A Review of the Original The Karate Kid
The girlfriend and I have been reliving our movie memories while sheltering at home. On Sunday, we had a double-feature: Spy Kids and The Karate Kid.
Spy Kids is a great romp through silliness, the vision of writer, editor, director, producer, composer all-around movie-maker Robert Rodriguez. The movie features a deep cast of well-known actors, one of the few kids movies that features a wide-variety of accomplished actors, a tribute to Rodriguez’s commitment to this project. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Spy Kids again, many years after I had first seen it. The jokes were still silly and fun. The focus on the brother-sister team, Carmen and Juni, creates an adventure that’s truly best seen through the eyes of a child. You don’t often get to see children play dual roles as Carmen and Juni also have seemingly invincible robotic evil doppelgangers. For something light to watch with the kids, Spy Kids is definitely a family favorite.
The main feature of the night, however, was The Karate Kid. The girlfriend had never seen it before, and it had been some years since I had. I was a bit worried if Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi would hold up under the scrutiny of a more modern sensibility regarding stereotypical depictions of nationalities and ethnicities. Indeed, it does. The character transcends the stilted English of an older Okinawan man.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where so much of the movie was filmed. Seeing the valley in all its 1980s glory for a filmed set in the ’80s, is much fun. Rather than a more contemporary movie looking back and recreating the 1980s, we get to see a true slice of 1980s culture in The Karate Kid, with its arcade culture, designer jeans, Valley girl talk, and big hair.
I had forgotten that this was a “wrong side of the tracks” story, with Daniel, an affable, respectable high schooler recently relocated from New Jersey to the Valley with his single mother, occupying Reseda, a lower-middle class neighborhood of the valley, and Ali living in the hills of Encino, an upper-middle class area. So many teen movies of this time, a la John Hughes, feature the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, so this was a refreshing change of perspective.
Also, the movie is definitely a commentary on bullying, though it doesn’t have a heavy moralistic hand about it. Daniel must figure out how to fight against and stop the bullying of the Cobra Kai karate guys, who are taught no mercy by their militaristic Sensei. Enter Mr. Miyagi, the maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment complex, who kindly befriends Daniel and enters into an agreement to train him in karate for an all-valley karate tournament in hopes to stop the bullying.
The Karate Kid was directed by John Avildson, famous for directing best picture Rocky, which ended with Rocky’s defeat, but is noted for ending at the very end of the fight, no coda, no final scene away from the boxing ring before the credits. The movie ends on a high note, something the United States was looking for in 1976. Now 8 years later in the middle of the Reagan administration and our culture definitely changing, we see a different United States, one in which bullies run the street and nice guys have a difficult time just getting around.
The film made a Ralph Macchio, the skinny actor who plays Daniel, a household name. Though he had acted before, Ralph will always be Daniel-san. He was actually 22 years old when he made The Karate Kid, though he played a high schooler.
Pat Morita was a long-time actor with a distinguished career, appearing notably as Arnold the wise-cracking, joke-telling Diner owner in Happy Days. But it’s his role as Mr. Miyagi that became synonymous with Morita. The character tries to impart the wisdom of life to Daniel-san through unusual Karate training, through waxing cars — “wax on, wax off” and sanding decks and painting fences and houses and balancing in the ocean and on row boats. Mr. Miyogi is definitely a kind of Yoda character, complete with wisdom for the ages and aphorisms for every occasion. “Wax on, wax off” has long been a part of American culture now.
But it’s the indelible friendship that builds during this movie that is the heart and soul of it. Daniel only briefly tries to argue his way out of the chores, and he appreciates Mr. Miyagi immediately. We see this on the night of Mr. Miyagi’s anniversary, which he has celebrated alone for many years, getting drunk at the memory of losing his wife and unborn child during childbirth while he, of Okinawan ancestry, is off fighting against the Germans during WWII as an American solider, earning a medal of valor. Daniel reads the note Mr. Miyagi clutches, as he puts the passed out Miyagi in bed for the night. Understanding Miyagi’s sorrow, Daniel bows to his Sensei upon leaving, a sign of utmost respect.
For Daniel’s 16th birthday, Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel a karate robe, with an emblem of a bonsai tree on it sewn by his dead wife, and he gives him a car, an old classic car that Daniel has waxed to perfection. These are not just trinkets given one to the other. They have each given each other bonds of friendship that are rare to see in today’s world. The charm and good feeling of that friendship drives this movie forward.
We also see Elizabeth Shue in an early role that in effect launched her career. She plays Daniel’s love interest, Ali, former girlfriend of Daniel’s nemesis, Johnny Lawrence. She’s the epitome of a valley girl high schooler of the time, despite having to take a break from Harvard for the filming of the movie. You can see the great actress she will become here, a role that leads her to the very dark Leaving Las Vegas.
I have not seen the remake of The Karate Kid starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s young son, Jaden Smith, though the reviews suggest that the original should have been left alone. If anyone who has seen the remake would like to weigh in, please comment below.
If you haven’t seen The Karate Kid, you are in for a trip into the 1980s and southern California culture that is definitely worth the 2 hours. If you have seen it, I hope you enjoy rewatching it and re-experiencing the incomparable friendship of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san as much as I did.
Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He has lived on a sailboat and writes about film and movies, literature, baseball, and growing up in the San Fernando Valley. He edits the Medium publication Valley Dude and is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please.