Restaurant co-owner James Park adorns his eatery with large canvases filled with larger personalities inspired by movies, martial arts, and anime.
You could say that every restaurant tells a story once you walk through its doors. In the case of Yojimbo on Park Street, that story begins behind the restaurant, in a spacious private studio where artist and restaurant co-owner James Park paints every day.
Walking through the low-ceilinged restaurant to the hidden back rooms, Park greets customers and staff in a friendly, laid-back manner, and it’s clear he enjoys the work he does. “I like to cook, and I like talking to the customers,” he said.
However, Park has another talent that customers may not know about, even though it’s painted on the restaurant’s walls. As the sole artist behind Yojimbo’s distinctive art pieces, Park depicts familiar characters from Japanese, Chinese, and American movies, such as Bruce Lee, Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, the nameless swordsman of the 1961 Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo, after which the restaurant is named.
“I like all of Kurosawa’s movies,” Park said, revealing the influence behind many of his paintings.
The paintings speak to Park’s nostalgia for a lost era that encompasses everything from silent black-and-white films to martial arts movies of the late 1950s. While he is a fan of the warrior spirit, Park depicts heroes of all shapes and sizes. But when it comes to Superman, don’t expect to find a DC Films’ Justice League iteration on Yojimbo’s walls, but classically familiar Christopher Reeves, donning cape and gown in determined fashion.
In the upstairs dining area, a young Robert De Niro as the Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull can be spotted alongside various figurines from the popular Japanese anime fantasy My Neighbor Totoro, which is often playing on one or more of the restaurant’s TVs. The painting of another famous iconic movie character, E.T., has been rotated out, for now, and customers still ask about it on occasion.
Park takes pride in the restaurant customers’ interest in his art. You’d be hard-pressed to find a review of Yojimbo that doesn’t describe the interesting, pop culture-inspired gallery setting along with the food, which includes sushi, ramen, and bento boxes.
“When most families go out to eat,” he said, “they never talk to one another. They come in, sit down, and start looking at their phones. There is never a conversation going on. I put up these drawings so at least families would have one thing to talk about. It’s a conversation starter. When they start talking about my drawings while they eat, it makes me really happy.”
A former student majoring in sculpture at Hannam University in South Korea, Park dropped out of art school to immigrate to the United States, where he worked in a Japanese restaurant for 10 years before opening Yojimbo with his brother Kyo, who had been working as a sushi chef. It was a natural fit for them to open a Japanese restaurant of their own, one with a unique space that showcases James’s creative talents.
As a child growing up in Korea, James loved watching movies by the likes of Jang Cheol-soo, Kurosawa, and Miyazaki Hayao, whose Spirited Away, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle anime characters are often re-created and displayed on the restaurant’s walls.
“I received a lot of inspiration from 1950s classical Japanese movies,” Park said. “They always showed in black and white. This is why all of my drawings are in black and white. I like simple color.”
Sculpting continues to influence his artwork in subtle ways — Park purchases wood-backed canvases from Home Depot for their durability and texture. He can scratch the surface using a palette knife to create detail, from the expressive lines of a squint to the sweeping movement of a karate chop. This works well with his preferred medium of black oil, though he sometimes draws in chalk as well.
When asked how long it takes him to complete a painting, Park responded that the process can take as little as two weeks or as long as a year. On average, he works on each piece for about a month. Many of his finished paintings are large enough to cover an entire wall of his studio, and he rotates their placement in the restaurant as the feeling to do so arises.
“I could get an idea that this wall is good. And I could think [moving a painting here] is a good idea or not good idea. Sometimes, even when everything is good, I won’t hang it. It’s just a feeling.”
His favorite work — that of the Yojimbo bodyguard in triplicate found near the entrance of the restaurant — perhaps best epitomizes his bold, masculine style.
Park has exhibited his work at the Alameda Korean Presbyterian Church on Santa Clara Avenue and is on the lookout for another venue, one that can accommodate large canvases conveying equally large personalities. But until then, you can always find them on view at Yojimbo.