent to the states, Cary left a loving and supporting family in the Land of the Rising Sun for the discord and racial tensions that flourished in the Land of the Free. “Being Japanese and living in the south during the 1950s was pretty tough,” says the good nature actor. “That’s when I first recognized the need for martial arts as a way to survive. However, my definition of the martial arts may be different from that of other people.” Instead of squaring off with the rednecks and bullies who taunted and threatened him, Tagawa fought them with his mind instead of his fists. Without resorting to violence, Tagawa found ways to redirect their anger, thus avoiding unnecessary conflict.
“There are no winners in a fight,” he warns. “It’s always better to resolve a situation peacefully.”
Tagawa and I sat under a palm tree for several hours discussing the invisible force of “chi” (internal energy) and how to access that strength. For him, this theory isn’t only a philosophy, it is also a science that he has studied for decades. “I think the basic component in the study of the martial arts is the study of energy,” Tagawa says. “I view energy as a source of connecting to a part of us that isn’t available by simply looking at logical reasons. It is also different from the typical Western way of thinking, which has no connection to nature.” Understanding who you are, why you are, and knowing what purpose you serve in life, is the foundation from which Tagawa builds his martial arts philosophy. To help promote harmony between mind, body and spirit, Tagawa created his own system he calls “Chun-Shin.” Translated, it means, Tagawa says: “To be centered inside your heart and mind.”
“Before teaching the physical applications of the martial arts, I begin by teaching the energy of the art,” he says. “There are a lot of martial artists who physically know forms and who are also curious about what else is available. I want to tap into that curiosity and bring that aspect to the martial arts.”
With my curiosity now peaked, Tagawa offered to give me a lesson in his system of Chun-Shin, which I eagerly accepted. It was unlike any martial arts workout I have ever experienced. We began with a breathing exercise to unblock clogged energies from my system. As I inhaled and exhaled, Cary maneuvered my aging frame into a variety of positions. Some were sitting, others standing, and a few that made me look like a human pretzel.
During these maneuvers, Tagawa pushed and rubbed different points along my nervous system with his elbows and fingers. The lesson lasted well over 90 minutes. When we were through, my body felt and reacted as if it was 10 years younger. In fact, for years I’ve been nursing a “judo” leg that has been sorely abused; by the end of our session, I looked like a Taekwondo guy. My once hard-to-stretch leg was now limber and pain-free. It had been years since I was able to flip off a high roundhouse kick with that leg. By the time Cary had finished with me, I was snapping kicks with speed and power.
Most importantly, though, my chi or energy field was very strong. Everything around me became centered and calm; it was amazing! The overall effect of this workout stayed with me for about a week. What I had taken, I learned, was my first baby step toward the martial arts “light at the end of the tunnel,” as Cary called it. For Tagawa, that light has been guiding him for years, both in his personal life and his career.
“Another thing I have discovered about the martial arts, is that it gives me a choice in how to deal with different things,” Tagawa says. “Through the martial arts I can evaluate different energies. It could be my opponent, or dealing with Hollywood, or a even with a bully. In any given situation, you are dealing with energy. And that’s how I teach the martial arts. First, I get someone curious about the difference between using a physical force verses a mental force. Then I help them to develop the inner strength we all have, but few of us know how to use.”
Speaking of Hollywood, Tagawa began his acting career rather late in life. His first role, as a mere extra, came in 1985 at age 36, in “Big Trouble in Little China.” His next film, “Armed Response,” was followed by a major role in “The Last Emperor.” Tagawa’s career gathered momentum, and during a time when Hollywood was looking for Asian bad guys. With his dramatic facial features and years of martial arts training, Tagawa quickly cashed in on his talents. “I was very fortunate that it was the Asian’s turn to be bad guys,” he says. “I think the bad guy is very important in a film. My martial arts background was also a big plus in getting some of the roles I’ve had.”
Tagawa has an aura of calm that surrounds him and anyone in his presence. I was with him on a set during a particularly frantic filming day for a new TV series. It was like a Chinese fire drill. Panic was the name of the game that day, except when Tagawa was around. The negative energies just melted away in his presence. Crazed producers mellowed out, frowns turned to smiles, and suddenly, harmony replaced anxiety.
I overheard a crew member ask Cary, “How come everybody likes you so much?” He replied softly, “I don’t give them anything not to like.” In the martial arts, we are all told about the importance of centering, focus, and energy control. But how many of us ever really get to that level of development? It takes decades for many martial artists to even begin to comprehend the basic principles of internal energy. Tagawa, however, knew from a very early age that the true power of the martial arts comes from the universe, and not from a reverse punch.
“From the age of five, I understood where the real power of the martial arts came from,” he says. “The core of the martial arts, the energy where it comes from, is a natural bond with people. It is a love, or concept of humanity as a whole, in which we start. A lot of times in the martial arts we go through the conflict to teach the harmony. Where I started from was harmony, then I moved into conflict.”
The conflict Tagawa refers to was his additional training in Kendo and Karate. At the age of 21, Tagawa began studying traditional Japanese karate at the University of Southern California. A year later, he moved back to Japan and began studying Shotokan with the Japan Karate Association (JKA), under the legendary Master Masatoshi Nakayama. According to Tagawa, the training there was very traditional, grueling, and often times brutal. “We studied six hours a day, two hours at a time,” he remembers. “Kata was the key to everything we did. We did kata until we dropped. Kumite was always extra. And when we fought, they put white belts in with the black belts. The first time I ever saw a double kick was when I went to block a front kick and he did a change up, landing his foot squarely against the side of my head. Getting hit like that set off a very primal impulse in me. I wanted to go back out there and hit him back.”
After the cobwebs cleared, Cary bowed-in for another round. It was pay-back time. When his opponent got close enough, Tagawa let loose with a perfectly-timed backhand. It landed squarely, sending his opponent crashing to the floor with a bloody mouth. “We fought with full contact, but not full power,” he explains. “Of course, back then we didn’t wear gloves or foot protectors. One thing I noticed about Japanese training is that there is no regard for anything personal. It’s all about how to get out of [being] personal. So if you are worried about your safety, you won’t commit to a technique. The Japanese care about total commitment and that doesn’t just apply to karate students either. Everyone in Japan is committed to what they do. From the presidents of major companies to the guy who cleans cigarettes off the floor at the train station.
“They are committed to doing the very best at whatever it is they do. Discipline is a commitment, focus is a commitment, and training is a commitment. And not only must the students demonstrate commitment, so must the teachers. That’s something you don’t see in many Western dojos.”
Although Tagawa proved himself to be an outstanding fighter, the idea of being the best by means of running up a high body count of his opponents, was not in harmony with his definition of what the martial arts was about for him. “I didn’t agree with that ‘let’s go out there and beat the crap out of the other guy’ mentality,” he says. “The JKA wanted the world to perceive us as being the strongest style and they did this through fighting. Eventually I had a problem with that way of thinking.” Tagawa did not feel comfortable with his school’s philosophy. He wanted to develop spiritually, so he sought council from his teacher.
“That was when my concept about the martial arts changed radically,” he recalls. “When I asked Master Nakayama about meditation, he replied, ‘You’re young, you fight now. You meditate when you get old.’ Coming from one of the two highest-ranking masters in Shotokan karate, that answer just wasn’t enough for me. It made me stop and consider what my goals were. I knew what I got from the martial arts was a deep inner peace. And that’s what I wanted to explore and develop.” Tagawa thanked his teachers for lessons learned, packed his bag and left the team and the dojo to pursue another level of training. “I never quit the martial arts, I just left the formal structural training,” Tagawa says. “At that time, I began studying meditation, metaphysics, numerology and anything else related to any process that had some explanation of energy or the way the world works.”
It was during his quest for knowledge that Tagawa slowly assembled the pieces of what is now his system of Chun-Shin. “My style of Chun-Shin is completely without a physical fighting concept,” he explains. “It is a study of energy and I use an eight-foot staff, which makes it a little more physical than Tai-Chi or Yoga. The staff gives you a third point of balance that we normally don’t have.” Tagawa went on to explain that animals like dinosaurs and kangaroos could balance themselves on their tail, freeing their other limbs for fighting or foraging. After giving much thought to the subject, Tagawa created a way to put a ‘tail’ on his students — using the staff.
“After more than twenty years, I have developed the staff into a whole system where I can teach centering, focus and balance,” he explains. “This gives me a third point of balance and enables me to open up a lot of energy paths. Plus, it gives me a force to work against which is very helpful.” Tagawa doesn’t have plans to open hundreds of Chun-Shin schools or to cash in on his celebrity, although he clearly could. He is one martial artist who merely wants to share his knowledge with others. His goal is to guide those who share an unquenchable thirst for the martial arts. How much they drink is up to them. “My intention for Chun-Shin is to eventually become a centering point for all martial arts styles. At the core of all of us as martial artists is a desire to better ourselves. And that’s what I want to help bring about.”
This article was published inside a 1998 edition for the German Kung Fu magazine.