Land of the Rising Son: Mr Miyagi & The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid poster

Finding balance with John G. Avildsen’s low-key smash, a movie that punched above its weight and then some


There was a certain innocence to the 1980s that will never be recaptured. With Sony Walkmans and home video consoles, modern fancies were already pushing us towards a more insular existence, but immersive environments such as the internet, iPhones and online gaming were still decades away. Today, kids lose themselves for months on end in gaming experiences that are so close to reality they trump pretty much anything the imagination can conjure, making them the stars of their very own movies. When I was a kid, I’d get bored of video games much more quickly. They were fun for a while, but their primitive nature always left me wanting more, imagination, creativity and the prospect of physical exploration eventually winning out.

With the rapid decline of theatres, it’s easy to imagine a future in which movies don’t exist in the traditional sense, a future in which we literally become the stars of our own movies, where actors are replaced entirely by avatars. While such a mindboggling existence is no doubt an exciting prospect for Generation Z, those of us weaned on a bubble gum diet of BMX adventures generally got their inspiration from movies of the more traditional variety. Kids movies evolved rather dramatically during the Spielberg 80s, the rise of practical effects putting spells on our imaginations like never before. Fun-filled musicals and quaint fantasy/adventure films were replaced by awe-inducing extra-terrestrials, a plethora of booby trap gadgets and characters who were much more dysfunctional and relatable. Blockbuster movies such as Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future and Richard Donner’s The Goonies, all of which carried Spielberg’s inimitable ‘kids in peril’ thumbprint, spoke to young audiences on a level that was less condescending than previous decades, understanding adolescence rather than talking down to it. The teen adventure genre, and the modern fancies that propelled it, had suddenly come of age.

Of all those movies, the one that spoke to me loudest was designed as a much more humble outing. Arriving at a time when violent martial arts movies were all the rage and every kid on the block had aspirations of becoming a ninja, The Karate Kid was one of the surprise hits of 1984, much to the surprise of high-profile critic Gene Siskel, who scoffed at fellow At the Movies host Roger Ebert’s predication that the film was indeed Oscar worthy thanks to one of the most iconic and endearing performances of the decade. Siskel instead saw The Karate Kid as a trite and predictable kids movie that deserved nothing of the sort. It wasn’t the first time the two had clashed over a film. As on the money as he often was, Siskel carried himself with something of an elitist air at times, while Ebert was very much the common man’s critic. This was one of those occasions where the distinctions were made abundantly clear.

Pat Morita would indeed receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mr Miyagi, and The Karate Kid is very much his movie, a low-key production that captured the hearts of a generation, becoming the top rental of 1985 as kids who had missed out on the original theatrical run clamoured to see exactly what all the fuss was about. 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 really quite astonishing. Against all odds, he created a character who was worthy of our admiration.

First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.

Mr. Miyagi

You would be forgiven for assuming otherwise. On the surface, Miyagi is as much a cliché as Al, a character 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 Macchio) 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 in hugely endearing form), 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.

Along with Rocky, Oscar winning Director John G. Avildsen was responsible for two of the best-loved 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 feel-good movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington inspired his storytelling modus, and The Karate Kid is a feelgood picture of the highest order, the iconic show of pride beaming from Miyagi’s magnanimous face at the apex of the film’s blistering finale one of the most iconic, fist-pumping moments of the era.

I learn plenty, yeah, I learned how to sand your decks maybe. I washed your car, paint your house, paint your fence. I learn plenty!

Daniel LaRusso

In an interview with app.com, Macchio would say of his long-time friend, “[Avildsen’s] 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 [Daniel] 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.”

The Karate Kid Avildsen

There are superficial aspects to the The Karate Kid that are almost guaranteed to inspire derision, but there’s much more to the movie than initially meets the eye. Ebert 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, Miyagi’s ‘wax on, wax off’ philosophies quickly becoming a part of the fabric of cinematic culture. Crucially, the screenplay is aware of its cod-mysticisms, regularly diffusing Miyagi’s philosophies with beautifully delivered puns. “Where did you get these old cars from?” Daniel asks while enraptured by Miyagi’s traditional Japanese garden. “Detroit,” his master bluntly proclaims. How many other movies have successfully used such blatant stereotyping to forge such rounded and memorable characters, to create relationships that we can identify with and relate to? The moment when a pettish and ill-tempered Daniel almost turns his back on his master’s teachings, mistaking his chores for exploitative slave labour, only to realise he has been learning without learning with an incredible display of muscle memory enlightenment, is such an inspired sleight of hand. Even as a grown man it never fails to choke me up. It’s pure magic.

Bill Conti’s boundlessly emotional score certainly helps in forging that magic, a swooping orchestra of strings and pan flutes that serenades the California coastline like a flock of seagulls soaring towards the sun-kissed skies of some long-imagined promised land. The master composer famously turned down Rocky IV to once again work with Avildsen on The Karate Kid Part II, and theirs is a heavenly matrimony, one of those timeless collaborations that touches that special thematic sweet spot. Like Rocky before it, you can’t imagine The Karate Kid without Conti’s musical contributions. They recall everything that is special about the movie in a few instantly recognisable phrases. Dollars to doughnuts you’re whistling along to it in your head as you read.

The Karate Kid Miyagi

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. 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 that his querulous student had perhaps anticipated.

We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak.

John Kreese

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 total antithesis of the jingoistic marital arts movies clogging up the rental shelves. 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, all of it underscored by Morita’s keen sense of comic timing. 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.

LaRusso earns our respect. From the moment he unwillingly lands on the California shores he becomes public enemy number one, not only in the eyes of Ali’s excruciatingly affluent and pretentious parents, but in the eyes of some of the cruellest, most iconic bad guys of the 1980s. LaRusso is taunted, victimised and beaten black and blue time and time again before Miyagi feels it necessary to step in, reducing Kreese’s skeleton rabble to a pile of puerile amateurs in one of the film’s most touching and exhilarating scenes. This follows a well deserved but deeply misguided prank at a high school Halloween party, one that endears us to the boy who, despite wallowing in a living hell day after day, refuses to relinquish his sense of fun and fighting spirit, characteristics that will come to define him by the movie’s end.

In hindsight, Daniel’s gang of leather-clad antagonists seem a little antiquated well into the 21st century. 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, a band of teenage rebels who Miyagi, in his endless wisdom, 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 winning and losing are of no real importance.

Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good.

Mr. Miyagi

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 that his student does. Like Daniel, Miyagi is an outsider, squirrelled away in his garden idyll and plunged into an alien environment at pains to accept him. 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 stilted 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 to see marital arts not as a tool of ostentation, but as a personal philosophy that is relevant to all aspects of life.

The Karate Kid Miyagi and Daniel

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 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-mystical 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 protégé.

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 we the audience, may have imagined. Ultimately, 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.

The ubiquitous kids in peril concept has since been recaptured in astonishing fashion thanks to the Stranger Things-led revival and a deep sense of nostalgia for all things 80s. The practical effects heavy adventures of yesteryear have been given a modern upgrade that is nothing short of awe-inspiring, embellishing an era that is still very much close to the hearts of a generation. On the other side we have the equally wonderful Cobra Kai, which, like The Karate Kid before it, is a comparatively low-key affair that is much more grounded, Zabka’s Johnny becoming the show’s sympathetic character thanks to a beautifully ironic twist that has endeared us to these characters all over again. The wonderful, bigger budget Stranger Things has the power and skill to reference the era’s biggest, most cherished movies in spectacular fashion, but Cobra Kai stands on its own merit, proving that you don’t have to be a giant, bold blockbuster to endure in the minds of millions. Not a bad legacy for a low-key sleeper hit written off as a trite and predictable morality tale. Pat Morita would have been proud.

The Karate Kid Logo

Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen
Music: Bill Conti
Cinematography: James Crabe
Editing: John G. Avildsen,
Walt Mulconery &
Bud S. Smith

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