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Steven Seagal: Kingpin of aïkido

By ✉ webmaster@lesbellesaffiches.com

Story available in french here

In 2016, our sovereign lord and master Steven Seagal has been working on no fewer than eleven movies, including the grand announcement of a sequel to Above the Law released in 1988: Above The Law 2, Nico's Revenge. The career of the colossus from Michigan has spanned nearly thirty years and his unique style has propelled him to the realms of immortal star alongside the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Bruce Lee. A 7th dan "Shihan" master in aikido, a black belt in karate, and a naturalized Serb who dons a Russian kimono, Steven has led several different lives. In this not-to-be-missed article we tell all.

Steven Seagal © steven-seagal.net
1960 – 1980: the disciple

Born on the 10th of April 1952 in Lansing in the State of Michigan, Steven Frederic Seagal hails from a middle-class background that was far-removed from the world of cinema. His mother was a medical technician, his father a high-school maths teacher and his grand-parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. From the age of seven, young Steven discovered a passion for martial arts and began learning with the celebrated Fumio Demura (the on-set instructor for Karate Kid, Mortal Kombat and Ninja) with whom he gained his black belt: "I felt attracted by Asia owing to my father's Mongolian origins". The family soon moved to Orange County in California where he began specializing in aikido with "Sensei" masters Harry Ishisaka and Koichi Tohei. In 1974 he gained his first dan and flew directly to Osaka, Japan, to perfect his art with the "O'Sensei" grand master Morihei Ueshiba. This was a turning point. In Japan he met and married Miyako Fujitani with whom he had two children. He studied Buddhism, calligraphy, acupuncture, medicinal herbs and the flow of Zen. He then learnt to speak Japanese, shut himself away for long spells and worked hard. After several years he gained his seventh dan and now it was his turn to become a "Sensei", Master Shigemichi Take. In the process, he opened his own dojo in Osaka, the aptly named "Tenshin Aikido Dojo", which today belongs to his Japanese family-in-law. He thus became the first foreigner to own and teach aikido in the land of the art's origins, quite some achievement when you consider the Japanese mentality. It was also round about this time that rumours arose claiming that he had been approached by the CIA and hired as a bodyguard. Whatever, but in 1982 he was back home in Los Angeles where he opened his "Ten Shin" dojo and became the personal instructor for a number of rich local clients, to whom he imparted a discipline based on self-defence and restraint. His talent and enigmatic figure quickly came to the attention of the cinema studios. He was firstly hired as stunt-man and fight coordinator for the Bond movie Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983), but the man who really opened the doors was Michael Ovitz, a former judoka and director of the Creative Artists Agency who was later to produce Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Impressed by Seagal's stature (6ft 4") and bronzed physique, Ovitz saw the man as a rough diamond and immediately offered him a professional contract. In those heady days of the early 1990s, action films were drawing huge audiences worldwide.

1980 – 1995: Guns & Aikido

With a rock-solid cast including Pam Grier, Sharon Stone and Henry Silva, Above The Law directed by Andrew Davis was released in 1988. Everyone looked up and took notice of this young athlete who had appeared from nowhere, and everything was new: the way of holding guns, the fights, the honest cop, the urban decor, and the costumes... The public loved it, and so did the press: the film took $20 million at the US box-office. Not surprisingly, there followed a string of success that helped boost not only VHS cassette sales but also the revenue of aikido clubs and Warner's own bank account: Hard to Kill (Bruce Malmuth, 1990), Marked for Death (Dwight H. Little, 1990), Out for Justice (John Flynn, 1991) and the effectively-worked Under Siege (Andrew Davis, 1992). Steven's monolithic features glared out from every cover and set him up as the goose laying the golden egg for Warner Bros, the heir to the great Chuck Norris no less. All the kids in schoolyards were acting out their favourite scenes and dialogues: "You got blood there! Yeah, but it's not mine." Or "You hurt my family? Try this!" To understand his success, we have to dig to the bottom of Seagal's martial art. As opposed to Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme, more offensive and impactful, aikido uses an opponent's inertia and weight to immobilize, and maybe unhinge an arm or a leg in the process.

1995 – 2010: The TV Years

With Executive Decision (Stuart Baird, 1996), Steven was no longer the invincible cop or unstoppable CIA veteran. In the movie, he dies and leaves room for the burly Kurt Russell. Was this a sign of things to come? Whatever, from 1996 onwards he was a waning star, slated by the critics and accused of losing himself in his own style, boring audiences with the same old recipe. In an unexpected reaction, he turned very seriously to a string of humanist-cum-environmentalist action movies with Fire Down Below (Felix Enriquez Alcalá, 1997) and The Patriot (Dean Semler, 1998). Although unsuccessful, they were very much in keeping with his own philosophy of life. He finally returned to his first love playing the incorruptible tough cookie cop in Half Past Dead (Don Michael Paul, 2002), Ticker (Albert Pyun, 2001) and Exit Wounds (Andrejz Bartowiak, 2001). The movements were slower and Steven had put on a lot of weight, but his hard core of fans continued to support him no matter what. And support was something he was going to need from 2003 onwards when he embarked upon a series of made-for-television films for TNT TV in France and in the United States. His productions proved to be the ultimate remedy for insomniacs and were a big hit in retirement homes. There were no fewer than sixteen DVDs with covers in the form of a tribute to Publisher software. Worse, a cortisone-ridden puffy-faced Steven with congested eyes snarled at each take and seemed hard pushed to even lift his feet. The man we were accustomed to seeing break a few arms with a deft sidestep was now breaking nothing at all as a souped up night-club bouncer. Luckily, there is life after death in Hollywood. In 2010 he bounced back with a TV reality show called Lawman in which he played his own persona, a reserve deputy sheriff in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. In 2011 he created his own TV show, True Justice, in which he took the leading role. But it was a one Tarantino's pal Robert Rodriguez, who came to the rescue. After Travolta, Pam Grier and Robert Foster, it was Steven Seagal's turn to be hauled back on board in his role as Torrez in Machete (Robert Rodriguez, 2010). It was definitely a wake-up call, but his movie career was still very much in limbo.

2010 - 2016: Guitar, Buddhism & Putin

Like most bankable actors, Steven was paving the way for an off-camera career. He even turned down an offer from Stallone who was insisting on getting him on the cast for his movie Expendables. Like Travolta or Daren Aronofsky, Steven likes to convey his own personal ideas in his movies. He meditates several times a day, has been on pilgrimages to Nepal, and is surrounded by Buddhist teachers, including Lama Penor Rinpoche, a master at the Tibetan Nyingmapa school. Accordingly, ecology, spirituality and detachment play an important part in his films, and as opposed to other martial arts stars he does not like to play "the funny guy". He internalizes to extremes in order to "utilize his art at the highest level". In his never-ending quest for spirituality, he has scoured the planet in search of his origins. While on tour in Asia, he performed a number of aikido demonstrations and joined the Russian national team at a tournament in Saratov. On the same occasion, he had a long chat with Vlad (Putin) the Impaler, himself an 8th dan Master Judoka and Sambo expert. In early 2016, he became a Serbian national and opened a dojo in Belgrade, where for the New Year celebrations he was on stage singing at an open-air concert. Steven is a blues and reggae fan, witness the memorable theme music by Jimmy Cliff of Marked for Death. The two men are actually great friends and Steven owns a second home in Jamaica. So is the "Master" becoming a humanist in his older age? Most of the earnings from his albums and concerts are handed over to charities for sick children, which is perhaps only natural for a man who has fathered a large family. Married four times, divorced three times, the father of seven children and a great collector of firearms, Japanese sabres and guitars, Steven today is devoting his life to his large family and to his concerts alongside the Grand Canyon. He seems to be further and further removed from the world of cinema, yet at the age of 64, Steven the Paunch has just announced the sequel to Above the Law... So? Direct to DVD or for the movie theatres? But please, Steve, no more TNT TV!

2016: And now what?

Basically, what we miss the most are those evenings spent as kids trying to master the arm-lock in slow motion, choosing video-cassettes for their cover and running through the dialogues in the dojo locker-room. We would line the walls of our garage and bedrooms with Out for Justice posters. The passing of time is irrelevant to Buddhists because they believe in reincarnation. So Steven, is there a 1990s revival on the cards?