PG, but there's a lot of violence and language. This movie is right on the cusp of the introduction of PG-13. I'm not sure it completely deserves a PG-13 by '80s standards. But the '80s were cool with non-f-bombs being thrown around pretty willy nilly. Also, this is one of those movies where the bullies get way too intense. Like, it's one of those movies where the bullies should end up as serial killers. So there's some blood and scary situations. Also, Johnny rolls a joint in the high school bathroom. I had no idea what was happening as a kid, but my jaw dropped. I'm also going to look at the whole chosen-white-male narrative, coupled with the all-Asians-know-karate stereotype.
DIRECTOR: John G. Avildsen
We just finished up the rewatch of Community last night. I hope that someone is beating me to the punch on the rest of this idea, but I forgot that there was an entire episode about Annie and Chang doing a community theater production of The Karate Kid. I'm in this point in my life where I want the things that I considered modern classics to survive, but also acknowledging that a lot of these movies might not hold up to the test of time. Part of that might come from simple things that we thought were rad at the time. Others might come from upsetting stereotypes. But The Karate Kid, for as much fun as my kids may have had during this movie, doesn't really hold up as well as I thought it would. I mean, I still want to see Cobra Kai when it comes to Netflix, but that's a whole different ball of wax.
The one thing that I noticed very quickly is how little depth there was to the movie. The movie starts with Daniel and Mom's trip across the country to California. Without much context for Daniel's love of New Jersey, the movie assumes that we get that Daniel is going to be a fish out of water. All this really does for us is present a protagonist that has a chip on his shoulder already. I mean, I think Daniel's a cool guy, as does the people who live in his apartment complex. But Daniel is dealing with the same emotions as Riley in Inside Out. But whereas Inside Out does us the courtesy of stressing on the internal conflict of Riley, Daniel's angst is just a means to get him to learn karate. There's this really interesting to story about a kid who is just trying to find his way in a new home with a girl that is completely out of his social class, but instead it is a means to get him to crane kick people in the face.
The thing is, there's a version of The Karate Kid that is possibly a masterpiece. I know. I'm swinging for the fences here. The episode revealed that the interesting element of The Karate Kid was not focusing on Daniel Larusso and his tournament with the Cobra Kai. As goofy as the episode is, the real interesting stuff is the characterization and background of Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi is a bit of a hard sell in the 21st century. Considering that The Karate Kid seems aimed at ten-year-olds who want to break bricks, Miyagi acts as a problematic version of the sage archetype. He is the keeper of this mystical knowledge that will let this white kid instantly learn how to beat people up. It really should be stressed that there's no reason why Daniel does so well in the tournament. He went from VHS tapes about karate where he was horribly inept to being the champion, in the face of Cobra Kai competitors maiming him.
But there are these rays of sunlight with Miyagi's character. One of those elements of history that seems to be glossed over in a lot of American history classrooms (not all, geez. I'm not starting this debate because I teach this) is the concept of the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Miyagi has this really complex relationship with America. He was abused and mistreated in this country. He lost his wife and unborn child due to inadequate medical facilities in these camps. He was this respected solider who defied orders and lived the life of a hermit in America. But all this comes across in two scenes total. Morita gives so much in these scenes and you realize that these moments are in a movie about a white kid who learns karate. It's almost like the filmmakers were aware that they had a responsibility to tell a deeper story, but were stuck doing scenes at Golf 'N Stuff to make it seem as radical as possible.
From Miyagi's perspective, and this definitely isn't sold very hard, he's had a hard time identifying with America. He's an old man who could destroy anyone who comes across him, but he lives alone and works in isolation. He works for the South Seas apartment complex, a place that is clearly a dump. But he does his job with pride. (I don't know why he doesn't fix the swimming pool. That seems really out of character, but it also sells the concept that the South Seas apartment complex is garbage.) It is really implied that he hasn't bonded with anyone, but he has no hatred for America. Instead, he collects cars. He tends to his bonsai trees. Seeing this kid doing lame karate inspires him to invest in Daniel. I just don't really get why. I mean, part of it is seeing Daniel getting ripped apart near the fence. Okay, that's something. But it seems like Miyagi is on board with Daniel before that moment. Also, Miyagi gave Daniel a classic car. That seems a bit much.
I think Daniel O'Brien did something for Cracked back in the day about Daniel being the villain of the piece and Johnny as the hero. I think that Cobra Kai jumped on that concept. I tried watching the film critically with that lens. I don't see it. While Daniel is a bit too cocky and shoulders some toxic masculinity, a lot of that can be chalked up to age and situation. Ali seems interested in him. She established clear boundaries with Johnny, stressing that they were broken up. However, Johnny and his use of violence, especially to a stranger, is horrifying. I don't care that Johnny has a hint of redemption at the end. That moment with Johnny handing him the trophy is kind of malarky. We're supposed to get this acknowledgement that, as bad as Johnny is, he was only following the orders of a much more toxic adult. But Johnny is kind of a rapey psychopath.
I want to look at the scene at the country club dance. There's a throughline that is a little shoehorned about cultural values. It's hamfisted, but is at least there. Ali's parents see Daniel as cheap trash. Ali doesn't see him as cheap, but sees that everything in his life is a little more worn. The pushing of the car is a great physical manifestation of Daniel's insecurities. But the dance is kind of a big deal. Daniel is defensive of his economic status. It makes sense. After all, chasing Ali has been nothing but physically daunting and emotionally vulnerable. But when Johnny kisses her, Daniel goes running. Now, it's really weird that everyone hates on Daniel from this moment. Ali's friends always hated Daniel because they thought that he was beneath her. Okay. But Ali is mad at Daniel for not psychically knowing that she hit Johnny after the kiss? I mean, from Daniel's perspective, Ali was cheating on him with the worst guy imaginable.
I know that a lot of people call out Daniel for cheating at the end. Okay, part of me really wants to take that perspective on the film. After all, he does kick Johnny in the face. But there's also this throughline that needed to happen. The movie keeps beating Daniel down over and over. Because Cobra Kai kept breaking him, we gain this instant sympathy. He's barely upright, but the film connects this image of balance. Throughout the story, we learn that karate (again, this might not be the best universal truth a film ever presented) is about balance. It's about finding this defensive stance and keeping upright. By tying the end to the crane kick, we see something that the movie has been teasing throughout the film. It makes perfect sense that Daniel would sit out the final fight. But I'm going to give the film credit for ignoring the fact that a kick to the face should be illegal. It's this great unity of the movie's themes, coupled with this great underdog moment. Daniel wins through defense, not offense. We see this character shift from victim to defender. He wants Miyagi to make him an aggressor, like Johnny. After all, that's why Daniel investigates joining Cobra Kai. But it's in this moment that we see how much damage he could really do, and it's through not attacking.
But I'm going to shift back to the fluffiness of this movie. Daniel might be one of the worst examples of a protagonist in film. He's a kid who thinks his life is terrible. I don't deny that every character believes that there's something wrong in his life. But the movie really makes him into a fragile white hero. Rather than dealing with real problems, Miyagi gives this gift to someone who keeps poking bears throughout the story. It's not like Daniel (who I still agree is the hero of the story) is doing all he can to avoid Johnny and his crew. When things go wrong, he instantly goes into a fighting stance. He is obsessed with winning and salvaging his pride. When things die down with Johnny, he intentionally embarrasses him at the Halloween dance. There's all these moments where he should figure out how to deal with his problems in a responsible way. Also, Daniel's definition of poverty is light years away from actual poverty. He is comparatively poor. We feel bad for him because things aren't as bad as they could be. I am not the first person to mention that maybe Daniel could be played by someone whose story mirrored Miyagi's a little bit closer.
Also, I don't think I remembered how corny the movie was. Like, there are moments that are absolutely great in the movie, but the acting in a lot of cases is really stilted. It's a movie that has no idea how serious to treat itself. But I also have to acknowledge that my kids had a great time with it. My two year old was doing karate in front of the movie. It's a good time, if not absolutely silly. But we had a good time so I guess that's the point.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.