Steven Seagal Movies

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka throws an opponent while Steven Seagal (far right) looks on.


Haruo Matsuoka is a study in contrasts. Although he speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent, he’s eloquent in his English explanation of the esoteric concepts of aikido. While he’s known as one of the most combat-competent aikido stylists on the planet and was one of the very few who could take falls for Steven Seagal as he executed his vicious aikido throws, he remains disarmingly humble and glows with a happiness that only true stability, contentment and harmony can bring.

Conversations with Haruo Matsuoka lead in a variety of directions, all of which are enlightening and inspiring yet grounded in reality. Perhaps what is most amazing is how his life has mirrored his art, meeting conflict and strife with patience and integrity.

When I recently arrived at his dojo in search of answers, he met me at the door as if greeting an old friend, then sat on the tatami mats for the duration of the interview. It was as if there was no distinction in rank, yet there was no lack of etiquette.

The History of Aikido

Born in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, Haruo Matsuoka received an early introduction to aikido and the customs most closely associated with it. His father, Shiro Matsuoka, was into macrobiotics — a diet that’s popular among aikido practitioners in Japan. One year, he took young Haruo Matsuoka to a summer camp dedicated to promoting macrobiotics, and that was where the youth witnessed his first aikido demonstration.


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Later, during his high-school years, he participated in judo, which was a standard part of the physical education curriculum.

Just before his 16th birthday, Haruo Matsuoka began taking classes under an instructor named Kobayashi. But the man disappeared after a short time, leaving the dojo unmanaged and unattended. Six months later, Steven Seagal moved to Osaka and reopened the facility as his now-famous Tenshin Dojo.

At 17, Haruo Matsuoka had his first meeting with Steven Seagal, and it left a lasting impression on the youth. Reminiscing about that day, he beamed with a sense of wonder: “When I first met Seagal sensei, his Japanese wasn’t so fluent, but his technique was remarkable — unlike what I’d seen before. He was so fast, very fluid. Seeing him doing aikido changed my life.”

Haruo Matsuoka signed up on the spot.

“Nothing in my earlier martial arts experiences came close to that moment,” he said. Steven Seagal’s school sat in a rough part of town known for its yakuza gangsters and prostitutes. “It was only a five-minute walk to the dojo from the train station, but it seemed like a long, long walk,” Haruo Matsuoka recalled. “There were many times when I was really scared, as a skinny kid, and walked as fast as possible so I could avoid getting into trouble.”

Initially, Haruo Matsuoka trained three times a week, attending classes that were tough and strict. Steven Seagal’s aikido had a reputation for being hard core and effective even on the street. And his training philosophy backed that up: Make everything practical for this world — otherwise, it’s useless. “Seagal taught a very practical aikido — swift footsteps, hand movements like sword cuts and a body posture that was very straight, very strong,” Matsuoka said.

Steven Seagal emphasized the relationship between kenjutsu sword work and aikido, and Haruo Matsuoka began to understand the ways in which hand, foot and body positioning in a sword fight translate to aikido. He could see how those skills enabled the practitioner to smoothly glide out of harm’s way while thoroughly exploiting the other person’s openings.

“Seagal sensei was my first real master,” Haruo Matsuoka said. The American took a personal interest in his new pupil’s aikido development almost from the get-go, frequently inquiring about his plans after high school. Before Matsuoka had the opportunity to test for his black belt, Steven Seagal pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to accompany him to America to help him make movies. To the impressionable Japanese teenager, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, inspiring him to persevere in his practice.

Haruo Matsuoka’s relationship with his master would never be the same.

Steven Seagal began using him as his uke, demonstrating throws and other aikido techniques on him during class despite his rank. (According to Japanese etiquette, the head instructor demonstrates techniques only on the most senior student, allowing him to learn quickly by feeling each move.) Steven Seagal put him ahead of his seniors and gave him the opportunity to absorb knowledge directly from the source and …

Against the Dark Review | Vintage Steven Seagal Movies

When I was a kid in the 1980s, my only martial arts practice consisted of imitating Bruce Lee’s howls and watching the TV show Sidekicks. To me, the martial arts stars of that era were gods.

Steven Seagal definitely ranked near the top in my pantheon of cinematic heroes. My jaw dropped after watching the aikido master play a cop with an attitude in 1988’s Above the Law. I idolized him after he embodied an ex-DEA agent with an attitude in 1990’s Marked for Death. And I had no doubts about his divine box-office talents after his performance as a former Navy SEAL with an attitude in 1992’s Under Siege.

But during the ensuing decade and a half, my reverence slowly diminished, and it certainly won’t be renewed after watching Steven Seagal’s latest project, Against the Dark, in which he plays a sword-wielding vampire hunter with, well, an attitude.

Don’t get me wrong: This direct-to-DVD effort isn’t boring. It just seems as if no one among the cast or crew tried that hard.

The result plays like an extraordinarily average B movie, complete with a small-time budget (reportedly $9 million), a one-location setting (a hospital) and a been-there-done-that plot (Steven Seagal plays the leader of an elite killing squad who must save a group of survivors after a vampire virus decimates society).

However, I give Steven Seagal bonus points for trying out a new genre: Against the Dark marks his first foray into horror flicks. He’s still got the same slicked-back hair, expressionless mug and monotone delivery he’s had for the past 21 years, but now he’s hacking up bloodsuckers instead of snapping the wrists of terrorists or tossing gangsters through plate-glass windows. Surprisingly, he doesn’t look out of place among the fangs, guts and gore.

He also gets a gold star for finally trying some new fight choreography. Steven Seagal’s biggest contribution to cinematic history will always be that he took what was once thought of as the unfilmable soft style of aikido and made it a thrilling, elbow-shattering, head-tossing method of on-screen fighting. Many of the seventh-degree black belt’s joint locks, bone breaks and throws have since become essential additions to the stunt coordinator’s arsenal.

But while icons like Jackie Chan continually strove to reinvent themselves throughout the 1990s, Steven Seagal never graduated beyond his XYZ-with-an-attitude approach. His career peaked with 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and he’s been stuck in the direct-to-DVD market ever since Half Past Dead bombed at the box office in 2002. So far in the 21st century, he’s made a string of forgettable B movies and is better known for endorsing a line of energy drinks and getting curious looks for his blues music and Buddhism.

Perhaps recognizing his rigid choreography, yearning for past glory or simply compensating for his aging body, Steven Seagal changed his ways for Against the Dark. He draws from his bokken training and wields a sword. It’s intriguing to watch him handle the mishmash of aesthetics, but it’s too bad he kills each vampire after only a few slashes. It makes the fights too short to enjoy.

Even worse, first-time director Richard Crudo (cinematographer of American Pie) and editor Tim Silano muddle the action with too many quick cuts. Thankfully, Steven Seagal’s sidekick Tanoai Reed picks up some of the slack.

Tanoai Reed is actually the stunt double and cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In Against the Dark, he gets a chance to step out of his famous relative’s shadow, playing a vampire-killing workhorse named Tagart. Tanoai Reed’s combat sequences combine street brawling, gunplay and the use of cool bladed weapons that look like a hybrid of a tonfa and a kama. As a talented stunt fighter and competent actor, Tanoai Reed brings much-needed oomph and crispness to the on-screen battles.

However, it’s a tad odd that before almost every one of his action scenes, Tanoai Reed’s character is ordered by Steven Seagal to “sweep” a room full of vampires solo. He belongs to an elite squad of vampire hunters, so why not exterminate their prey as a team? From a stunt coordinator’s point of view, it showcases Tanoai Reed’s skills, but from a character-logic standpoint, it’s rather stupid.

I’m not sure if Tanoai Reed’s mini suicide missions are a symptom of poor staging by fight coordinators Dickey Beer and Gabi Burlacu, poor directing by Richard Crudo or poor writing by scribe Mathew Klickstein—or a combination thereof. Matthew Klickstein’s screenplay is amazingly predictable—save for one short subplot about a human father caring for his vampire daughter—and doesn’t give the star much to do. Steven Seagal has zero character arc and back story.

Then there’s the laughable dialogue. Steven Seagal issues such ridiculously obvious commands as, “Kill anything that looks infected.” In another scene in which his …