Taking heart to Hollywood
Chico karate instructor Taka Kondo carries his spiritual message to the masses
Long in love with America, Japanese-born Taka Kondo flew alone to California at age 18, without a word of English. A few years later, his karate skills won him the 1998 International Karate Championship and he opened his own Chico studio, Seishindo Karate, named after the style he developed from the best of the Okinawan moves he’d learned as a boy.
Kondo didn’t stop here. With the same unquenchable enthusiasm that brought him Stateside, he’s now ventured into Hollywood, where he’s gained the interest of three personal managers, won a top international modeling contract, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, been featured in a major credit card commercial with Leonardo DiCaprio, and been the subject of a documentary aired on Japan’s largest television network, Asahi.
Yet this beloved karate teacher and budding actor retains a sweet verve about his prospects that has its roots in his life-long martial-arts passion and his dream of making martial-arts movies for children that rise above the traditional focus on physical prowess to the spiritual heart of the art.
What’s behind this exquisitely tuned athlete with the disarming smile, whom students call everything from dynamic to incredibly humble, and at least one says changed his life?
Nothing illustrates the character of Kondo better than the story of his recent appearance on The Tonight Show, where he gave a karate demonstration that included an impossible looking stomach jump and a one-of-a-kind, one-thumb pushup. (Kondo taught this feat to himself after seeing Bruce Lee do a two-thumb push-up, and if there’s anyone else in the world who can duplicate it, he doesn’t know about him. Neither does Leno, who was so impressed he asked him on the show.)
Unfortunately, Kondo had to run through his demonstration several times during rehearsal, to get the lights and camera angles correct.
“I can do maybe five of these every day, maximum,” he says, “but I had to do five for Jay and five more for the producers.” This was right before they shot the program non-stop, “so that if I made a mistake, it would be on the show.”
At airtime, Kondo’s thumb was swollen and shaking. Worse, the studio was freezing—-a temperature good for cameras but bad for karate. He remembers putting his thumb under his thigh to keep it warm while he talked to Leno and thinking to himself, “This is national television, and it’s going to be on in Japan. I cannot make a mistake.
“I think I did the pushup three times on film,” he recalls. “The first time, it was so painful, and the floor was so slippery, my thumb kind of bent. The audience was cheering, and you can’t see it on the film, but what was going through my head was, ‘Even if I break my thumb I’m going to make it, no problem.'”
“I don’t know how he does it,” says Kondo’s student J.T. Runyan. “He’s like that all the time, upbeat and positive. His energy attracts people to him,” Runyan adds, calling Kondo a teacher and friend who turned his life around.
“He’s helped me find out who I am as opposed to just what I’m doing,” he explains, “and he’s made me into a positive person, too.”
It’s this determined aplomb that Kondo has taken to the movie industry with an ardor that goes deeper than a mere wish for celebrity.
“I don’t like to call myself a celebrity,” says the man who recently worked his way to the final cut of actors chosen for a lead role in Matrix II and was selected from a million applicants as the Nokia model, two coups that have definitely landed his foot in the door.
“I think of myself as a martial artist, and there’s a reason for that,” he says. “Martial arts are not so much about being stronger or tougher. I consider them one of the tools to find out who I really am.” It’s a spirit he hopes will someday infuse his own films.
Martial arts are ultimately as much about mental conditioning as physical, Kondo explains, “and we have a huge gap between the two. Like you want to do certain things but can’t perform, or you want to say no but can’t say no. Martial-arts training reduces those gaps, and when you’ve reached that level, that’s when what I call the spiritual training begins.”
“We’re living in a material world, so it’s easy to think having money is it,” adds Kondo. “But ultimately that doesn’t make you happy.”
This is a sentiment brought home to him in Southern California, where having worked as karate coach and fight scene choreographer to several top models and stars, he sees some of the most successful—at a loss.
“It’s funny,” says Kondo, “all these people have money and fame, but they’re still looking for some kind of comfort themselves, only they don’t know how to get it.”
This is true Kondo sincerity, says Kondo’s student and fellow karate teacher Charley King. “To be able to work in that industry, which runs on ego, and keep a level head is really impressive.”
It’s the same attitude that first impressed King when he met Kondo and began studying under him. “Usually when someone has his incredible skills, a huge ego tends to come with it,” he says, “but Taka is looking to learn, too. He’s humble and open minded and his students come first.”
As such, Kondo has kept his ties to Chico and returns weekly to help students here. “That sets him apart,” notes King, “he doesn’t forget where he’s coming from, what started him on this journey.”
A journey that has Kondo, for now, learning all he can about the movie industry, which includes studying acting four days a week, six and a half hours a day, after a three-plus-hour karate workout.
He’s also done stints at everything from set builder to food caterer to stunt man, this last on the set of Buena Vista’s Pearl Harbor, with Ben Affleck, and in Castle Rock’s upcoming Salton Sea, with Val Kilmer.
“I took those jobs for the experience,” Kondo says, likening it to martial arts, where you start as a white belt not knowing anything. “I want to study the whole process of making films from the bottom up,” he adds, joking that he hasn’t really experienced the “up” yet.
He can laugh about it now, but there have been times in his acting career that have left him more than a little depressed. Studying under Bobbie Chance, whose students have included Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt, Kondo has learned to read scripts cold and perform them in front of accomplished actors and directors—a daunting prospect when you’re not only inexperienced, but also have a language barrier.
“When I felt depressed, not able to do well, I hung onto the information I got from martial arts,” he says. “Martial arts taught me not to give up and to reduce the ego and remind yourself you’re here to learn.
“I want to do it slow,” he adds about this process, “with a very strong foundation. I don’t expect anything to happen quickly, and if it does, I don’t trust it. You can be very lucky, but I want to be lucky with skills.”
So far his skills have served him well. He’s currently made two more audition short lists, one for a role in the feature film Paris and another for an appearance on Martin Short’s comedy show. A Japanese film role is also in the works, and the Nokia ads are appearing in such heavies as the Los Angeles and New York Times and on billboards throughout Asia and parts of Europe and America.
When auditioning for this ultimate modeling spot, Kondo remembers thinking that out of those million applicants he didn’t have a chance.
“Every one of them was a good-looking guy,” he recalls, describing them as perfect, six-foot-three men with small faces and pointy noises, wearing nice Armani suits. “I’m looking at myself, short, in my workout uniform, thinking, they’ll never pick me.”
But they did.
Perhaps it’s his confidence, and the attitude that what he’s doing is what he’s meant to do. “I’m just so sure, so I don’t have any fear. I’m going to work very hard to eventually produce my films, and I believe my message is going to help people.”
A message that’s already clear in the process itself. "I just go with bare experience," Kondo says, "and beg people to let me do this, because I believe it’s so positive."