GEORGE TAKEI TAKES ON MULAN:
Sulu Becomes the Guardian Spirit of Disney's Feminist Folk Tale
by Michelle Erica Green
After decades of taking part in the enlightened future on Star Trek and working in Los Angeles city politics, George Takei is thrilled to be a part of Disney's first feminist epic. "All my friends who have young daughters are absolutely delighted about Mulan - they're saying, 'At last, here's a movie that I can take my daughter to and she will feel proud.' The boys will revel in the action parts, and the girls will love the fact that Mulan, a girl, is the hero."
Eagerly awaiting the film's opening in Los Angeles, Takei said last week that he thought the film was "going to be a major achievement for Disney - in terms of animation, in terms of content, in terms of the breakthrough nature of the heroine." He pointed out Newsweek's rave review of the new film and its heroine: "'Mulan is the first Disney animated feature to revamp the hardiest conventions of the genre, leaving such chirpy predecessors as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast in the dust,'" noted the magazine. "'She doesn't look like a Barbie doll, she doesn't dream about a prince, and she certainly doesn't hang around waiting to be rescued...and in the most radical twist of all, Mulan doesn't rely on magic to solve her problems.'"
Takei echoed the sentiments, describing Mulan as "very contemporary - a feminist movie. She's honorable, she stands on her own, she's not one of these beautiful princesses who sit around pining for Prince Charming to come and whisk her away. Because she loves her father, and the family's honor is at stake, she goes into battle disguised as a man, wearing her father's armor to represent the family. In so doing, she becomes a hero, saving the Emperor's army, but retaining her femininity as well - obviously there are bigger and stronger men, but she uses her wits to overcome them."
When he was offered the role of the First Ancestor, Mulan's guardian spirit, the Japanese-American actor was unfamiliar with the legend of Fa Mu Lan, but he was certainly familiar with the production company. "Walt Disney is a legendary group, and I've grown up with Walt Disney movies. When they described the character to me, it seemed like a fun character, particularly animated. He's a ghostly figure and they said they were going to go really wild with the animation. So it was great fun, kind of an over-the-top acting challenge."
A veteran of several Saturday morning cartoons, including of course the Star Trek animated series, Takei was prepared to spend long hours in the studio without seeing any of the other performers, but taken by surprise by Disney's attention to detail. "You walk in, and on one wall of the recording studio, they've got the entire storyboard for the scene that you're going to be recording that day," he reported. "They have all the sketches there and they walk you through that, describing the pace and the quality of the scene, so that you see the expressions and gestures in drawing. So you get a good idea of what they're striving for in that particular scene."
Takei also discovered that the recording sessions would be videotaped so that the animators could incorporate the actor's physical gestures into the character when possible. "The director is there to guide you through the scene and the kind of qualities that they want - whether it's shouting to someone on another mountaintop, or a very intimate scene talking to someone about six inches away from you. At the same time, the video camera is recording your facial expressions, the physicalization that you give to the reading. And then the animators take that piece of video and they try to incorporate the 'oomph' behind the line reading. They work on just that scene, and then a few weeks later they call you in again to do the next scene."
Each scene was recorded several times, as Takei strove to offer different interpretations of the quality the director was looking for. As late as about a month and a half ago, Takei was back in the studio perfecting the final moments. "My character has the last word in the movie - I came in to do the very last word, I was there for about 45 minutes saying the same word over and over again. And they paid me for the whole day! It's fascinating, because you know I do a lot of Saturday morning animated cartoons - the way you do those, they hand you a script, they have lines underscored in colored crayon, and you walk into a sound booth and you just record them. With Disney, they really put a great deal of detailed effort into it."
Takei reported that the animators had done research into the costumes and architectural styles of the setting, and agreed that the film has a very Asian feel, particularly the themes of "filial piety, her love for her father and the sense of honor and responsibility for the family." But he labels Mulan "a very modern woman in that she's initiative-taking, action-oriented, she goes out when there's a problem to solve it, whether it's the family situation with her sickly father or whether it's on the battlefield and the Huns are attacking."
Takei doesn't have one of the film's big song numbers, but he praised the music, which he said "certainly has a Broadway Asian quality, if you know what I mean...'de de de de ding ding ding!'" he mimicked. "But you're playing to a contemporary youth audience, you want a pizzazz-y quality." He expects the battle sequences to be as big a draw as the story: "The sequences in the snow are just spectacular." Mulan also features a comic turn by Eddie Murphy as "this worm of a sidekick that thinks it's a fierce dragon - a Chinese dragon that sounds like Eddie Murphy!"
Who does he see as the film's primary audience? "The boys will love the fighting, and the girls will love Mulan. This is a film I think that could be a date movie - it's got war sequences and all the battles and so forth, and at the same time, the hero is a heroine. I think this is going to be a major blockbuster film for Disney, going back to some of the classics - at the box office, they've had a couple of not-very-strong performers, despite the names 'Hercules' and 'Hunchback.' This, I think, is going to erupt. It's spectacularly realized."
No matter how successful Mulan is, it seems unlikely to disrupt Takei's overwhelming identification with Star Trek for better or worse. The actor has worked on several Trek interactive projects, including the bestselling Star Trek: Starfleet Academy CD-ROM, and the more recent Captain's Chair CD-ROM. He also reads the Captain Sulu audio series. Fans are constantly lobbying the producers who post on the message boards on America Online to consider a Captain Sulu film or series. How does Takei feel about that?
"I'm carrying the torch for it as well, and lobbying for it," he said. "It seems Paramount always takes pushing beyond nudging but forcible shoving to finally act. I don't know why they can't see it - the fans have been writing in, phoning in, e-mailing in huge tidal wave proportions. I'm told that the ratings were the highest that season for the Voyager episode ["Flashback," which featured Takei as Captain Sulu]. I don't watch it regularly, but I peek in on it - our paternal pride has us tuning in to check out how our children are doing. Voyager is our daughter, so it has a particular fond spot in our hearts."
Takei's guest spot as Captain Sulu, timed for the 30th anniversary of the Trek franchise, involved recreating several scenes from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country with Voyager's Lieutenant Tuvok as an integral character. "I was really impressed by how they were able to gather the members of the cast that originally did that scene in the movie - we shot the film in '91, and we did ["Flashback"] in '96, so it was at least five years after," Takei reflected. "I was amazed that they were able to find not only the actors but more than a few of the extras. We did replicate all our scenes except for one - the teacup shattering sequence, that was lifted from the movie. If they had tried to splice more of the live action part into the film, it would have been jarring - some of us have changed over the years!"
Asked whether he kept in touch with Jacqueline Kim, the actress who played Sulu's daughter Demora in Generations, Takei remembered seeing her at the opening of the East-West Players, a theater with which he has been involved. "The East-West players is the oldest Asian-American theater group in America, it's celebrating its 33rd year now, and after 32 years in a 99-seat theater - a little black box theater on Santa Monica Boulevard - we were able to move them into a brand new 241-seat theater in a historic church. I'm the chairman of the capital campaign. We restored this neoclassic building, made it into a mid-sized theater with state of the art equipment." A 99-seat theater is small enough to be exempt from Actors' Equity regulations about performers' salaries, but the new theater does not fall under the same waiver. "That makes the fundraising that much more critical! On the other side, I'm delighted that the actors are being paid!" Takei exclaimed.
Another guest at the East-West Players opening was Nichelle Nichols, with whom Takei stays in close touch. "This weekend I'm doing a convention with Nichelle, Walter [Koenig], and Jimmy [Doohan] in Tucson, and then there's another one coming up in Charleston, and another one in Philadelphia," he noted. "As a matter of fact, Nichelle was a part of my theater party last Friday. We opened the second production at the new theater, an original musical called Heading East, about a Chinese family's emigration to the United States - Asian immigrants headed east rather than west. Nichelle joined us for that outing."
Takei is quick to thank the fans for his experiences with Star Trek and his friends from the series. "I'll be getting together with the three of them this weekend courtesy of the fans - the fans are the ones that made this all happen," he said. "We thought we were doing a good show, but the network people cancelled us prematurely, and it was the fans' dedication, faith, energy, and love that brought us back and kept us going all these three decades...three-plus decades."
Takei made it clear that he is not a fan of co-star William Shatner in his autobiography, To The Stars, a vivid account of his remarkable journey from World War II internment camps in California to Shakespearean theater in Europe to work for the Mayor of Los Angeles. "They tell you that you should write what you know about," he pointed out, revealing that one of his upcoming projects is a murder mystery that takes place on a Hollywood studio lot. "Not that I know anything about murder! But I do have a major character in my story named Shane Williams." Takei would not reveal the fate of this WilliamS, but admitted that his working title is A Star Will Die."
Takei can be seen in July in the PBS film The Best Bad Thing, set in rural California during the Depression of the '30s. In September, he will be working on a Canadian film titled Still Water Runs Deep. "I play a Japanese businessman who sponsors a fishing competition to catch the largest fish in this great lake in Northern Ontario. It's essentially a father and daughter story - the father runs a fishing resort." As in Mulan Takei won't be playing the father, but one of the powerful background figures. "This may be premature, but I hear they're looking at Peter Fonda to play the father," he said.
As he nears his sixth decade, the actor has come a long way from 1955's Godzilla Strikes Again, but no matter how much theater or activism he puts on his resume, he's most likely to be associated with genre film and television. Takei doesn't seem to mind. He's on the Internet, he knows how the fans feel about Captain Sulu, and he's happy to be involved.