Sonny Chiba and the SUSHI GIRL
by Greg Lynch Jr.
The Fung Lum Chinese restaurant molders in the shadow of the Frankenstein Parking Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood. The restaurant closed years ago and should have been torn down a while back. But while it awaits its future, the restaurant houses squatters and the occasional satanic cult. The signs of the cult still adorn the subterranean walls of the restaurant.
Into this crumbling edifice overlooking the San Fernando Valley comes a new tenant, also in need of help. The film SUSHI GIRL has taken up residence in the myriad rooms.
SUSHI GIRL is the low-budget dream of producers Neal Fischer, Kern Sexton, and Destin Pfaff. Sexton and Pfaff wrote the picture which Sexton also directs. Fischer works for Davis Entertainment which brought us the RESIDENT EVIL series of films. Pfaff runs the Millionaire's Club matchmaking service as well as starring in the Millionaire Matchmaker television show on Bravo.
The budget for SUSHI GIRL wouldn't cover the catering budget for many feature films. It barely covers the expenses for SUSHI GIRL itself. The producers have called in lots of favors to staff the crew positions. They had to sweet talk Universal Studios into giving them a once-in-a-lifetime deal to cover the cost of the location. But once you give in to the dream, you stop focusing on all the roadblocks in your path to success.
Like Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner riding to the rescue of Mexican Peasants in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a hero arose to help the producers on their quest: Sonny Chiba. Why use an analogy to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN when this film has a Japanese motif? Wouldn't Toshiro Mifune and SEVEN SAMURAI be more appropriate? Because in the movie we're saving Americans, so we'll use an American analogy. We'll come back to a small Mifune anecdote later.
Who is Sonny Chiba? Upon meeting him, you might confuse him for an aging rockstar. He wears the leather jacket. Black jeans fit tightly around his legs. He's even got the expensive sunglasses on his head. You might guess he was in his late fifties, early sixties. You would be off by at least a decade. He does have a face that looks lived in. Chiba says, "I have a line (on my face) for each film I've appeared in." He stays trim as an example to other 71-year-old stars. If he can do it, so can they.
Mr. Chiba is probably best known by today's American audience for playing swordmaker Hattori Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL VOL 1. Tarantino leapt at the chance to have this stalwart of Japanese television and cinema in his motion picture. The Hattori Hanzo character played homage to a character Chiba played on television for six years (who was named Hanzo Hattori).
When Chiba was asked what character he would be playing in SUSHI GIRL, he laughingly replied, "Hattori Hanzo. Always Hattori Hanzo." In fact, he plays the sushi chef in SUSHI GIRL. He spent time training with sushi chefs to get the part just right.
If you are of an older generation, the name Sonny Chiba only means one thing, STREETFIGHTER (don't confuse this film with a Jean Claude Van Damme incarnation of the ‘90s based on the STREETFIGHTER videogame. Although Chiba has heard of the video game, he doesn't receive any royalties from it). During the early seventies he made a trilogy of films centered on the character of Takumi "Terry" Tsurugui. STREETFIGHTER was an epic of its time. The Motion Picture Association of America reviled the film so much that it awarded STREETFIGHTER the first X-rating for violence, mainly for a scene where Tsurugui castrates one of his opponents during a fight. There were two sequels to STREETFIGHTER as well as a spin-off called SISTER STREETFIGHTER. STREETFIGHTER was the first film that made a profit for the budding New Line Cinema.
But these few films don't give any scope to the breadth of Chiba's career. He first got his start at Toei Studios back in 1959. He was given an acting contract after winning the studio's talent search. Chiba wanted to be an Olympic gymnast but a back injury put an end to that quest. Since 1959 Chiba has, by his own accounts, appeared in almost seven hundred hours of episodic television and over two hundred movies. As well as acting in films, he writes and directs. He does his own stunt choreography. He is understandably proud of the fact he has never used a stunt double. At one point, Chiba had Jackie Chan as a student. Jackie Chan had come to him and said, "I've seen all of your movies. You're my role model. And I will never use a stunt man, just like you."
Chiba tried to put a project together with Bruce Lee. For ten years, they tried to find the right film and the right time. When Chiba finally got the chance to go to Hong Kong, he arrived for his meeting the day Bruce Lee died.
If you already knew all this, then you're probably wondering, Why is a man of Chiba's stature doing a picture of this minuscule size? Firstly, Chiba has a longstanding relationship with the producers of the film. But cultural reasons played a part as well. According to Producer Neal Fischer, Chiba thinks of working on SUSHI GIRL and its young crew much like the traditional Japanese relationship of Sempai and Kohai. In Japanese traditions, you have experienced older teachers, Sempai, who look out for and train less experienced apprentices, Kohai. Mr. Fischer thinks of Chiba as his elder brother. And Chiba refers to the cast and crew as his little brothers. Much was made by all parties that this was a very familial atmosphere. It came down to just asking Chiba if he would do the picture. Chiba simply responded, "Send me a ticket."
And it's not like he made the four-thousand-mile journey for the star treatment. His dressing room is just one more cubicle at the end of the honey wagon. It's just like the cubicles for the SUSHI GIRL, the production office and the men's room. Everyone gets treated the same on SUSHI GIRL. Chiba takes a casual attitude towards the environment surrounding the picture. "I've been in seven hundred hours of television. It's not like I haven't seen this before."
If it was just Chiba, chances are good the film would sink like a stone. You don't get people to come out in droves for a half-remembered star from Japan. But the name Sonny Chiba did act like a lodestone to attract other actors to the picture.
Noah Hathaway, probably best known as the character Atreyu from THE NEVERENDING STORY, was comfortably ensconced in Amsterdam when contacted via Facebook about the picture. Hathaway had pretty much turned his back on the motion picture business after sixteen years of acting. Getting crushed by a horse and breaking his back in his last role probably showed him the way to the door. In the next ten years Hathaway pursued martial arts with a passion, trying everything from muay hai to jiu jitsu. He became a tattoo artist. Hathaway lived his life and put acting on the back burner. That was, until he got the last-minute call to appear in SUSHI GIRL.
One day, Hathaway got up a little earlier than usual, checked his Facebook status, and saw a message asking if he wanted to be in this Grindhouse type of picture. Hathaway felt it was time for him to get back into what he was supposed to be doing: acting. The cherry on the cake was Chiba. "All they had to say was Sonny Chiba was in it," says Hathaway. "I didn't even read the script. He's the closest thing to a living Bruce Lee." They called him on a Thursday and he started shooting the following Tuesday.
In an ironic twist, or maybe that's just the way Hollywood works, Hathaway doesn't have any scenes with Chiba in the film. The closest he's gotten was watching Chiba practice with some wooden weapons in the parking lot in front of Fung Lum's. But all is not lost; Hathaway does get a chance to work with Chiba. The production company is making some viral videos in which Hathaway and Chiba will appear together. In their piece, Hathaway will get the crap beaten out of him by Chiba. Hathaway seems to be very excited about the prospect.
But Sonny Chiba isn't the only engine driving this project. The screenplay, written by Destin Pfaff and Kern Sexton, has also attracted its share of actors. When Tony Todd, best known for his role as THE CANDYMAN, read the screenplay, he immediately wanted to be part of the project. Not only does he want to act in the film in the role of Duke, Todd also signed on to be Executive Producer of the film. But Todd might be taking his character a bit too seriously. During the course of development and pre-production, he would send text messages to Producer Fischer all signed "Duke." For instance, Todd saw a hat he liked and texted Fischer, "I want this hat. –Duke."
In another scoop, the screenplay caught the attention of Mark Hamill. Again, it was another charmed incident. Originally, some other actor was up for the role of Crow. Because of scheduling delays and prior commitments, the other actor had to pass. The Casting Director approached Hamill to see if he wanted to do the film. After reading the screenplay, he was in. This is something of a coup. Hamill has mainly concentrated on his voice work over the last two decades. Only recently has he started appearing in front of the camera. His role of Crow in SUSHI GIRL has to be his most high-profile appearance in recent years, according to Fischer.
The only person in the cast who went through the traditional casting process for the picture was the Sushi Girl, Cortney Palm. Cortney spends the majority of the film covered in sushi on a table surrounded by the bad guys. Cortney saw a casting call in LA Casting and auditioned for the role. Cortney thought she had blown the audition and retreated to her home and ate away her disappointment with a bag potato chips. But the Producers kept calling her back. She eventually booked the gig.
Cortney loved Chiba in KILL BILL. She watched it multiple times growing up. When it came time to work with him, she was a little awestruck. "I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to mess up. Don't make me mess up. He's incredible," she thought before their first meeting.
The one thing about Chiba's preparation that surprised the cast and crew was his use of singing to get his voice ready for the scenes. Fischer, Hathaway and Cortney all remarked on it. According to Cortney, "He would sing to get his voice the way he wanted."
The producers and the stars of SUSHI GIRL are facing something far more treacherous than those Mexican Bandits in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. They face the vicissitudes of Hollywood. They'll need strong hearts and constitutions to bring their film to fruition. At least they have Chiba-san on their side.
Are you ready for that Mifune anecdote now? When you talk to one of the icons of Japanese Cinema, other icons often come up, especially if they've starred in a film together. Chiba and Mifune both appeared in 1981's THE BLOODY BUSHIDO BLADE. Chiba played Prince Edo. Mifune was The Shogun's Commander. Chiba said that during the day Mifune was a very solitary individual, a strong presence. But at night Mifune was a different person. He spent the nighttime carrying out the traditions of O'Toole, Harris and Burton. And Mifune's favorite person to accompany him on these after-hours romps was Director Akira Kurosawa. Mifune would stand on the stage at the end of the day and yell, "Akira!" challenging him to go out with him. Chiba did not accompany them on these excursions.
It's good to know that some filmmaking traditions are Universal.
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About Greg Lynch Jr.:
Greg Lynch Jr. is a frequent contributor to Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine and is working on a documentary about Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng. For more information, visit ironcrotchdoc.com.