The Big Screen
There will always be classic martial art films, such as Enter the Dragon (1973), and Bloodsport (1988), but martial arts-oriented movies are usually a mere curiosity for the uninitiated. 2022 saw martial arts-action star Michelle Yeoh star in a movie that brought interest and critical acclaim whether viewers knew the difference between Bolo Yeung or a B.O.G.O. at their local supermarket. Everything Everywhere All at Once, with its mind-bending plot and visuals, relatable characters, great action, and a cast that brought nostalgia to some. (With Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan, I was awash in nostalgia myself.) The film was successful in showing martial arts as a part of the story, giving viewers a way into the action regardless of any knowledge of the movies in the Kung Fu canon.
While I love a classic revenge tale, or a battle against a shadowy criminal organization as much as the next person, it is the very human story of the little skirmishes against the mundanity of day-to-day living that most viewers could relate to. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the relationships and characters kept audiences hooked, while the action and stunning images kept them entertained.
The Small Screen
The Netflix streaming juggernaut Cobra Kai is the small screen home of The Karate Kid universe. Season five was released in September, and like most fans, I consumed it in a day or two. Many of my friends were as eager as I was to get the latest on Miyagi-Do, Cobra Kai, and the always-surprising, Eagle Fang, and the reaction from audiences everywhere was encouraging.
Online there was a great response. Seeing Cobra Kai trending on Twitter and viewers taking sides in the dojo war, quoting dialogue, and speculating on the course of events for the next season, was heartening. It wasn’t that long ago that my friend and I were the only people I knew even remotely interested in the show, and we’re both martial artists. Now, after five successful seasons, it is safe to say that the wide appeal has brought fans into the world of martial arts as nothing else could. Has it turned any viewers into students? That, I don’t know, but as The Karate Kid films have affected a generation of actors, writers, and martial artists, I have to believe the popular series will have a similar influence.
The Passing of Legends
Unfortunately, 2022 brought the passing of two legends in martial arts, Gene LeBell and Bob Wall. Their work and images, forever preserved in their films and television appearances, assures that their memory will not be limited to martial artists.
It is not hyperbole to call Gene LeBell a legend. Whether as a stunt man, actor, or Judo practitioner, “Judo Gene” was in people’s lives whether they knew it or not. Appearing as both an actor and stunt person from the 1960s into the 2010s, LeBell made a name for himself with his skills and personality. He appeared in numerous movies and television shows as an actor and stuntperson. With his distinctive pink judogi, LeBell stood out and can never be replaced. Gene LeBell passed away on August 9, 2022.
The towering figure of Bob Wall on the silver screen was even more imposing when pitted against his frequent and smaller opponent, Bruce Lee. Wall was in many films throughout his career which spanned six decades, but his appearance in the Bruce Lee films, The Way of the Dragon (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973) and Game of Death (1978)will assure his place in the pantheon of martial art film icons. Through his famous cinematic duels, especially in the iconic Enter The Dragon, Wall has been immortalized and will live on in the world of action cinema essentials. Wall died on January 30, 2022.
For martial artists all over the world, the most noticeable feature of 2022 was the return to training. Students could go back to their schools, and competitions and tournaments could resume in a much more open capacity. It wasn’t that long ago that the future of the martial arts industry looked bleak. Would students go back to their schools, or just find something else to do? The signs seem to indicate, anecdotally at least, a recovery. While the importance of solo practice was emphasized and is still essential today, the need for an opponent to hone the application of the skills practiced, as well as the camaraderie of fellow students and teachers, declared its relevance with renewed intensity. It was good to return to the mats.
The Future of Martial Arts in Culture
There was a time, way before so many of us worked remotely, when “water cooler talk” was how the average person could gauge what was happening in the culture. When people had a moment to discuss what they found interesting in their free time between walking to their desks and the office water bubble, what were people talking about? Now, with increasing frequency, the modern-day equivalent includes martial arts. Whether they are the subjects I’ve mentioned previously or the latest MMA fight. Increased awareness of martial arts in the culture can bring more understanding of its tenets and values, and an acceptance and understanding that there is a real purpose to studying a martial art beyond just the fist.