Finding balance with John G. Avildsen’s low-key smash
Pat Morita would receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mr Miyagi, and The Karate Kid is very much his movie, a low-key production that would capture the hearts of a generation. Before the film launched him to mainstream superstardom, Morita was a comedian most famous for his perfunctory role as Arnold in 1950s nostalgia sitcom Happy Days, and though there are flashes of his comedic qualities, and just a smidgen of racial stereotyping here too, Morita’s transformation from all-out funnyman to respected role model was quite astonishing. This guy could act.
You would be forgiven for assuming otherwise. On the surface, Miyagi is as much a cliché as Al, a bumbling oddball who gained acceptance in a fictional 50s America by becoming a socially submissive ‘stranger in a strange land’. This was nothing new in the realms of mainstream television in the early 1980s, a time when casual xenophobia was widespread and ethnic characters were generally only accepted as butt-of-the-joke caricatures. Released a year after he left the hugely successful sitcom, The Karate Kid would prove a kind of redemption for the California-born actor. This time, his supporting role would prove anything but.
It’s amazing to think that Morita was only 43 when he played the wizened handyman who would change the life of a young American boy forever. In the movie, the petulant, good-hearted Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Maccio) is a similar fish out of water, a smart-mouthed New Jersey native forced to pick up sticks and venture out to the sunny shores of California. But California isn’t all sunshine and smiles, despite the best efforts of Daniel’s ever optimistic mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), and soon enough our future champion has his back against the wall, something his mysterious neighbour is instantly able to empathise with, and not just in a fictional sense.
Morita, too, had survived a difficult childhood, one that far transcended the trials and tribulations of everyday adolescent life. The son of a migrant fruit picker who followed harvests and lived in filthy, run-down shacks, Morita would spend almost a decade in a sanatorium after contracting tuberculosis at the tender age of two, a condition that left him encased in a body cast and unable to play with other children. For this reason, he understood what it was like to become a social outcast, but just like Miyagi he would make the best out of a difficult situation, making sock puppets to entertain the other children during a period in his life that would shape his entire career. At the age of eleven, Morita was sent to an internment camp along with 110,000 Americans of Japanese heritage following the conflict at Pearl Harbour. By the time he was a teenager, all he understood was life’s propensity to isolate. His was a true underdog story.
Mr. Miyagi: Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.
Along with Rocky, Oscar winning Director John G. Avildsen was responsible for two of the biggest movie franchises of the 1980s, and it all came from his eye for an underdog story, a role he himself seemed comfortable with as he shied away from the spotlight for much of his career. Avildsen was a huge fan of director Frank Capra, whose feelgood movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington inspired his storytelling modus.
In an interview with app.com, Macchio would say of his long-time friend, “His hero was Frank Capra, that was his favourite filmmaker that he emulated or at least aspired to be. And they told stories of ordinary people, sometimes in extraordinary circumstances that were relocatable. The beauty of the ‘Karate Kid’ film and why it stood the test of time is that he had no business winning anything. He was the every kid next door just like Rocky was the every guy down the street or Jack Lemmon in ‘Save the Tiger’… These are people that we see ourselves in, and he had an uncanny ability to take those characters and bring them to heroic proportions in a very attainable, accessible way.”
There are superficial aspects to the The Karate Kid that are almost guaranteed to inspire derision, but there is much more to the movie than initially meets the eye. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that he was dreading the prospect of sitting through a film with such an inane title, but was pleasantly surprised by what he saw as a wonderfully crafted morality tale.
It is this kind of cynical first impression, even from the most willing of movie fans, that kills The Karate Kid for some, but let’s not forget, this is a kid’s movie first and foremost, and hokey titles and sweeping stereotypes were a necessary part of its marketing formula. Those who watched The Karate Kid as a child will invariably attest to its unique charm, while those who dismiss it are generally people who came to it late and find it impossible to look past largely peripheral ethnic crimes such as the portrayal of a Japanese man sitting around trying to catch flies with chopsticks.
Okay, so the movie can come across as a little patronising, especially when viewed through today’s sociopolitical lens, but some of those convoluted sequences prove to be the most memorable, and are in fact key to the film’s power. Scenes in which Miyagi puts surrogate son Daniel through his paces by working him to the bone are particularly effective, and it is credit to Avildsen and the actors involved that they were able to use those contrivances in the most positive sense. How many other movies have successfully used such blatant stereotyping to forge such rounded and memorable characters, to create relationships that we can all relate to?
Bill Conti’s boundlessly emotional score certainly helps, a swooping orchestra of strings and pan pipes that serenades the California coastline like a flock of seagulls sailing towards the sunset. The master composer famously turned down Rocky IV to once again work with Avildsen on The Karate Kid, and theirs is a heavenly matrimony. Like Rocky before it, you just can’t imagine this movie without Conti’s musical contributions. Dollars to doughnuts you’re already whistling along to it.
The Karate Kid, as Miyagi himself will attest, is about finding balance. LaRusso is a fatherless teen extricated from his friends and family for a new and better life, only to cross paths with a group of affluent bullies whose karate training adheres to decidedly more Western Philosophies. During the 1980s, Karate was every boy’s favourite and typically most short-lived fad, and when Daniel arrives in town that certainly seems to be the case with him until fate determines otherwise.
John Kreese: We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak.
That fate lies in local cutie, Ally (Elizabeth Shue), and the resulting jealousy of her ex-beau Johnny (William Zabka), whose ‘Strike first, strike hard’ motto leads Daniel and his unwilling advocate to the Cobra Kai dojo and twisted Vietnam veteran John Kreese. Actor Martin Kove oozes malevolence as the smug and irrepressible Kreese — the perfect foil for Miyagi’s immovable pacifist — and it is his emergence that finally convinces the old man to fight Daniel’s corner, though not in the way his querulous student had perhaps anticipated.
Unlike most action stars of the 80s, Miyagi isn’t cut from granite. He doesn’t have the ability to snap a man’s neck like a twig, nor does he flex his biceps and reel-off heartless wisecracks to anonymous villains. The reason for this is that anonymous villains have families too, and Miyagi’s philosophy is that we learn to fight so that we don’t have to. This was a refreshing notion for a movie released in Reagan’s America, a time when Japan was on the rise economically, a sudden influx of Japanese products leading to the kind of xenophobia that would find its way into the subtext of movies such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Miyagi-Do karate is about respect for oneself and others. It is about hard work and determination and fighting only as a last resort.
The movie’s most memorable scene occurs after Daniel’s trust has been pushed to the absolute brink. After days of hard labour, the frustrated youngster threatens to turn his back on Miyagi, only to realise he has been learning without learning, a philosophy that culminates in a quite incredible display of muscle memory enlightenment. Miyagi may not have the fearsome presence or brute mentality of someone like Kreese, but he knows what it takes to overcome bullies of his breed. Above all else, the squat native of Okinawa commands our respect.
The movie isn’t all about Morita. Despite his star turn, The Karate Kid‘s true power lies in our unlikely pair’s onscreen chemistry. Ralph Macchio will never be remembered as an actor of any real prominence (though a recent small screen resurgence may prove otherwise), but he is perfect as the gangling LaRusso, a petulant, good-natured kid who earns the privilege of Miyagi’s long-dormant combat experience and all that it entails. Daniel is all pugnacious charm — cutesy enough for the teenage demographic but determined enough to bring plausibility to his meteoric rise to All Valley Karate Champion, overcoming a whole gang of physically superior foes who employ every trick in the book to quash his hard-earned catharsis.
In hindsight, Daniel’s gang of leather-clad antagonists seem antiquated. This was before guns were rife in the classroom, a time when a roll in the baseball bunker after school was the most kids had to fear. They even stop short of cursing. But Johnny and his buddies are iconic 80s villains, teenage rebels who Miyagi sees as simply misguided. In reality it is Kreese who poses the problem, a fact that the wizened veteran quickly identifies, and through Daniel’s underdog spirit they too learn the error of their master’s ways. As Miyagi himself explains, there are no bad students, only bad teachers. What he and LaRusso have cannot be built on fear, only trust. They win together and they lose together, and neither winning nor losing are of any real importance.
What makes The Karate Kid‘s central relationship so special are the parallels the two characters share. As fun as it may be to view Miyagi as a flawless, mystical figure, that alone is not enough to establish the kind of onscreen bond that elevates the movie above your typical mawkish fodder. For the majority of the film, Miyagi plays the level-headed yin to Daniel’s frustrated yang, but on closer inspection he faces the same problems his student does. Like Daniel, Miyagi is a fish out of water, squirrelled away in his garden idyll and plunged into an alien environment at pains to accept him.
Mr. Miyagi: Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good.
This is made apparent in a particularly corny scene in which Miyagi clears his car of beer bottles with a shattering blow that leaves his drunken tormentors shaken. But as hackneyed as that moment may seem, it serves its purpose in strengthening their alliance, and perhaps gives the Miyagi character a vicarious reason for helping the stranger who will inevitably become his best friend. Bonzai trees, nature retreats and insect sports are all coping mechanisms that ultimately serve them both, and it’s this sanctuary that allows Daniel the time and space to understand the true value of his sensei’s teachings, helping him see marital arts not as a tool of ostentation, but as a personal philosophy that is relevant to all aspects of life.
None of this is easy for the youngster to grasp in a society built on personal triumph, and Miyagi’s flirtations with distrust are all a part of the hard-earned process that will not only learn Daniel the skills of his master’s family heritage, but will also teach him patience in situations where a young boy’s first instinct is to lash out. As Daniel’s relationship with Miyagi grows, we are shown a different side to the pseudo-ominous Japanese stereotype, one that runs much deeper than clipping precious plants or procuring magical herbal potions. In a scene that producers originally banished to the cutting room floor, we see a drunken Miyagi as a fallible character dealing with his own sense of personal loss, mourning the death of his beloved wife with a recklessness usually reserved for his protege.
This is a crucial scene in the development of the movie and its central characters, one that director Avildsen fought tooth and nail to salvage. Here we see surrogate son as surrogate father, Daniel realising that his prudent guide is not as impervious as he or the audience may have imagined. In the end, it is Miyagi’s weakness that allows Daniel to realise certain truths about life. Before that moment he is very much under Miyagi’s impermeable wing, and it is through his realisations that he is finally able to step out of his protector’s shadow and find the balance that has so far eluded him.