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Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011
Mako: the Japanese-American actor who fought racist stereotypes
Special to The Japan Times
Second of two parts
When "The Green Hornet," the old radio and comic book series about the masked white vigilante, was turned into a television series in 1966-'67, Japanese-American actor Mako played the Chinese Low Sing, while Chinese-American and Hong Kong actor Bruce Lee played the Japanese Kato. You gotta love Hollywood!
It has never mattered very much to the moguls of schlock "what part Asia you from." The race barrier for blacks has been broken for decades, thanks to the pioneering work of such brilliant actors as Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier and others. Roles for blacks are no longer race specific. Black actors have played top spies and presidents. Morgan Freeman has even played God.
But the last and most stubborn racial barrier in Hollywood is the Asian one.
Mako, whose full name was Makoto Iwamatsu, was born on Dec. 10, 1933 in Kobe. Last week in Counterpoint I wrote about his father, artist and illustrator Taro Yashima. The Yashimas left Japan in 1939 for New York and were not able to bring their son to the United States until well after the war.
I met Mako 30 years ago. He approached me with the proposition of producing my play, "Yamashita," at the theater he had established in Los Angeles in 1965, East West Players. "Yamashita," which takes place in Hawaii in 1959, is a play about racism and the scar tissue left in the minds of the victims of war. (The play ran in their 1982-'83 season.)
Mako was ever bitter about the way film and television producers stereotyped Asians. He was an actor with an immense gift for portraying compassion on screen; but he could be your cruel avenger at the drop of a hat, as well. Yet, the roles he was given were almost entirely race specific: a string of Asians from all over the continent and region as a foil for the great white hero.
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Mako enlisted. His father had served in the U.S. military. In addition, special naturalization provisions for non-Americans serving in the U.S. armed forces had been in place since the Civil War. (He naturalized in 1956.) It was in the army, while performing for his buddies, that Mako became aware that he had acting talent.
After leaving the service, with his family now living in Los Angeles, he took up study at the Pasadena Playhouse, a school of the theater arts that has produced major talents over many decades. While actors such as Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman left the Pasadena Playhouse to shoot to the top of their profession, Mako was offered roles "befitting his background." He became determined to break through the bamboo ceiling and be seen as an actor, first and last.
Between 1962 and 1964, he played various types of Japanese soldiers opposite his Pasadena Playhouse friend Ernest Borgnine in the popular TV series about a U.S. PT boat in World War II, "McHale's Navy." But his big break came in 1966, when he acted with Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Candice Bergen in "The Sand Pebbles."
"The Sand Pebbles" is a film about an American gunboat on the Yangtze River in the mid-1920s in China. Mako was Po-Han, a tough Chinese working in the engine room. This role brought him a nomination for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. A number of parts came his way on television, where, as in "M*A*S*H" in the 1970s, he portrayed Koreans from both sides of the Demilitarized Zone and a Chinese.
But I think that Mako was most at home around a stage. He was a totally hands-on artistic director at East West Players, which he ran with his actress and dancer wife Shizuko Hoshi. And he fought hard to get the part of the Reciter in Steven Sondheim's 1976 Broadway musical, "Pacific Overtures."
"We couldn't let people say Asian American actors can't act," he said.
Mako had a career in Japan as well, though, as was the case with his predecessor in Hollywood, Sesshu Hayakawa, he was never taken back into the Japanese fold and offered the kinds of major roles his talent deserved.
He first appeared in Japan in 1967, in the TBS TV drama "Naite Tamaru ka" together with famous actor Kiyoshi Atsumi. Other roles followed, such as that of pre-Meiji Era (1868-1912) interpreter John Manjiro in "Tenno no Seiki" in 1971. Film director Takashi Miike used Mako to play a Chinese named Shen in a remote Chinese village in his 1998 film, "The Bird People in China"; and Masahiro Shinoda directed him as the daimyo warrior Hideyoshi in his 1999 movie, "Fukuro no Shiro" ("Owl's Castle"), based on the Naoki Prize-winning novel by Ryotaro Shiba. But, in many senses, Mako was just as much an exotic figure to the Japanese as he was to the Americans.
Small roles in films with stars such as Charlton Heston, Robert Duvall, Arnold Schwarznegger and even Brad Pitt kept Mako in Hollywood's eye. He appeared as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in the 2001 war blockbuster "Pearl Harbor." "Tatakau shika nai!" ("We have no choice but to fight!") he says to his cohorts in that film, informing them that Japan was going to attack the U.S. But the leading role that he craved simply as an actor never came his way in either of his two homes.
One of my favorite performances of his is as Tan the grandfather in the 2007 film made in Singapore, "Cages." This is a film about a little blind boy who always smiles; and Mako overwhelms us with his tenderness and grace in it.
"I've always been more interested in character development, more than plot or action or special effects," he said of this and, by extension, all his roles.
In his last years he endeared himself to a new generation of audience as a voice actor in animated TV series, particular in the role of Aku, "the evil shape-shifting master of darkness" in "Samurai Jack," and as Iroh, the legendary Fire Nation General in "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
Mako passed away in the small town of Somis, California on July 21, 2006, leaving his wife, two daughters, three grandchildren and his sister, actress Momo Yashima Brannen.
Once, when he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical ("Pacific Overtures"), he had an unpleasant experience on the way home from the ceremony. He was still wearing his kabuki-style costume when someone on the street hollered, "Hey, why don't you go back to China!"
He said later he would have refused the Tony had he won it.
"Why? Asian American actors have never been treated as full-time actors. We're always hired as part-timers ... for race-specific roles. ... I didn't feel I could accept the award as long as Asian Americans were not treated (as equals) in our profession."
Mako goes down in history not only as a world-class actor and theater producer, but also as a warrior for the civil rights of all minorities oppressed by ingrained racist stereotypes of a majority.