Revisit the First Two Karate Kid Movies to Better Enjoy the New Cobra Kai Series, Part 1

It’s long been a complaint of serious martial artists that the film industry presents a distorted view of the arts. By capitalizing on flamboyant aspects and then pushing them to the bizarre, moviemakers give the public little chance to learn what the arts are really about. In most cases, the true purpose of budo is either glossed over or simply absent. A welcome change came in 1984 with the release of The Karate Kid.

Not only was the movie a box-office smash, but it also was a big hit among the proponents of budo. In addition to doing much to educate the public, it was directly responsible for many people signing up for martial arts lessons.

Enter the Karate Kid Sequel

Martial artists were in for another treat in 1986 with the release of The Karate Kid Part II. In some ways, this movie surpassed the first one because sport karate — which the public had long mistaken for real karate — was entirely absent. Full play was given to the traditional values of self-discipline, kindness and understanding. Not only was the second film a financial success, but many instructors also noted another surge in enrollment.

Ralph Macchio

Daniel LaRusso in the All-Valley Karate Tournament.

The usefulness of the first two Karate Kid movies goes far beyond what’s been pointed out thus far. Appropriate references to the films during karate class can have a big impact on student attention, learning and even retention. The movies actually contain nothing new to the martial arts, but what they present is in such dynamic form that students can relate to it, and believe it, much more than if an instructor just talks philosophically.

Karate Kid Recap

Let’s begin with a synopsis of the films since there are people who missed one or both of them. In The Karate Kid, we see the trials and tribulations of a high-school boy named Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as he moves to a different state and tries to adjust. His major trouble is with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), student leader of the Cobra Kai, a group of sport-karate students whose teacher has a win-at-any-cost attitude.

Daniel is befriended by an older master named Miyagi (Pat Morita), who not only trains Daniel in the physical side of karate but also shows him the real purpose of the martial art.

In The Karate Kid Part II, Daniel goes to Okinawa with Miyagi, who returns to his homeland to visit his dying father. After a 40-year absence, Miyagi also must face the consequences of his youthful action of speaking out against marriage by arrangement. He had wanted to marry Yukie, but she had been promised to Sato, his best friend and fellow karate student.

Pat Morita

Miyagi and Sato in The Karate Kid Part II.

Because of Miyagi’s public outburst, Sato had felt dishonored. A fight to the death was averted only by Miyagi’s departure for the United States. On his return, Miyagi is challenged by Sato.

A conflict also develops between Daniel and Sato’s best student Chozen. The plot centers on how Miyagi and Daniel deal with these problems as followers of budo philosophy.

Let’s now examine the concepts that give the two movies their lasting significance.

Reasons for Studying Karate

People take up the study of martial arts for self-defense, self-improvement, exercise or any of a hundred reasons, all of which may be positive. But Daniel has a reason that is at least questionable — to get even for the beatings he’s taken from Cobra Kai students. When he asks Miyagi to teach him karate so he can avenge himself, the latter explains that fighting should be used only as a last resort. This confuses Daniel, who believes karate and fighting are one and the same.

When he asks Miyagi why he trains if not to learn how to fight, Miyagi says, “So I won’t have to fight.” A smile comes over the old man’s face as he realizes that Daniel is starting to see what karate is all about.

Importance of Belt Ranks

Beginners in the martial arts often ask about the rank held by their instructor. They tend to be disappointed if he or she is only a first-degree black belt but impressed if the teacher holds a higher rank. Novices seldom realize that there’s no uniformity in ranking from one organization to another. They’re usually confused and sometimes dismayed when told that there are no legal restrictions on ranking and that anyone can declare himself a 10th-degree grandmaster and distribute belts as he chooses.

Karate Kid

Daniel and Miyagi work on a bonsai tree.

True to form, Daniel asks Miyagi about his rank. Miyagi explains that karate comes from the head and the heart, not belt rank. Daniel’s understanding is still superficial at this point, but at least he’s been shown the right direction.

Value of Commitment and Patience

Real progress in the martial arts requires a solid commitment and true patience. Many fall by the wayside because they expect instant results without dedication.

When Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel, he knows a long, hard road lies ahead — for both of them. The only way for Daniel to succeed is for him to put his complete trust in Miyagi and to work with all his heart. To bind the deal and make sure Daniel understands what’s expected of him, Miyagi asks for a formal commitment.

Although Daniel agrees, he has little idea of the sacrifices that await him. He begins his apprenticeship by sanding floors, washing and waxing cars, and painting Miyagi’s house and fence. He sees these chores as payment for karate lessons. He tries to be patient, but that’s not a characteristic quality of youth. He feels pushed to the limit when he finds that Miyagi has been fishing all day while he spent the entire time painting.

Feeling Miyagi has let him down, Daniel vents his frustration and disappointment, claiming that he’s nothing more than a slave to Miyagi and that he hasn’t learned a thing yet. Miyagi disagrees, saying Daniel has learned a great deal. Daniel doesn’t see a connection between the chores and the martial art, but Miyagi insists it’s there.

Cobra Kai

Johnny and Daniel in the 2018 YouTube Red series Cobra Kai • Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Miyagi had two things in mind when he required Daniel to do the painting, sanding, and car washing and waxing. First, he needed to determine the boy’s sincerity. Second, each of the chores was to be done using a particular hand and arm movement, coupled with a specific breathing pattern. This was karate training in disguise. The work also gave Daniel more repetitions he would have received from just practicing in the air against an imaginary opponent. Thousands of reps are needed for movements to become second nature.

The wise Miyagi realizes that Daniel has reached the limit of his patience. He then shows the boy the fighting applications of the movements he’s been doing in his work. This is a revelation to Daniel. His new friend has not let him down. He’s once again ready to follow his teacher’s advice — without question.

In The Karate Kid Part II, Daniel arrives at Miyagi’s home and finds him trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. The lad is somewhat amused by this because he doesn’t understand the purpose. He asks Miyagi why he doesn’t use a flyswatter. Miyagi tells him that if you can catch a fly with chopsticks, you can accomplish anything. Daniel asks if Miyagi has ever caught a fly with chopsticks. “Not yet,” Miyagi replies.

Miyagi finally catches a fly with chopsticks. His reaction is one of surprise more than anything else. It’s significant that he never tells anyone about his success. This dramatizes something that many don’t realize: Attaining a goal is not necessarily the true accomplishment. It’s what we become as we pursue a goal that has lasting value. This is what Miyagi means when he says that a person who catches a fly with chopsticks can accomplish anything. The virtues developed by trying to catch a fly — or reach any difficult goal — will serve us in any other endeavor.

(To be continued.)

Text by Arthur Smith • Photos Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Learn Karate From Fumio Demura, the Martial Artist Who Doubled Mr. Miyagi

During the 17th century, Japanese invaders prohibited Okinawans from owning weapons, so they learned to use common farm tools to defend themselves. Three hundred years later, Fumio Demura — karate legend, Black Belt Hall of Fame member and the man responsible for Mr. Miyagi’s martial arts moves in The Karate Kid — built a reputation as the world’s leading expert in Okinawan kobudo weaponry. He solidified it with his books on the nunchaku, sai, bo, tonfa and kama. For the first time ever, those books have been collected in one massive volume. Go here to get your copy of this classic!

fumio demura book