Two mysterious lands far away from one another — yet linked by seas of soybeans — birthed a child born of melody, harmony, rhythm, and the smell of soy sauce. The child was destined to become a musician… and a tofu-loving pescetarian. But first, between musical gifts, came dreams of Jedi knighthood, ninjas, and flying with a cape.
My dad says he took me to Return of the Jedi when I was 3. I don’t remember it, but judging from the reaction my mom gives when this is mentioned, it happened. What I do remember very well from childhood is becoming obsessed with Superman in the early 80s. It seemed about right being surrounded by farms in a Nebraska town 60 miles from Smallville (okay, the Kansas border). Superman links farmland Nebraska with farmland Goiás (Brazil). My dad and my tio Laurinho took me to Superman III a year later. Remember, it took a bit more time for movies to travel back then. After that, it was capes and the same tio, or anyone else I could get, making me fly in both Brazil and the U.S. while trying not to break stuff.
The Superman obsession bounced back to Star Wars once I was in school. I got myself caught up and learned about the connections between Eastern philosophy and influences on the characters Lucas created. A seed was surely planted at that time. I’ve still got most of my action figures and am quite proud of my limited edition Anakin (from Jedi). My little guy will get them soon.
“Sit down son, watch this with me. It’s a good one.” I was nine or ten, and the “good one” was Bruce Lee’s masterpiece that set the gold standard for a genre: Enter The Dragon. My mind was blown. Looking back, I think I was very lucky that I watched Enter The Dragon before Bloodsport. Without mentioning all of the awesomeness that stands the test of time that is Bruce Lee, I’m still in awe that a film from the early 70s cast three male leads of different ethnic backgrounds together and made it work.
I bring this up, because in the late 80s and early 90s — once I was hooked and ready to feast on whatever martial arts action movie I could find — it turned out they all fit this new take on Cowboys and Indians. Think about it: a Euro-American (or many times, European) is trained, or captured in a war, or has to fight for revenge or redemption. Whatever it was, it was an Anglo face staring down and then fucking up people of color. Pretty much all of The Expendables, especially Chuck Norris, need some serious diversity training.
I fell in love with martial arts cinema as a kid and I tried not to let the diversity issue bother me, but it would always pop up in the back of my mind. “How cool was that move? So Sweet! Oh, of course, the bad guy looks like my uncle. Well, shit.” Speaking of my uncle, Tio Laurinho mentioned before, he also introduced me to a channel called Machete that surely had actual programming, but to me, seemed to only broadcast Metal Heroes and Super Sentai shows from Japan, horribly dubbed into Portuguese.
I was captivated. There was one show that ruled them all though: Jaspion. Everyone else my age was also into Jaspion too and the episodes seemed to be rerun daily. I can still hum the opening tune on cue, any time, any place.
All of the pre-Power Rangers stuff was okay, but the thing I liked about Jaspion was while he had sidekicks, there was no team. He did all the same stuff as they did in the Super Sentai shows, but he did it solo. He could be goofy, but he was a bad-ass when duty called and took on whatever ugly latexey monster thing was causing trouble. The fight choreography, while crappy, was better than the other shows on Machete.
Back in Nebraska, the Bixby Incredible Hulk show started rerunning on some channel, and my dad said I could watch it with him. I wasn’t too into it until a blind lawyer by day turned into a vigilante ninja by night in The Trial of The Incredible Hulk. I didn’t have a lot of free time as a preteen and didn’t really get into comics. I was practicing instruments and playing in different ensembles constantly, but I had a friend that was a comic kid and somehow by my interests, he pulled two Marvel guys for me: Wolverine and Daredevil.
I knew enough basics about Wolverine via the X-Men cartoon airing, and was already relating to the “being different” themes, but I got much more into all of Logan’s past lives, especially his times in Japan. With Daredevil, it took me back to the Hulk show and I really became a fan of the comic. I expected all the fun martial arts action, but the darkness and pain in the characters were really what made me come back for more. I enjoyed all of Frank Miller’s work, but man, when Kevin Smith got a hold of Daredevil, something magical happened.
It was still pretty rare to find Hong Kong cinema in either one of the lands of soybeans. I feel lucky I had an indirect friend of a friend whose parents were from Hong Kong and was able to pass on the good shit. I got some early Jackie, which lead to Sammo, which lead to Jet Li, which lead to my favorite: Donnie Yen. Not since Bruce had someone made it work like Donnie. I remember rewinding (remember that!) the Donnie x Jet Li Once Upon a Time in China II fights over and over thinking I would break the tape. This was topped by one of my favorite fight scenes ever filmed between Donnie and Collin Chou in Flash Point.
Then the prodigal son, Brandon Lee, rose from the ashes of the dragon’s fire when I discovered Showdown in Little Tokyo. I will say this about Dolph Lundgren: he sucks, but he helped launch Brandon’s career. A multi-ethnic lead that had the martial arts skills and comedic timing to finally do it right and continue expanding the bridge between Hollywood and Hong Kong his father completed. I was so excited.
Unfortunately, we all know how that story tragically ended.
At this point you may be thinking that I have some kind of violent streak. The truth is, while I’ve gotten myself into some Black Bloc situations, I’m a pretty peaceful performing artist-radical-lefty-type-guy. Music has always been my outlet and focus. The woodwind family is my Achilles heel, but I can play about any other instrument. I’ve played so many styles and genres that I’m not even sure of what I do and don’t like musically anymore. Fatherhood has slowed some of the art, but the ideals of bushido still fill me up and takeover my dreams. I suppose as an artist I try to find the “art” part of the martial arts. After watching so many on-screen battles and hearing that my cousin was moving up the belts in Taekwondo, I was twelve, I thought it was time to try it for real.
I remember thinking, “I’ve seen so much, should be easy.” Turns out martial arts by osmosis doesn’t really work like in Chocolate.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the training and it opened other doors to Capoeira in Brazil, which lead to early exposure to some crazy family named Gracie before everything blew up there, and some Muay Thai in college. I’m quite casual with it now and my biggest fight at present is finding free time to get to the gym, but Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with a touch of Kali and Jeet Kune Do keeps me moving. I will say this: being a drummer and having rhythm definitely helps in martial arts and combat sports. It’s poetic that two decades after watching Enter The Dragon with my papai, I am learning some of Bruce’s art form for real.
At present I try to keep the martial arts cinephile alive, but the movies don’t come as often. I hate to keep bringing up The Expendables, but until we’d almost forgot about those guys, there were some talented and multiethnic martial artists and actors entering the game.
The world shrinking via technology has also helped in this regard too so that somebody like Donnie Yen — who, because he was raised in the States, speaks better English than either Jackie Chan or Jet Li — doesn’t even have to mess with Hollywood to be a household name (though I know that could change with the next Crouching Tiger). I’ll try to keep an eye out for those sweet moves either on-screen or in the octagon for folks now and then.
Oh, and I enjoy my tofu marinated in orange juice. Delicia.