When the student is ready, the master will appear.
In 1977, Director John G. Avildsen won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on “Rocky”.
He declined to direct the sequel, “Rocky II”, for understandable creative and artistic reasons. However, he went on to make “Slow Dancing in the Big City”, “The Formula”, “Neighbors”, and “A Night in Heaven” instead. The critics of his win had their validation.
And so, 1984’s “The Karate Kid” was an opportunity for him to return to form. Not necessarily to Oscar contention, mind you, but the opportunity to tell an underdog story, a story of an unlikely victory, and a young man coached by a elder mentor and surrogate father figure. The parallels between the core story of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” are undeniable (including both being scored by Bill Conti). In fact the core plot elements of “The Karate Kid”, could be considered “time honored” to the point of bordering on trite. Yet the audience never once feels that… the story feels fresh and unique due to the considerable charms of the cast, and the context of Karate.
In the mid 1980s, Karate was still very exotic to American movie audiences. They certainly weren’t new to it, per se, but the concept was still very foreign. To them it was practiced by men like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee – tough men who trained themselves into fighting machines – not teenagers from the local high school. Karate was taught in temples, by monks – not in local dojos in your neighborhood. Even though it was a misconception, to the theatre going audience in the early 1980s, Martial Arts were a mysterious skill, taught in far away places, to dedicated men who did nothing but. It was not done for sport, it was not practiced by youth, it certainly wasn’t something you enrolled your child in.
This movie changed that. Opened the public’s eyes to the fact that the martial arts were taught here in America, and were accessible to anyone. I’ve had a couple of different conversations with martial arts instructors who recalled the enormous influx of business they experienced after this movie came out. I know, personally, that this movie planted a seed in me… eventually I would learn Karate, earn a black belt, participate in several tournaments (actually winning a couple), and then have the joy of teaching students and watching them succeed themselves.
None of that would have happened if it weren’t for the perfect casting and wonderful characters of Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso, and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.
When casting the part of Daniel Larusso, the filmmakers were looking for a “wimp with a chip on his shoulder”.
They found him.
22 years old at the time of filming, Macchio looked every bit the scrawny high schooler he was playing. Doe eyed, baby faced and skinny, it’s easy to envision him as someone the jocks would regularly use as a punching bag. But that vulnerability, that weakness, worked to his strength in terms of the film. The fact that he not only keeps getting up, but keeps challenging the Cobra Kai clan (punching one on the soccer field even after getting his ass kicked on the beach, or dousing Johnny in the bathroom stall on Halloween in spite of being run off the road on his bike)… You have to root for him.
He’s innately likable, too. He may not have gone on to be a huge star, but for this role, Macchio was absolutely perfect. He’s wimpy enough to believe they’d kick his ass, yet plucky enough to believe he’d keep getting up. He’s young enough to sell you on the fact he’s still very much a kid (when he has a hissy fit over wanting to go home, for example). He has the requisite sense of humor that a bullied kid would need to get through such a trying time, he has extraordinary chemistry with Morita as they bond, and he’s got the pretty boy looks to make the audience believe he could get a girl like Elisabeth Shue interested in him.
I’m sorry, wha– wait. Huh? Pfft. You’ll have to forgive me, I was 14 again there for a second.
Where were we? Oh yes, Pat Morita.
The legendary Toshirô Mifune actually read for the role of Mister Miyagi. Per scriptwriter Robert Mark Kamen, however, “his Mr Miyagi was a scary Mr Miyagi… It was full of dignity and bushido”. Which left the door open for another actor, comedian Pat Morita.
Morita was born in America – his accent in the film was actually an affectation. He got his start as a stand up comedian, billing himself as “The Hip Nip”. Prior to this film, his best known work was as Arnold, the diner owner on “Happy Days”.
The challenges Morita faced in life extended beyond his limited comedic career. His parents were fruit pickers, and as a baby, he suffered from spinal tuberculosis. Until the age of 11 he spent much of his time in hospitals, often in a full body cast (it was there he got the nickname “Pat”). He was told at one time that he would never be able to walk. When his health issues were resolved, he had other challenges to face – namely that he had to join his family in the Japanese interment camps which the U.S. had set up during World War II. He would spend four years there.
So, much of the grief that deepens Mr. Miyagi’s character is brought to the table by Morita himself, via his own personal experience. But it works to create a well rounded, multi-dimensional character. He’s not simply the compassionate handyman who knows Karate. He’s constantly surprising the audience, and thus became fascinating to watch.
Morita was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and the character is widely beloved.
Together Miyagi and Daniel-san embark on one of the most unique training regimens in movie history. My martial arts training actually dispelled a lot of the Hollywood bs in this film (painting and sanding is not an efficient training strategy, especially not without foreknowledge of the fact you’re actually trying to practice form and build muscle memory). But it’s still a magical portion of the movie because it speaks to so many of the things we WANT to believe about the martial arts.
Balance and blocking are more important than punching and kicking.
Peace of mind and good intentions will overcome aggression.
Lessons are best taught by inscrutable masters who hand out wisdom in bite sized bits.
There’s truth within, but more than anything the audience WANTS those things to be true. And thus Miyagi and Daniel-san prepare for the All Valley Karate Championship by waxing cars, painting, sanding, swimming and fishing. They bond along the way, and by the time the tournament rolls around, you’ll believe Daniel Larusso has a fighting chance.
You’ll definitely be pulling for him wholeheartedly at this point, as not only has he been getting his ass kicked by the school bullies, now their entire Karate Dojo is strongly represented in the tournament. Almost comically evil, the Cobra Kai stand as the antithesis to the lessons of Miyagi. Brutishly portrayed by Martin Kove, Sensei John Kreese teaches his students that mercy is for the weak, and that no such thing as good sportsmanship exists. As much as you love Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi in this film, you also hate Kreese and Billy Zabka’s Johnny. There’s a saying that a movie is only as good as it’s villains, and the villains here are wonderful. My hat always has and always will go off to them.
The film climaxes with an absolutely fantastic finale – the All Valley Karate Championship. Set to Joe Esposito’s intoxicating “You’re the Best” (a song originally written for “Rocky III”, but turned down in favor of “Eye of the Tiger”, and offered to “Flashdance”, but turned down in favor of “Maniac”), Larusso is shown advancing – realistically enough – with his limited martial arts techniques. The Cobra Kai resort to fighting dirty to stopping him from reaching the championship round. Kicking him in the knee illegally in order to injure him.
But once again, Daniel Larusso picks himself off the turf and refuses to be beaten. “Daniel Larusso’s gonna fight? Daniel Larusso’s gonna fight! Now isn’t this what it’s all about Folks? You know it!”
Larusso triumphs using the Miyagi’s technique, the legendary “Crane Kick”, a leaping front snap-kick directly to Johnny’s face. Set to Bill Conti’s chill inducing score, Larusso wins the match, gets the trophy, gets the girl, and gets lifted up by the adoring crowd, all while a proud, approving Miyagi looks on.
It’s one of the most uplifting endings in movie history, and put a bounce in the step of every single audience member leaving the theatre. “None can defense” this ending.
It’s a fitting high note for a wonderful movie. The tale of Daniel Larusso and his under-estimable martial arts instructor is full of warmth and charm. Genuine heart. It’s the triumph of compassion and concern over cruelty. It’s the very illustration of not judging a book by its cover. Its a true underdog triumph and a genuinely moving story of a childless man and fatherless boy finding each other and and enriching each other’s lives.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.