‘Memoirs’ of a local: Tagawa talks story

Actor Cary Tagawa’s first trip to Kaua‘i was in 1981. K s taauya, ‘hi ew wasa likne 1d9 8th1e. DNuar Pinagli hCiso absrti ef and camped in the Kalalau Valley. It was the time he spent there, Tagawa said, that made it clear the island had an effect on his spirit. He would always remember that time and place.

In 1992, while he was shooting “Rising Sun,” things got pretty hectic in Los Angeles where he, his wife skyscape artist Sally Phillips, and his kids were living. He sent his family out and decided that he wanted to move them to a safe and peaceful place. There was no doubt in his mind that Kaua‘i was where he wanted to move.

“I knew I wanted Kaua‘i and not any other island to move my family to,” he said.

He reflected on his own childhood, growing up an Asian “Army brat” in the South, moving every two years to a different neighborhood and always having to make new friends. He didn’t want his children to go through any of the things he had to; he said his main focus has always been the welfare of his two kids and not his acting career.

“Having been raised in the military and be2006ing Japanese, I was overtly sensitive and aware of being different. I’m appreciative that my children don’t have to feel that here. I have peace of mind,” Tagawa said.

The Tagawas arrived on Kaua‘i after Hurricane ‘Iniki. Son Calen and daughter Brynne currently attend Kapa‘a High School.

“Kaua‘i people are very special.

They’ve been so great in allowing us to raise our kids here and accepted us as everyone else,” he said.

Wife Sally Phillips said that in moving to Kaua‘i, Tagawa even knew which neighborhood he wanted to live in.

“He knew he wanted to move here, and that Kilauea was probably the nicest place to be,” she said.

They had a farm in Kilauea where the kids got to play with animals, but as the kids got older, they moved to the Kong Lung family house.

“The kids have had a wonderful experience growing up on Kaua‘i,” Phillips said.

For filming in movies, Tagawa leaves the island for short periods of time, but tries not to miss any of his son’s athletic games.

Calen, who is in his senior year at Kapa‘a High School, played football in the fall, is currently on the basketball team, and will run track in the spring.

“I think I missed one game this year,” he said.

Tagawa could also be found on the sidelines of the football field helping out the injured players.

This past year though, it was tougher working out his schedule. He appeared in five films released in 2005, his latest one being the much-hyped “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Daughter Brynne accompanied him for the Los Angeles premiere.

“We had a make-up artist for her and got her a pretty dress,” he said. “Halfway through the night, she was complaining about the high heels. She said, ‘what local girl wears high heels?’” Aside from attending premieres, Tagawa has been defending the film against the criticism of the film’s Chinese actresses.

“It’s an American male, directing a film by an American author, working through Chinese translators,” he said. “It’s all interpretation. It was much better to have someone who is up for the challenge (of making the film).” Tagawa admitted though, that at first, he did have some reservations because it was a film about Japanese culture. Tagawa himself has played characters of a different descent.

However, he said, in those roles, the race of the character was not pertinent to the story the way it is in “Memoirs.” But his hesitations were cast aside once he realized that director Rob Marshall and the actresses Ziyi Zhang, Li Gong and Michelle Yeoh were seriously dedicated to the film.

“When you see that, you have to honor that,” he said.

He leaves for Japan on Monday, and has a few more premieres for “Memoirs” to attend.

“I’m going to Korea, we have the Paris premiere in March, and I’m going to the United Arab Emirates,” he said. “The film opens there. I’ve never been to the Middle East before, and I want to be there to promote the film.” But Tagawa said it’s not all big events for him. He visits schools and conferences to speak at events about his life, growing up and how he pursued acting. Just this past Wednesday, he spoke to a gym full of teenage boys at the Damien Memorial School in Honolulu. Last December, he spoke to a crowd at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.

“It’s always inspiring when I do these,” he said. “Kids will come up to me and it’s always nice to have someone appreciate your work.” Of his popular roles, such as Commander Mirou Genda in “Pearl Harbor” and ShangTsung in “Mortal Kombat,” his favorite role to date is still Johnny Tsunami in the movie of the same title.

“It gave me the opportunity to present warmth and aloha about the island adult,” he said. “I understand the kind of mentality of the bad guy. But with Johnny Tsunami, it was the closest to my personal nature as a soft-spoken local guy.” He will be traveling to Asia several times this year to move towards a more Asian-based career. In a trip he made three months ago as part of a Martial Arts Invitational Tournament, he saw huge market potential and will be looking into that.

This summer, he will also be working with the Hawaii Opera Theatre in its production of “The King and I.” “I’m always up for surprising people,” he said.

With all this on his plate, he makes a point to not stay away from Kaua‘i for long.

“To be in the water is one of my favorite things to do — anywhere on the island, as long as I’m in the water,” he said. “I love watching the clouds go by. I call it a cloud parade. I could just sit and watch all day.” Tagawa said his favorite spot is near Larsen’s Beach, more towards Moloa‘a. Even as his kids grow up and move away, he said, he thinks he will always want to have a home here.

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