Thursday, December 18, 2014

Helping Out an Old Friend

Kel tossing me around sometime in 2008

 Memories from Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies, sometime in the late 1990s

Let me tell you about my old friend Kel.

Now Kel (full name Kelvin Kakazu) is not my best friend, maybe not even in my closest circle of friends, depending on how you define that. Aside from a few superficial similarities (we're both Asian, we're both half-Japanese, we both like Camus), we're quite different people.

In our younger days, he was the bane of my comparatively staid, common-sense impulses. A man capable of high-endurance hard drinking and hard eating, frequently goading me into staying out way later than a young would-be professional ought to during the working week. I remember the time we both accepted a challenge to eat some legendary Philly cheese steaks as large as human infants and ended up lying on our backs staring deliriously at the ceiling ("I can see through time!" Kel cried out in anguish). I remember the time we ended up together at Tai's til 4 in Wrigleyville, and . . . Wait, no, I actually don't remember anything about that night (hmmmm).

Kel was (and is) a mixture of various clashing traits and eccentricities. A dyed-in-the-wool liberal with a love of literature and old-school philosophers (Thomas HobbesNietzsche, etc.) who is also fond of handguns and owns everal (maybe many). A couple of years younger than me, but possessed of tastes of man senior to me by decades: Frank Sinatra, cigars, scotch, wearing sport coats and jackets even when not required. One of the most literate fellow I know, who can also generate immature politically incorrect jokes so transgressive they would probably cause a nun's head to spontaneously explode.

But Kel and I have an odd little bond that's just between the two of us. It stems from our days training in aikido at the Chicago Aikikai, back when it was in Lakeview on Lincoln Avenue under the late Kevin Choate.

See, despite aikido being a Japanese martial art and both Kel and I being part Japanese (he being half Chinese and me being half Korean), we weren't particularly good at the start of those days. I had a slight advantage, having done two years prior to joining the Aikikai. But neither of us were the naturally athletic type. Though we didn't know each other as children, we were both the type more likely to be found hiding in the library than on the playground at recess. We were, to most appearance, the type of aikido students not expected to last.

But then something happened.

I'm not sure exactly what it was, or when it was, but at some point, we both went a little, well nuts. We became a bit obsessed about getting good at this thing called aikido. It's not like we planned it or discussed it with one another, but gradually two days of training a week because three, then three became four, then four became five.

And when a somewhat notorious episode occurred, when Choate Sensei instituted some special intensive conditioning classes allegedly because of something I supposedly blurted out impulsively, Kel and I made a pact to attend each and every one (The "honorable" thing to do, we thought). And if I recall, the only reason Kel missed one was because he became sick (following a session when he continued training despite feeling ill).

Now, as one would naturally expect, all this obsessive training did lead to a jump in our abilities. And we found ourselves testing our way up the ranks, attending seminars, getting to meet all sorts of noted instructors in the aikido world.

I was pretty happy with what I was starting to accomplish physically, but all that time, I was also impressed by one particular aspect of Mr. Kel. You see, Kel was a pretty big guy (see the photo above). But when required to take a breakfall, roll or high fall, he positively flew through the air. During that period of craziness, he worked himself up to the point that he could really move.

However, like all cool things, this time eventually did pass. Today, I still practice aikido with the Chicago Aikido Club at the Japanese American Service Committee, but Kelvin hung up the angry white pajamas and followed a long-sought goal of going to law school (at Northern Illinois University). We've never stopped staying in touch and have lots of mutual friends, but the days of crazy training and crazy post-training drinks late into the night are a thing of the past.

Flashforward to the summer of 2013.

Kelvin messages me through Facebook, which has become our regular form of communication. Usually it's nothing much. Trading some jokes, comments on current events, etc.

But this time it's different. This time he's contacting me from a hospital.

He had already made a couple of earlier trips due to indeterminate pain. But this time the doctors had found something. Growths, coin-shaped, appearing in X-rays, on his spine. Surgery required. Absolutely no question about it.

I drove out to DeKalb to pay Kel a visit. We hadn't seen each other much in person for a while. I had done some crazy things like go off and get married and stuff like that. In the hospital, Kel told me the situation he was facing. Doctors told him that there was a 10% chance he would become paralyzed after the surgery.

For the rest of his life.

Geez, I thought. I couldn't believe it. I used to see this big guy charging across the mat like a mad bull or flipping through the air with the speed of a much smaller person.

But there it was. Inescapable, irrefutable reality staring him in the face.


The operation was successful, but Kel is now paralyzed from the mid-chest down, and despite the best of efforts, the paralysis appears irreversible.

Luckily, he resumed his law school studies and has proven to be quite the tenacious character. Our Facebook conversations resumed, and now he is a model for me in many ways. Nothing quite makes me feel like any problems I'm having on a given day are petty and insignificant than getting one of his cheery messages (occasionally accompanied by a dirty joke - some things never change).

Anyway, Mr. Kelvin Kakazu is now seeking help to raise funds for a new wheelchair, and I'm all too happy to help. If you're interested in giving, please follow this link.


Kel has informed me that he was very touched by my post, but there were a few inaccuracies. First of all, I had originally written that the cysts he had were life-threatening, but they actually were not (Seemed to have remembered my worst-case fears instead of the facts). Also, he reminded that those cheesesteaks were from Susie's Drive-In (4126 West Montrose Avenue, if you're interested).

Thought I'd give folks a glimpse of Kel in his prime by posting this video from my shodan (first degree black belt) test from 1999. Kelvin pops up as my uke (attacker/partner) during randori (three-man attack) at 6:42 and jo-dori (staff take-away) at 8:34. Enjoy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Thank You Tom Cruise! 
(probably not what you'd expect)

The Last Samurai (2003) Poster

Today marks my son Jack's fifth month on planet Earth. Coincidentally, it also marks the 11th anniversary of Tom Cruise's Japan-set historical drama The Last Samurai (2003). Now, if you know me, that's not something you'd expect me to celebrate. However, here me out. I owe Mr. Cruise and his ahistorical East Asian Dances with Wolves a big favor. Way back then, after catching TLS in the theaters with my father, I was incensed. Everything about the film annoyed me, from its "white savior" leading man Hollywood trope to its flagrant middle finger waving at the actual history of Japan (BTW, I got my undergraduate degree from the Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Chicago).

So I went home and started typing up a list of everything I thought was wrong with the movie: historical blunders, technical mistakes, stuff that I just found unbelievable even within a dramatic context. Nothing particularly well-written or organized. Just a bunch of random bullet points off the top of my head. Then I shared it with a couple of friends hoping to get the whole matter off my chest and be done with it.

It was then that one of the recipients of my rant, my friend Sam del Rosario, recommended that I post it on the local Asian American Artists Collective's listserve. Not thinking much of it, I followed up on his suggestion. And man, was I surprised by the response. E-mails complimenting me on the information I had enumerated filled my inbox. A bunch of requests to repost, quote or use portions of what I wrote elsewhere came to me (I'm pretty sure this is how I first met folks like poet Bao Phi online).

And then I received a most curious request. A young lady e-mailed me stating that she found my post interesting, and wondered if I'd like to meet her to talk. Trading messages, it turned out she was taking classes in Wing Chun kung-fu in Chinatown at the Ng Family Martial Arts Association on the same days I was covering teaching for the University of Chicago Aikido Club. Our classes ended around the same time, so she suggested that I meet her at a restaurant near her school when we were both done. I agreed.

Normally I didn't (and don't) meet with strangers who have introduced themselves to me via the internet. But, something about the tone of the messages seemed friendly and innocuous enough. And although the person contacting me was of the female persuasion, I had no thoughts of having a potential dating partner. I had recently come out of a relationship that had ended unpleasantly, so was planning to enjoy singlehood for as long as I could.

So on that blustery Saturday morning, after wrapping up Aikido class at the University of Chicago and departing the Henry Crown Field House, I made my way to Chinatown and to the designated restaurant meeting spot. Parking my car, I headed in and scanned the tables to see who was there. First thing I noted was there were no women sitting by themselves. Assuming that I had arrived early, I was going to grab a table for myself, when a very young looking girl got up from a table where she had been sitting with a group of guys and asked my name.

I was taken a bit aback. She was much younger looking than I had even expected, dressed in training sweats and her hair tied back. It was hard to tell her age. She looked Indian or Filipino, which of course meant, she could be anything between 16 and 35 as far as I was concerned. In fact, I suddenly had the sinking feeling that I had just arranged a meeting with someone in the 13-year-old range, and at any moment, Stone Philips and the entire team of "To Catch a Predator" would come bursting out of the kitchen armed with cameras and lights.

Luckily though, that wasn't the case at all. She was very much an adult (Thank God), and invited me to join her and her "Kung Fu brothers" at their table. And the conversation was wonderful. Turned out we had a lot more in common than I would have expected. We both had performing arts interests (she studied classical voice while I worked as an actor). Plus we had a lot of friends in common, like Sam, who had originally suggested I post my samurai rant.

We left the restaurant promising to keep in touch. Eventually we started dating, but not for two years, during which we both went through other relationships (one of hers, funny enough, was with a friend of my brother's from high school). And in 2010, we got married, and this year our first child was born.

So, thank you, Tom Cruise, for introducing me to my wife Czerina.

P.S.: I did learn later that that the bunch of guys sitting with Czerina in that Chinatown restaurant 11 years ago, her "Kung Fu Brothers," had chosen to be there very deliberately. Apparently, learning from Czerina that she was meeting a man she had talked to on the internet, they had accompanied her to the restaurant fully prepared to beat me up if I did something untoward.

P.P.S. Below is the complete text of my original rant from 2003.

"Problems with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise’s Japan War Epic"

By Dwight E. Sora

Historical Inaccuracies

1. In the film, in 1876, American Army veteran Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is hired by Japan’s Meiji government to train the new modern Japanese army in Western arms and tactics. Although the Meiji government did hire Western military advisors in their modernization efforts, they were largely German and British

2. Algren is ordered to lead the new Meiji army against a group of anti-modernization/anti- Western samurai led by General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). The army is defeated, and Katsumoto takes Algren captive. However, the Western military advisors did not take part in the actual battles of the late 19th century samurai revolts led by Katsumoto’s real-life counterpart Saigo Takamori.

Technical Inaccuracies

1. During a fight with ninja sent to kill him, Katsumoto throws a katana (Japanese sword), which spins end-over-end and impales an assailant. However, katana are not weighted properly for use as throwing weapons and due to the personal attachment and reverence samurai had for their swords, it is highly unlikely that sword- throwing would be part of their combat training (in fact, it’s just not true).

2. Algren is given four months of training in Japanese kenjutsu (swordfighting) during his captivity, and is exposed to the concept of mushin (no mind). During that time, he becomes capable of fighting an experienced samurai to a draw, and defeats multiple Japanese assailants during an assassination attempt in Tokyo. Although admittedly, there have been and probably are people of exceptional physical talent who show an unnatural aptitude for learning martial arts (both Asian and non- Asian), keep this in mind–high-ranking samurai warriors belonged to clans steeped in warrior tradition and began training as young children. Furthermore, specialized skills would only be taught to a student who showed particular dedication – the type proven by years of loyal service.

3. During his captivity, there is a scene in which Algren is given a traditional topcoat and hakama (wide pleated pants). Somehow, without any instruction, he manages to get these on right. This is a nit-picky point, but I can tell you from personal experience that getting a hakama on correctly can be a major ordeal for the inexperienced.

Mixed Messages

1. Algren kills a samurai during the film’s opening battle, a man revealed to be the husband of Taka (Koyuki) and the brother of Katsumoto, and experiences absolutely NO CONSEQUENCES for his actions. In fact, Algren becomes adored by the children of the slain man and gains the affections of his wife, who allows Algren to wear the dead samurai’s armor during the climactic battle (She even tells Algren that it would be a great honor for him to do so). This has been defended by some film fans and critics as illustrative of the samurai family’s adherence to the  bushido code (Respect for a fellow warrior, so I assume), but apparently it also means that Japanese people are devoid of normal human emotion or reactions to the death of a loved one as well.

2. During the film’s climactic battle, Algren takes up arms against the Meiji soldiers and cold-bloodedly kills the American officer (Colonel Bagley, played by Tony Goldwyn) leading them, his former commanding officer in the U.S. Union Army. Though these actions would be transparently criminal in the eyes of the US Consular authorities, to say nothing of Japanese officials, Algren apparently experiences NO CONSEQUENCES for his actions. In fact, in the film’s dramatic closing scene, he somehow gains surprise access to Emperor Meiji’s private chambers, carrying a sword (?), still allowed to wear a full dress US Army uniform, and delivers a stirring lesson to Emperor Meiji on being Japanese.

3. In the film’s closing scene, Algren retires to Katsumoto’s mountain village, presumably to settle down with Taka and live happily ever after. This despite the fact that we’re in the 19th century, mixed-race relationships were frowned upon, and the village would probably have been economically devastated by the fact that all the able-bodied young men were gunned down by the Meiji army.

What the F**k?

1. Algren, who is portrayed in the film’s opening as a burned-out drunk disgusted by war, suddenly goes gladiator during the first battle scene, and manages to survive against multiple samurai armed with spears and katana by wielding nothing but a flagpole.

2. Algren is a trained frontier soldier, with combat experience during the Civil War and having served under General Custer. Yet, once his wounds have finally healed while in captivity, he never once tries to escape.

3. Ninja assassins sent by Omura (a pro- Western politician-industrialist working for the Meiji government, played by Masato Harada) attack Katsumoto’s village base during a nighttime raid. The ninja presumably manage to evade the notice of Katsumoto’s battle-hardened samurai sentries, as well as Katsumoto himself. However, just before the assassins are able to get Katsumoto in their sights, only Algren (who presumably has no clue what a ninja is) spots them and warns Katsumoto.

4. During the final suicidal charge of Katsumoto’s samurai cavalry against the new Meiji government’s army, the army unleashes a rapid barrage from a set of Gatling guns, mowing down everyone in its path. However, despite being in the front line of the attack, Algren is the only one not mortally wounded.

5. In the final confrontation in the Emperor’s chambers, Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), overcome with emotion, blurts out a heartfelt plea in English (?).

Irony of Ironies

1. “The Last Samurai” portrays Katsumoto and his samurai rebels as the good guys, apparently because of their reverence for tradition and adherence to the samurai code of bushido. The pro-Western modernizers, embodied by Omura are portrayed as the bad guys. Conveniently left out is the fact that the “traditional” samurai-ruled culture included a rigid caste system, oppression of peasants, and clan warfare; while the modernization forces brought about constitutional government, rule of law, standardized education and modern industry.

2. The real-life Saigo Takamori became a martyr to right-wing traditionalists in Japan after being felled by the Meiji army during the actual Satsuma rebellion. In the following decades, it was likeminded pro-Japanese, anti- Western militarists who took control of the government, and used the code of bushido to justify military conquest of China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, leading up to the attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941. (Kind of makes Algren’s participation in a suicide charge against pro-Western military forces kind of funny.)

3. “The Last Samurai” debuted on December 5 in the US, taking over the number one box-office position domestically at $24.4 million. That same weekend, on December 7, the US observed the 62nd anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Dwight E. Sora is a Chicagoland native of half-Japanese, half-Korean descent. He has a B.A. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, and studied Japanese history at Waseda University in Tokyo. He works as a Japanese translator and actor, and has spent the last ten years training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ass-Kicking Moses?

Finally watched the whole trailer for Exodus: Gods and Kings. Racially problematic casting aside, why does it look like an action adventure film? Why is there this continuing drive to make apparently “ass-kicking” versions of fairy tales (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, etc.) and now Biblical stories (first Noah now this)? My memories from Sunday school are admittedly dim, but I recall a Bible filled with Judeo-Christian chronicles of God’s relationship to man and parables on the nature of good conduct. Simple tales (though not simplistic). Was there really a need to take these stories, run them through a CrossFit regimen, overdose them on Axe Body Spray and unleash upon them endless orclike CGI hordes in color desaturated rain-drenched battlefields?

Anyway, director Ridley Scott has done the film no favors with his comments regarding the casting which come across as the worst kind of lazy Hollywood cynicism ("Ridley Scott’s Explanation For Whitewashing His Exodus Movie Is Infuriating"), which is only topped by studio owner Rupert Murdoch's own blinkered comments ("Rupert Murdoch Took To Twitter To Address The ‘Exodus’ Race Controversy In The Worst Way Possible").