Chozen is an enigma. The villain at the centre of the (criminally underrated) Karate Kid 2, he’s the bad guy you love to hate. He mugs the hero, tries to steal the girl, and worst of all, has no honour. He’s an absolute nightmare. Oh, and he’s a bully.
I hopped on the phone with none other than Yuji Okumoto, who played Chozen back in the eighties, and again on the hit series Cobra Kai.
Was playing such a merciless bully hard? “It was a relief to come back and play Chozen as a well-rounded character”, Yuji says. “But thinking back on the whole Karate Kid 2 experience… I relish that! I love playing the bad guy.”
“The thing about Chozen, and what I love, is that I was given the freedom to play this guy with a sense of joy. He relishes beating up on Daniel San, and being a bully… and that’s part of the fun of playing a good bad guy. I never thought, man I hate playing this guy… no. I love playing this guy.”
The universe of Karate Kid, and Cobra Kai, revolves around bullies and their potential to reform. Ever wonder if there was a real person underneath the dickish exterior of the guy who made your teenage years a living hell? Cobra Kai insists that anyone can be redeemed. But does Yuji believe that?
He thinks on this for a moment before replying. “I think anybody can make that switch. I mean, look at anyone who goes through rehabilitation, for whatever reason, whether it’s drug-related, or family issues. There are a lot of people out there who have a lot of issues. We all have our skeletons in the closet growing up, right? Nobody has a perfect life.”
“I think people do have the ability to turn themselves around and focus on the positives, and that’s kind of what Chozen did. Instead of focusing on all the negativity he created when he was younger, it’s up to him to focus on the things that are going right in his life now, as opposed to what wasn’t working before.”
The evolution of Chozen truly is a magic trick and one which Yuji and the showrunners have pulled off flawlessly. Cobra Kai has a habit of dropping Karate Kid alumni into the mix, and in season three of the show, viewers saw Daniel heading to Okinawa to find help with his battle against Cobra Kai. Meeting up with his ex-nemesis, he found that Chozen had become a fully-realised good guy. Now, in Cobra Kai season 5, Chozen has joined Daniel and Johnny’s desperate fight against Terry Silver, another classic Karate Kid baddie out for blood.
Actual blood, by the way. Silver is an absolute Bond villain. Just a platinum-grade bastard.
Chozen, though, has undergone the most growth out of anyone on the Cobra Kai roster. “Well, I think he’s become more well-rounded!”, Yuji exclaims. “Before, he was a little more one-dimensional, but the writers have done a terrific job in creating a real arc for him to play. And as an actor, it was a joy. Not only do I get to play Chozen with a sense of humour, but they still kept that edge. So on the one hand, I may be smiling… but on the other hand… I could just as easily take someone out!”
“Yeah”, I reply. “It’s strongly implied he’s been offscreen killing dudes all these years!” Yuji laughs at this – there’s a brilliant narrative hinted at in Cobra Kai that sure, Chozen has turned towards the light and become an extremely stand-up dude, becoming part of the LaRusso and Lawrence family. But he’s also openly willing to kill people. Is it an act? Is there a backstory Yuji was given by the creators to inform this murderous side?
Yuji laughs. “There’s no backstory that was created by the writers themselves… I think they have something in mind, but for me, I have my own backstory that I’ve created for Chozen. It’s that kind of dark past that he comes from, and he’s finally able to push through and see the light, and become this character with some real redemption. And that’s his whole journey now, you know? It’s about redemption, and it’s about honour.”
Chozen comes good after his 1986 beatdown with Daniel and dedicates himself to being an honourable, driven, productive guy. In short, he makes a massive lifestyle pivot. Speaking of which, here’s a fun fact: Yuji and his wife started a restaurant in Seattle back in the early 2000s. I tell Yuji about the time I went to Kona Kitchen, which serves up tasty Hawaiian fare (this isn’t a plug or anything, I just can’t pretend I didn’t eat myself stupid there and have to roll home after).
Yuji lights up when I mention his foray into restauranteering. “When I first started Koda Kitchen, I did it because… I didn’t have anything else to do here in Seattle! There wasn’t much work to do acting-wise, so I said, hey! Let’s do a restaurant! My wife’s family comes from the restaurant business, so we had that going for us… my wife was a CPA, super smart and savvy, and here I am… what do I know how to do? So they stuck me in the kitchen! And I learned on the job, right? And let me tell you. Cooking at home – which I totally enjoy – is completely different from working in a commercial kitchen!”
“I do love food. But I’m gluten-free!” I boo, and he laughs, nodding in agreement. “The worst! It’s the worst! I try to be really strict and disciplined about my diet. I mean, it affects my body in ways that aren’t good for me… but listen, you saw the first episode where I’m shirtless, right? So I lost weight for that. I ate salads, and protein, just prepping for that one scene. I did it all – I cut sugars, everything. Just to get cut, right? And I thought… hey! I can do this! It’s the first episode up! So they look at me and go, OK, we’re sorry. We’re gonna have to push that scene a little.”
I pause, then ask him just how far they had to push it. “Episode seven. Seven! So I had to forego all these things that I look forward to for ages! A little pasta! A little rice! I mean, are you kidding me? But… I stuck to it! I did it!”
It looks like both Chozen and Yuji can change things up.
Catch all five seasons of Cobra Kai right now on Netflix.