The Karate Kid
out of ****
It had been no less than fifteen years since the last time I’d seen John Avildsen’s The Karate Kid. It was a film of my childhood, like The Neverending Story and Goonies; Over the last decade and a half, I primarily remembered its now famous phrases (“wax on, wax off,” “catch fly with chopstick”) and the militant karate dojo led by a hard-ass ex-marine that essentially informed my opinion of all karate classes and kept me from signing up, ever. And I remember being in perpetual awe of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the short, Japanese repairman who trains Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) all the way into a karate championship—he was a tough teacher, but was also the kind of warm, helpful sage that my parents could have relied upon to keep me out of trouble back in my schoolyard days. (Especially when he uses a hand-rubbing trick to heal Daniel-son’s sprained leg, which certainly could have come in handy during my daily tree-climbing era. For the record, I still climb trees from time to time.)
As in my recent explorations of many of those said childhood films (another one was The Monster Squad, which initially brought nostalgic tears to my eyes that later transformed into slightly-embarrassed groans) I approached The Karate Kid this week with my tongue in my cheek, prepared for the disappointing realization that it probably wasn’t going to be anywhere near as good as I remember. I ended up catching myself surprised how engaging the material is, and how timeless so much of this film has become—particularly, yes, the character of Miyagi, who has since become one of the most lasting of American cinematic icons. Considering Miyagi, I realize the depths of this film’s achievement: Over twenty years after the film’s release, the name “Mr. Miyagi” has become a part of our pop culture—he is a character so engrained into our collective consciousness that even people who haven’t seen The Karate Kid and perhaps do not know the origin of the name fully understand what it represents: The unlikely sage who teaches young whippersnappers the discipline of karate. Kind of like Yoda, only not nearly as intimidating as a little green man living in a swamp full of monsters.
The film itself sets up fairly routine ideas (Avildsen, you may recall, also did Rocky, perhaps the greatest of all traditional sports movies), retells them with absolute efficiency, and places the fresh, ingenious relationship between Mr. Miyagi and his pupil in its center. We follow Daniel all the way from Jersey to California, where he enrolls in a new high school, meets a girl, finds trouble with bullies, etc.—all of the necessary high school clichés that have existed since the creation of high schools. That he will eventually learn karate to defeat a slimy antagonist competing for the love of the same girl is pretty much established in the film’s first few minutes. And while the film plays out typically, it does not feel clichéd or recycled, primarily because of the way that the film carefully establishes unlikely personalities to inhabit these familiar roles.
As the new kid Daniel, for example, Ralph Macchio is not a typical fit. Like any emblematic high school film, he’s an outcast and new to town, stuck with his eccentric mother (Randee Heller) who has a new job in California. This is a familiar introduction to a story about beating the odds, but the proceedings don’t play out obviously: Daniel and his mother have an interesting, well-written relationship, including conversations that seem authentic and certainly lack the usual dialogue of most films of this type; their words reveal authentic personalities instead of shuffling the plot along superficially. We instantly get the impression that they have spent a great deal of time surviving together; Daniel is at an age when he would never dream of admitting how much he looks up to his mom, but we gradually understand that their relationship is one of trust and mutual respect between two people who have shared plenty of heartache. It is extraordinary how the depths of their relationship remains unspoken, always haunting the borders of the movie and informing Daniel’s spunky personality, stubborn determination, and the increasingly paternal respect he projects onto Mr. Miyagi.
Most of the characters work against the expectations of what could otherwise have been predictable material. Daniel is gangly and socially awkward, yes, but he is also not without charm and wit—it is telling that his personality attracts the cheerleader beauty (Elizabeth Shue), and not his ability to fulfill perfunctory high school roles (jock, football player, etc.). The love interest herself, Ali, would be ashamed of her attraction to Daniel in a less complex film; instead, she boldly plows ahead and is rather ashamed of the more typical reaction from her well-to-do parents, who would prefer her to date within her social class. That more token designation goes to Johnny (William Zabka), the bully who also happens to be the best student of the sadistic marine-turned-instructor of Cobra Kai Karate dojo. But even Johnny is not played for laughs or complete villainy; he brims of insecurity and ultimately makes a decision in the final scene that goes against his brutal nature and his sensei’s orders.
The militant sensei is played by Martin Kove in such hammy overdrive that his archetype nearly established a household name of its own, as the malicious drill instructor-turned-coach (did his performance inspire R. Lee Ermy in Full Metal Jacket, or Tom Berrenger in Platoon?). Of all the key players, his role seems the most forced and unnatural; it’s like he wandered in from a Kickboxer sequel. It’s an effective performance on its own terms—I’ve already said how the character informed my opinion of karate dojos as a young man (Chuck Norris notably turned down the role, in fear that this would indeed happen on a national level). It’s just that Kove doesn’t play it straight in a film striving to be straight—he snarls and chews scenery, utters lines like, “Show him no mercy!” and “Give me sixty pushups on your knuckles,” like an increasingly unstable ex-vet who couldn’t run a low-rent motel, let alone a professional karate school. In a more routine film with similarly clichéd characters, in which we are encouraged to suspend our disbelief, Kove would be the highlight. Here, he is merely a distraction from the more convincing proceedings.
But no matter—the film belongs to Miyagi. When we first meet him, he is the friendly old janitor at Daniel’s new condo; he is introduced so casually that if we could possibly watch this film cold, we would think of him as a secondary character that will occasionally pop up to provide the token-Asian comic relief. Only as Daniel’s happenings at school with bullies progress does Mr. Miyagi emerge, establish himself as a karate master, and begin to train Daniel (called “Daniel-san”) in the ancient ways of hand-to-hand combat. The setup suggests all the clichéd images that come with karate films (think Bloodsport, with the hero running in slow-motion as heavy weights are strapped around his shoulders), but we all know what happens: Mr. Miyagi’s unorthodox, ingenious method involves waxing the patio of his house (“Wax on, wax off,”) and painting the house with precise hand movements. Daniel is frustrated at first, but slowly comes to the realization that Miyagi is indeed teaching him all the karate movements he will need to enter into and win the upcoming tournament.
Now: Is all of this obvious from a narrative standpoint? Of course, inventive as Miyagi’s training is. What isn’t obvious is the careful, father-son relationship that develops between Miyagi and Daniel-san. These training sequences serve a greater purpose: They allow these two interesting characters to inhabit the same screen and interact with one another, and it allows Miyagi to emerge as one of the great movie characters.
Consider their scenes together, which makes up the bulk of the film. When Daniel first begins his training, he finds Mr. Miyagi seated at a small table in his house, attempting to catch flies with chopsticks. His motivation: “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.” “Have you caught any yet?” Daniel asks. “Not yet,” Miyagi admits. In the next few moments, Daniel has joined him; when the pupil elatedly catches a fly, Miyagi looks more annoyed and perplexed than a cinematic sensei has any reason to be. “Beginner’s luck,” he quietly fumes. This scene is a pure delight, because A) this method for catching flies is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and it helps establish Miyagi as a compelling human character, B) it is not a gimmick, but allows these likable characters to progress in their relationship in an authentic, unforced manner.
All the training sequences proceed in this way; they provide interactions that develop their bond in such touching and insightful ways that we often have to remind ourselves that, yes, these scenes also move the plot toward its inevitable showdown. But in the context of Daniel and Miyagi, the obligatory final fight becomes the payoff not for the new kid/bully subplot, but as the accumulation of the various roles that Daniel and Mr. Miyagi have played for each other—teacher/student, son/father, best friends, etc. A powerful scene in which Mr. Miyagi gets drunk and confesses his life’s pains to Daniel cements these sequences; much like Daniel’s unspoken relationship with his mother, this passage reveals the source of Mr. Miyagi’s strength and suggests the hidden layers in his compulsion to help Daniel learn karate. Their interactions, and this scene in particular, suggests the unspoken emotional/spiritual dynamics in their rapport, and the film uses its conventional story to allow their friendship to play out as a sort of compensation for the experiences that they have lost (Daniel’s father, Miyagi’s family). It is telling that the last shot is not of Daniel as he raises his trophy and holds Ali in his arms, but rather of Mr. Miyagi’s beaming, parental face.
The production company was initially hesitant to cast Pat Morita, as he was known primarily as the comic relief in “Happy Days.” But when the auditions came in, it became quite clear that Morita was the correct choice for the role (it even won him an Oscar nomination). Not only for the required comic timing, demonstrated to perfection in the now immortal “wax on, wax off” sequences and in Miyagi’s sly, deadpan comebacks to Daniel’s hyper energy, but also for the unspoken depths behind the character’s eyes—the introspective, observant insight that fuels Mr. Miyagi and informs us that his bizarre methods and humorous tone are required to penetrate Daniel.
The film was a big enough success to spawn two sequels with Macchio and Morita, and countless spin-offs with Morita alone, including an animated series, a Next Karate Kid (with pre-Oscar Hilary Swank), and, God help us, The Karate Dog (2004), which finally killed poor Miyagi off. It was a mercy killing: As the case in most sequels, these films lost their way and increasingly required Miyagi to turn into the kind of typical sensei that he is first meant to contextualize. By the time we see him in these films, “wax on, wax off” is no longer an inventive development but a catchphrase now as staple to these types of films as slow-motion spin-kicks (it really comes to an embarrassing head when the Next Karate Kid repeats the phrase and Miyagi observes, “You missed a spot.”). I suppose it’s telling that Miyagi became such an engrained martial arts icon that he was ultimately spoofing himself, for better or for worse.
But that’s not the case here, which is why Miyagi has stayed with us: He works beyond the predictable requirements of his role and emerges as a character who puts the wise sensei into a human context. “Catch fly with chopstick” becomes not just the action of a conventional sage with a moral to every story, but also the declaration of a patient, witty man who enjoys amusing himself with trivial delights. That Miyagi can be both of these things reveals the insight that elevates The Karate Kid from a routine high school sports picture to an enduring reflection of friendship and the spirit of endurance.
Ralph Macchio: Daniel
Pat Morita: Mr. Miyagi
Elizabeth Shue: Ali
Martin Kove: Kreese
William Zabka: Johnny
Randee Heller: Mom
Colombia Pictures presents a Delphi Films production. Directed by John Avildsen. Written by Robert Mark Kamen. Rated PG, for language and martial arts violence. Running time: 126 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: June 22, 1984.
For Grace, as she rides her rocking chair through the rolling hills.