Japan is famous for its big athletes, high-ranked sumo wrestlers who weigh a minimum 300 pounds. But Japan didn't know what to make of Hidetada "The Dragon" Yamagishi when, at 19 years old, he quit playing the acceptable national sports — baseball, judo, rugby — and started lifting weights. A lot of weights. Instead of packing on a soft sumo stomach, he filled out like a sock stuffed with walnuts. His parents didn't understand it, and neither did people on the streets, who stopped to ask if he was training to be a fighter.
"Bodybuilding is very minor," Yamagishi explains at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach, a place where he finally fits in. "Nobody really knows what we are doing. All they imagine is just a big guy on the stage with a lot of oil, posing — something weird."
He had a goal: to become the first Asian man to compete in Mr. Olympia, the bodybuilding contest made famous in 1977's Pumping Iron when two documentary filmmakers began following around a cocky champion named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Yamagishi succeeded, making it to Mr. Olympia five times in the last six years. Then he went beyond to star in the upcoming documentary Generation Iron, a sequel of sorts, which tracks the current wave of bodybuilders who grew up idolizing the six-time Olympia winner–turned-Terminator.
Yamagishi figures he has watched Pumping Iron at least 50 times. As a teenager in Tokyo, he studied Arnold's onstage posing techniques and the offstage psych-out tricks he used to destroy the confidence of his chief rival, Lou Ferrigno.
"To me, it was bodybuilding," Yamagishi says. And after enough times rewinding and watching Arnold swagger into this exact Gold's Gym in Venice Beach and jokingly ask if he can sign up and get buff, Yamagishi packed up his weight belts and moved to Los Angeles in 2006, just in time to see his hero, a muscle-bound immigrant like him, be re-elected governor of California. "He reminds us that the sky is the limit," Yamagishi says with a smile. "Nothing is impossible."
When Yamagishi arrived in Venice Beach — which he calls "mecca" — he was 5 feet 5 inches tall and 160 pounds and ready to get pumped. Today, he's a broad and built 220, more than twice the size of his mother. On an average day, he spends two hours at the gym sweating through four sets each of upright rows, rear deltoid raises and concentration curls under the watchful gaze of Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, who loom, large and gleaming, in posters mounted around the gym's perimeter.
In between reps, he eats. Breakfast is egg whites, oatmeal, fruit and a protein shake. Lunch is chicken with broccoli and rice. "I eat that same meal two more times, then between that I have a couple more protein shakes," says Yamagishi, who estimates his grocery bill runs about $1,000 a month. "If you count a shake as a meal, I eat seven, sometimes eight, times a day."
At night, he mixes a final protein shake and stays in to watch movies — he's tired and beer is fattening. Now 40 and recovering from a broken wrist after a gym fall, he's open to following Schwarzenegger's Hollywood path. He tattooed a dragon, his mascot, down his left arm and even met with an agent, but after cooling his heels at a few auditions, Yamagishi decided that gym time trumped wasting hours in a boring, barbell-less waiting room. Plus, when a director needs an intimidating Asian bodybuilder, it's not like there's a long list of contenders.
For now, Yamagishi is excited to see what attention Generation Iron brings, though he's hesitant to watch it himself, as his English makes him cringe. He allowed director Vlad Yudin to film him spray-tanning and doing the splits onstage at a Tampa, Fla., qualifier, but he knew better than to get too involved in the doc's central snit fit between reigning champion Phil "The Gift" Heath, an Arnold-like egotist, and his blue-collar Ferrigno, Brooklyn-born Kai Greene, who wears his hair in a braided topknot that dangles all the way down to the top of his G-string. And Yamagishi definitely didn't open up to Yudin about his secret, Schwarzenegger-inspired mind games, which he swears are so crucial to his strategy that he won't discuss them until he retires.
"I've competed with guys who are maybe 50 pounds heavier than me — they were taller and they were bigger — but I know how to make them small on the stage," he grins. "You don't have to be really big, you have to look big. Very mental. But if you constantly think, your head starts messing with you. You look at the mirror, you start thinking, 'I'm not in condition.' A lot of guys panic. You see the guys who look bigger and better than pros in the gym, but they never make it on the stage because of their minds."
Is he the biggest guy at Gold's Gym? "No," Yamagishi sighs. Then he looks around. "Right now, maybe."
For a once-skinny immigrant 5,475 miles from home, that's more than a good start — it's his Hollywood dream.
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