“My father said, ‘You could be a movie star,’ ” says Rocky. But Rocky didn’t see himself as the next Astaire. “I like Elvis.” A bad-boy rebel, Rocky sold stolen girlie pictures at school, was suspended for pushing another student down a staircase, and joined a rock band called Rowdy Sounds. “We copy our American idols, like Japanese doing rap now,” he says, laughing at himself. “I play bass. But I tell you why I change to wrestling: No good on tempo.”
He earned a spot on Japan’s 1960 Olympic team and an American scholarship. When he lost that scholarship after breaking one student’s leg and another’s nose, he moved to New York.
“Why anyone come to New York?” he asks. “Smell money. Japanese businessmen come here and always say ‘I. Smell. Money.’ ”
Rocky studied restaurant management at New York City Technical College, won two AAAU wrestling championships, and drove an ice-cream truck. “Everybody afraid to sell ice-cream in Harlem then,” he says, so Rocky taped a newspaper article about his wrestling championships to the side of his truck to scare off thieves and had the neighborhood to himself. He made $10,000 in the summer of 1963, enough to persuade his father to co-invest in a four-table restaurant. Rocky wanted to apply the Japanese teppanyaki concept to the trusty “beef, chicken, and shrimp” formula he’d studied in college, but his vaudevillian father thought that was boring. “He say, ‘Rocky, chefs cooking on an open grill is not what American likes to see—could you do some showmanship in front of customer?”
“I want to help my kids, but I want my children to crawl, to walk, then run on their own,” says Rocky. “But they can’t even crawl. They just collect money and do nothing. What else they want? Can’t wait till I’m dead?”
So Rocky, just 25, asked his reluctant chefs to clang knives, juggle shrimp, and crack jokes. For six months, he lost money, then a rave from the New York Herald Tribune brought crowds and taught him the value of media. “Soon, all the television wants to interview me.” Soon, he was opening new restaurants in Chicago, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. As if that weren’t enough, he says, “One night in back of restaurant, I invent green-tea ice cream.” He also says he invented the saketini.
But Rocky’s father felt overshadowed by his flashy son: The two feuded until his death, just three months after Rocky’s boating accident. So I ask Rocky if he worries about ending up like his own father: estranged from his children, fighting over business. “My father only graduated from elementary school, but he smart about business,” he says carefully. “Maybe he was good at business because his family was not rich.”
Recently, Rocky called me to explain that things are looking up. He’s sold his cluttered East Side townhouse for about $5 million and auctioned off its magpie collection of Picassos and kitsch. Keiko is planning what she calls a “simple, modern life” for the two in Rocky’s Olympic Tower condo, which she’s redecorated.
Thanks to Keiko, he says, he’s healthy enough to make his beloved Tuesday-night backgammon game at the New York Athletic Club. And he’s confident that he and the children might soon reach a settlement. As proof, he says, “my favorite son, Kyle, is in town.” So I meet up with Rocky, Keiko, and Kyle at the flagship Benihana on West 56th. Like most Benihanas, it’s a living shrine to Rocky. There’s the daredevil in his prime, mugging for the camera in speedboats and hot-air balloons, and posing with Steven Seagal.
“I’m the only kid who doesn’t have a photo in this restaurant,” complains Kyle, a 30-year-old dressed in all-black.
“Really? Devon is my favorite daughter and Kyle is my favorite son,” Rocky teases, slapping Kyle soundly on the back. “But I sue Kyle! I almost put him in jail!”
Kyle laughs a bit uneasily. “My father is a very proud man,” he says. “This whole thing, it’s all about pride.”
Before things can get too serious, a Benihana chef clangs knives like cymbals on the steel grill, and father and son begin to kid each other about old times. Kyle says he’s found old photos “of my dad, with a Benihana chef pretending to cook and a naked girl lying on the grill.”
Rocky grins. “My father say, ‘No good to have naked lady on grill! Grill for business only!’ ”
Kyle, an aspiring movie producer, says there ought to be a film about all this, “but it would have to be a comedy—otherwise it would be too depressing.” He imagines the boat scene, the hospital scene—“Dad waking up, saying ‘Ohhh … shiiit!’”—all with Rocky played by Christopher Walken. The Aokis start laughing—even Keiko, who admits she’s been “depressed” because her dog just underwent surgery.
“Kyle is my favorite son,” Rocky says again. “He’s a straight shooter. He doesn’t want Benihana. He says, ‘I want money.’ ”
“I want security—not money. That’s different,” Kyle corrects.
“But can you make your own security?” Rocky says, then stops himself. “Kyle just wants money, Keiko wants money, Grace doesn’t give a damn,” he trills cheerfully. But after “$3 to $6 million to lawyers,” it’s time to move on. “Lately, everybody like a hyena. After all, money isn’t everything ... ” Kyle and Rocky harmonize the punch line: “Just 99 percent!”
The chef has stacked a steaming pyramid of onion slices on the hot grill, and as steam spews up through the rings, he shouts “Volcano!” Rocky barely notices. I ask him why he’s so hopeful.
He leans forward. “Now is like astrology war,” he confides, in a low, hushed voice. “An astrology war between two wives. Chizuru uses astrology to look for bad for me. Keiko, she always using stars to look for the good.”
I ask Rocky if he really believes in that stuff. “Look at Reagan!” he says. “Keiko’s astrologist say Rocky’s life, like, go to hell for two year. And it’s right. Last two years like a hell. But that two years, almost over right now. Now my life go up like this.” He grins crookedly and raises his hand up, palm down, like a kid with his hand stuck out of a car window, riding in the wind. “Only one problem,” he says, dropping his hand and lowering his voice. “Keiko’s charts, they say someone close to her die this year.”
It’s a thought that could confirm the worst fears of Rocky’s children—Daddy, Keiko is going to poison you to death!—so why is Rocky grinning?
“For a while, I worry. I think, Maybe it’s me. Maybe I die this year. But now … You know, now Keiko’s dog sick. It’s terrible, terrible. But if Keiko’s dog die,” he says, grinning, “maybe Rocky be okay.”