Yuji Okumoto on Cobra Kai season 3: 'Chozen has gone through a lot of soul searching'
“Live or die, man?" You better believe that this Cobra Kai season 3 showdown between Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is a callback to the duo’s climactic battle in The Karate Kid Part II. The upcoming third season of the YouTube-turned-Netflix hit (premiering in January) finds Daniel heading to Japan to save his struggling car-dealership chain. During a stop in Okinawa, he crosses paths with his former fight-to-the-death nemesis, Chozen. EW caught up with Okumoto, 61, about stepping into Chozen's gi once again, and how much fun he and Macchio had "kicking each other's asses."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did producers approach you to return?
YUJI OKUMOTO: I believe it was back in September of 2019 when I got a call from my agent regarding the project, and their interest in using me in the upcoming season. I was always hoping that the writers and producers would bring back Chozen into the Cobra Kai world… My biggest concern, however, was how Chozen would be portrayed. And after talking with the creators of the show I thought they really had a good grasp of which direction the character should go. So when I got the script I thought they did a terrific job with the dialogue and creating a very interesting story line for Chozen.
They were able to incorporate a sense of humor and danger which made the character Chozen a hell of a lot of fun to play. I just didn’t want him to be a stereotype, kind of a one-dimensional character.
Backing up a bit, what did you think when you first heard they were making Cobra Kai?
I just didn’t know which way the show was going to go. It could go south really quickly if it’s not done right. They’re in good hands. The producers that were involved in the show — Jon, Josh, and Hayden — who’s not going to like Hot Tub Time Machine? Who’s not going to like Harold & Kumar? I thought they were in good hands from a writing perspective, and I trust that because William [Zabka] was involved, they’d probably have a good idea of which way the show should go, and of course with Ralph attached to it. I was hoping and praying the show was a success, because you don’t want the Karate Kid legacy to be tainted at all. I would hate for Pat [Morita] to be rolling in his grave saying “WHY did you do this?”
My daughter, who was probably 16 at the time, she binge-watched the entire season [when the show premiered]. She was like, "This is so good!" And I hadn’t even seen the show. So when she told me about it, I ended up watching it and was pleasantly surprised.
When Cobra Kai premiered, did people start asking you if you were going to be on the show?
Yeah. Before I was even asked to be on the show, I had my family and friends and people on social media constantly asking me, when was I going to be on the show? [Laughs] What am I going to say? I said, "I have no idea. It’s not up to me. I mean, if you folks want to go out there and post stuff, and nudge the producers and creators of the show, then by all means, have at it!"
When Netflix dropped the teaser trailer for Cobra Kai season 3, I mean, all bets were off. It was so hard when you had just a huge amount of push from people saying, “I saw you!” “I think I saw you!” “Was that you?” It was crazy because it was all speculation out there. And if you go on social media and see all these blogs, too, it is insane the theories these people come up with and the amount of investigative work that they put into trying to figure out, Is that Chozen?
I had to be very careful with my words. I didn’t want to outright lie, I just had to finagle my way of giving it a true answer. It was a lot of finessing. I had to be really creative. I just want to say to all the folks out there, sorry, I wish I could have said something, but I couldn’t spill the beans. It was hard! Even my kids, I told them, please do not say anything about any of this to your friends. They stuck to their guns. I’ve gotta hand it to them, they didn’t say a word.
Had you thought about where Chozen would be today?
Yeah, I mean, when you play such an iconic bad guy in a successful film, you kind of keep that memory always with you. You always wonder what happened to this character, where did he go after this all went down, where he lost his honor and all that stuff. I had written this whole long history when I first shot Karate Kid Part II. That’s what I like to do with all my characters.
I wrote his backstory and history. It’s funny, because when the Cobra Kai people came to me, I actually had all this stuff still recorded, and I had a nice discussion and gave them my input about what had happened to him possibly after the final showdown with him and Daniel. I never forgot about Chozen, because he was a big part of my life.
Chozen was always a very stylish guy, and he had that signature look — flashy gold necklaces, shirts unbuttoned way down to his navel. How would you describe his look today?
Old habits die hard. I think there still is part of that flashiness, but I think within the Cobra Kai world it’s a little more toned down. But he fancies his nice watch, or when he goes out, he probably would dress really nicely. But I think it’s a little more conservative now.
It’s funny, because going back to Karate Kid Part II, I’ll never forget, I had this meeting — it was what they call the wardrobe parade, where you try on all these different outfits for the director and producers. Back and forth, back and forth, into the dressing room, coming out, doing this like fashion show for them. What was funny is that the outfits were picked [for Chozen] were very flashy — gold chains and Rolex watches and button-down shirts that were open all the way to your navel. I was like, "Wow, this is really flashy and not me." But then I look over at one of the producers and he’s dressed exactly like that. I was like, "Okay, I get it now." It was classic.
Did you actually shoot in Okinawa with Ralph?
Yeah, that was probably the highlight of being on Cobra Kai. The whole style of Miyagi-Do is based off of Goju-Ryu, which was founded in Okinawa. So being able to shoot where Goju-Ryu style karate began was really special. I can’t even explain how blown away I was to actually have made it to Okinawa to shoot Cobra Kai, and to be there with Ralph, it was so memorable.
What was it like working with Ralph again?
It’s like reuniting with an old friend — not that we’re old, mind you. [Laughs] The thing I love about working with someone like Ralph is he’s a pro. He doesn’t bitch and moan about stuff, he just does the work. I can’t say enough about how fortunate I was to be brought onto the show and to be reunited with him. When we initially [reunited] it was via a phone call, and he wanted the two of us to get together to rehearse the fight scene together. Because we had probably four significant fight scenes in that episode, so he wanted to bring me out about a week early to Atlanta to go over and rehearse the fights — which at my age, that’s a blessing. We had a chance to get together and rehearse, and then catch up and talk story in between kicking each other’s asses.
What can you tease about these fight scenes?
Well, sometimes art imitates life, and I’ll tell you a story about the fight sequences that we had. The stunt coordinator on the show, the fight choreographer, was Hiro Koda, who I had worked with back in the day on two other shows. So working with him, being reunited with Hiro was awesome. When I got the show, I said, “Oh God, now I’ve gotta get into shape. This is gonna take a lot of work. I’ve gotta make this karate master believable.” So I started working out with a buddy of mine out here in Seattle.
When I saw the show, I think it might have been the first episode, when William Zabka, the character of Johnny, was fighting these teenagers outside this minimart and he pulls his hammy. I thought, wow, that’s hysterical because that would happen in a fight — sometimes when you’re older, whatever. And sure enough, on my last fight on the set of Cobra Kai, I threw a kick and I pulled my hammy so bad. [Laughs] My first thought was, "Seriously???"
I remember Ralph and the producers came over and they checked on me. And I was like, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine,” but I wasn’t. I was basically a one-legged fighter at that point. They said, "Do you need to go to the ER?" I said, "You’re going to have to drag me kicking and screaming off of this set before I will go get checked into an ER. I am staying, I am finishing this last fight scene." I was just having too much fun.
Were you able to finish the scene?
Oh yeah. I was on one leg, but they kind of shot it at an angle, so I’d throw my leg out there and they just kind of captured my upper body instead of trying to catch the kick. When I got back to Seattle, I said, "Okay, time for rehab."
Do you think fans will feel that they get closure with how Daniel and Chozen’s story plays out?
Yeah, I think so. Chozen has gone through a lot of soul searching after losing his fight with Daniel. I think that he saw the light, and — this is just my take — I think through the dedication that he put into getting back into martial arts for the right reasons, I think he started to understand what the true meaning of martial arts is, and what the true meaning of honor is. So I think when people see the end scene between Chozen and Daniel, I think they will be satisfied with that closer. And who knows, beyond that. I’m kind of the last Miyagi-Do connection for Daniel’s character. There’s always that possibility for them to continue. I’m hoping.
If Cobra Kai producers asked you to come back, would you want to?
Oh, in a heartbeat.