Have magic, will travel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am

Japanese-American street magician Cyril Takayama became a global sensation when his 'crazy hamburger' illusion posted on YouTube in 2006 went viral. It's easy to understand why. The video shows Takayama walking up to a menu pasted on a wall, pulling out a burger from one of the pictures, taking a bite and putting the bun back on the poster, bite-mark and all.

So when Ricky Ow Yoke-hong, general manager of Sony Pictures Entertainment Networks Asia, saw the clip he booked the next flight to Tokyo to lure the magician into a television deal. The result is a three-part AXN series called Simply Magic which begins airing on Thursday. 'It took me a year to convince him to do this, his first television show outside Japan,' Ow says. 'It was like pursuing a woman.'

Takayama, 36, recalls Ow's courtship with a laugh. He was interested, he says, but had too many commitments in Japan at the time. 'But finally, I decided to clear the path ahead of me to be able to come out here.'

Takayama is a mini-celebrity in Japan thanks to his street performances in Tokyo, which are distributed on YouTube, as well as frequent appearances on local variety shows. An internet search yields a host of cool illusions: bending backwards in slow motion ('Cyril Takayama doing Matrix'), eating a giant bowl of ramen in seconds ('Cyril Takayama eating contest'). Then there is his signature card trick, where he asks a person to choose a card from a deck, sign it, and watch him fling the entire deck at a closed window, leaving only the chosen card stuck to the outside of the window ('Cyril Takayama card through window').

He has drawn comparisons to celebrity illusionists such as David Blaine and Criss Angel, but Takayama says he isn't competing with either. 'David Blaine's magic has evolved to becoming more of an endurance artist, though he's still a magician at heart,' he says.

'The magic I have to offer is more than just showing tricks, but to really connect with people. It's about my communication and how magic affects people in their daily lives.'

Takayama took up magic as a form of escapism. Born and raised in Hollywood, he grew up in a troubled family and was expelled from school several times. He became obsessed with magic after seeing his first trick in elementary school, when a clown turned a newspaper into a plant cut-out. Takayama copied what he saw at home - the traditional way for budding magicians to learn.

'When I saw that trick I was like 'wow',' he recalls. 'I do it now for kids. Adults are less impressed.'

At 16, he ran away from home: he got on a flight that stopped over in Tokyo, got off and never got back on. With only a few hundred dollars and no relatives in the city, he busked on the streets. This led to performances at nightclubs, weddings and other events.

A Japanese businessman signed him on a three-year contract, but Takayama eventually broke it to attend magic conferences and competitions. His shows helped him build a reputation in the magic community and brought in television and stage offers. But he still prefers performing on the streets and watching people's amazement.

That's why he finds his new show so refreshing. The series, AXN's most expensive in terms of costs per episode, follows Takayama as he performs street illusions in three countries he had never been before: Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore. 'Because I've done so many television specials in Japan, people there know me. But in Singapore and Malaysia, people didn't know who I was or what I was up to.

'I had to start from the basics. I'd approach someone and they'd walk away because they didn't want to be on camera, but then I'd do some magic and their eyebrows would go up, and they'd want to be a part of it. It was really refreshing ... reminded me why I'm doing this.'

Cyril: Simply Magic, Thursdays, 10pm