Our Lives | BLACK EYE

Whatever the role, if it’s tough, ‘Chuck can do it’

by Baye McNeil

When conducting interviews, I tend to ask people what initially brought them to Japan, because I like to compare their before and after lives.

I’ve found that a good number of expats here are no longer engaged in what originally prompted them to leave home. They come here and follow whatever opportunities present themselves and wind up in wholly unrelated fields. I’ve known English instructors to become models, photographers, DJs, professional YouTubers — you name it. Meanwhile, others come here with an expertise they acquired back home, determined to take it to the next level.

Chuck Johnson, 39, is a bit of both. He landed here with, literally, some kick-ass skills under his belt, being a former taekwondo champion. However, this high-level skill set would eventually lead him into a world he couldn’t have seen coming back in 1996 in Lansing, Michigan, when he won the Michigan State Junior Olympic Taekwondo Championship — this just 2½ years after he’d taken up the sport at 15, and six days after becoming a black belt.

Nowadays he’s an actor, writer, director, producer and a stuntman (one of the first people of African descent to become one in Japan) who founded his own stunt team (apparently the first non-Japanese to have done so in the Japanese film industry), which are extraordinary accomplishments for a person for whom Japan wasn’t even a glimmer in his eye.

Olympic dreams in Korea

When Johnson first made his way to Asia, he was chasing his dream of representing the U.S. on the taekwondo team in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Taekwondo originated in South Korea and the greatest practitioners of the art live there, so Johnson made it his business to somehow get to the country and study with the best. As a student at Michigan State University, he learned about a study-abroad program in South Korea and made use of it so that he could continue his academic pursuits while training overseas.

“Nowadays there are Olympic gold medalists all over the world,” Johnson says. “Even the U.S. has a strong Olympic taekwondo program. But back in the late ’90s everybody in Korea was wiping up the floor with everyone else around the world. So, if you wanted to be great you had to go to Korea.”

Unfortunately, he would fall short of his Olympic ambitions because he lacked the financing necessary to maintain his training consistently, but little did he know at that point — feeling exhausted mentally and physically, and broke to boot — that he was on a collision course with a destiny that awaited him in one of South Korea’s Asian neighbors. In early 2001, after a brief stint in China, he made his way to Japan for a fresh start.

“I was into taekwondo, but my brother, he was into kendo, so he was already here in Japan,” says Johnson, when I asked “Why Japan?” “And I had another friend who’d come here to teach English and pay off his student loans, which is something I needed to do as well. I’d accrued a lot of debt from school and paying for my training in Korea. I didn’t know it at the time, but it actually costs quite a lot of money to become an Olympian.”

Called to action in Japan

Johnson found work as an English instructor at a conversation school, but before he knew it, opportunities to put his skills to work began presenting themselves. First, through a guy he met at a party, he was able to land a gig as a bodyguard for celebrities.

Other opportunities followed, but his big break came in 2005 when he got into modeling and was hired as an extra on the film “Godzilla: Final Wars.”

“That got me on a film set for the first time and that was a game-changer!” says Johnson. “I walked into the agency and they told me they were looking for martial arts champions. This was around the time ‘The Matrix’ was very popular, so they needed guys who could fight well. And that was it for me. I’d found what I wanted to do! And because of my background in taekwondo, I wound up being a featured extra.”

He met a lot of Japanese people in the film industry while working on the set, and asked their advice on how to make sure this would not be his first and last time on a set in Japan.

“I was advised to get on an action team,” Johnson says. “Basically, any time an action film is made, the studio hires an action director or a stunt coordinator, and that person brings his own action team that do all the stunts. At the time I didn’t know any Japanese or anything about Japanese culture, but I knew I wanted this, so I just started training with an action team. No film work, yet — just training.”

For two years Johnson trained with the action team between film projects and sat the bench during productions. It was a tough time, but entirely necessary for a reason that was not so obvious.

“I was well-liked and all, but you simply can’t get on set until you’re good enough. Not only was I working against a severe language barrier, and cultural barrier, but martial arts for film and martial arts in real life are completely different animals!

“Sometimes it’s easier to train a gymnast or a dancer how to do martial arts for film than it is a martial artist because we already have ideas about how we’re supposed to move and how things are supposed to look,” Johnson explains. “Sometimes people can’t wrap their heads around the differences. So, for me to do this I had to spend a lot of time emptying my cup, so to speak, because it’s just so different.”

Then, one day the director gave him his first shot, on a film called “Death Trance.” On the strength of the exposure he got in these two films, he began to get more calls than he made to get work.

“At the time there were no other foreigners here doing this kind of work. There weren’t even roles being written for us because Japanese producers assumed there weren’t any foreigners here who could do it. But the more films I did, the more people could see that there was this guy who could! That was me.

“Even if I wasn’t the perfect fit, some of these action directors that knew me would just put me in the film anyway once they knew me. They’d be like, ‘OK, we need a 60-year-old white dude who’s about 50 pounds overweight … but we don’t have that, so let’s just use Chuck. Chuck can do it.'”

Quiet Flame. blazing trail

To date, Johnson has been in over 100 films, television programs, video games and commercials. He’s even done theater in his capacity as an action actor and stuntman.

Soon the amount of work became too much. When he found himself refusing offers due to not having the time, or because the roles didn’t “feel right,” that motivated him to launch his own production company, Quiet Flame, laying the groundwork for what he calls Asia’s first all-English-speaking multi-ethnic stunt team.

“One of the frustrations that I had was I kept feeling like there was work I could do, but I’d be relegated to doing things that were really stereotypical or had negative connotations for black people,” Johnson says. “I was working a lot, but I didn’t necessarily like the work I was doing. You’ll see a lot of recycled roles for black people, like military guys or ruffians or security guards. There’s nothing wrong with being a soldier or security guard, but there’s much more to us than that.

“I remember this one time I was on a TV show where there was a sports competition between foreigners and Japanese, and they wanted me to say like really racist things about the Japanese guys. I just refused to do it. I told them I’ll do the sports part but I’m not gonna do that. I just ignored what the director said — which is probably why they never called me back again.”

The spark for Quiet Flame Productions was when one of Johnson’s friends, a producer in Los Angeles, put a bug in his ear about making entertaining self-defense videos on YouTube. So, Johnson started a YouTube program he called “How to Defeat Dudes,” where he shows normal untrained people how to defend themselves. On the strength of the show he was able to get the funding he needed to pursue another idea that had been percolating in his mind.

“You know Yasuke, the first black samurai, right?” he asked me. “I would absolutely love to make a film about him, and play him in the film, but I didn’t have the funding to make it on the scale I’d like. So instead what I did was is, in 2011, I made a short action comedy about a samurai-obsessed black dude who drank too much absinthe and started having samurai hallucinations! It’s called ‘Fists of Absinthe.'”

“YouTube financed the film,” he says. “They covered all the insurance, the transportation costs, they paid for all the costumes and even gave me full access to Toei Studios in Kyoto!” The film also garnered him a distribution deal with TBS, so Quiet Flame is off to a good start.

“If you want to get into the film industry here, you’ve really got to hustle and be on point,” Johnson says, when asked for tips for people looking to follow the trail he’s blazing with Quiet Flame. “Anyone who is successful in film has people that they know and trust, and who don’t necessarily like working with new people because new people represent risk. So, if you wanna get in, then it must be worth these people’s time to overlook the people they already know and trust to give you a shot. So, yeah, you have to be really, really on point!”

Quiet Flame: www.quiet-flame.com/jp. Chuck Johnson on YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/C2thaJ. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.