Those of us of a certain age remember The Karate Kid for many things. Pat Morita’s starring run as Mr. Miyagi was a revelation after his bit-part comedic work on Happy Days. He won an Oscar nomination for the role. Ralph Macchio became an overnight star doing “wax on, wax off” and had all us kids mimicking his moves on the playground. Who didn’t fall over in front of your friends and enemies trying to do the “crane” on the soccer field?
We all had a massive crush on Elisabeth Shue.
None of that made the cheesy fight flick the cultural touchstone that it became. It resonated because its story traced the old hero’s journey in a time and place and with an arc that made sense.
The Karate Kid is all about bullying and what to do about it within the culture. It taught and reinforced a clear truth that resonated powerfully with anyone who has ever been bullied. You could learn to defend yourself no matter how big the bully seemed. You could step up and defend others when duty called. Your father might even teach you a move or two, and tell you that if standing up got you into trouble, he would absolutely have your back no matter what. And the culture would back you because self-defense is your right.
The film also understood and depicted fathers and father figures in a place of importance. Teenager Daniel LaRusso moves from New Jersey to L.A. with his single mom, and despite her heroic efforts, he has an undeniable hole in his life. Daniel needs a dad to teach him to be a man. The Karate Kid journey and story arc belonged to Daniel but the larger hero was his sensei, the quiet, shrewd, and ethical Japanese gardener who taught the kid the self-confidence he needed and never knew he could have. Miyagi was Daniel’s father in all but name. He taught him how to fight for himself physically and mentally. He even gave the boy his first car for his first date.
That truth of fathers and self-defense ran through the veins of our culture when The Karate Kid debuted in 1984. But in the lifetime between then and now, we’ve lost both. Fathers are dismissed, for the most part, relegated to the role of the useless fool or abuser. Schools, where bullying most often plagues the innocent, have been taken over by so-called “anti-bullying” campaigns that effectively ban self-defense. The bullied kids have nowhere to turn. The culture no longer has their backs and they know it. A bullied kid who does stand up takes enormous risks and can just as easily be kicked out of school as the bully, and the bullies long ago developed methods to evade detection by the clueless authorities anyway.
This was never right. It’s one of many misguided attempts to change human nature over the past few decades. But maybe it hasn’t been lost forever.
Cobra Kai revived the LaRusso tale as a TV series a few years ago first on YouTube and now on Netflix, but grew it up and expanded its universe. Daniel LaRusso is now a successful family man and business leader who trades on his famous victorious kick to sell cars. Johnny Lawrence, his high school bully and nemesis, never quite recovered from losing the All Valley Tournament and has been a drifter ever since. Both Macchio and William Zabka reprise their original roles, as do just about all the surviving actors from the original film series. Morita passed away in 2005 but lives on as the spirit that still guides Daniel and his family.
Much but not all of Cobra Kai’s story plays out with Daniel’s daughter and her friends, who are divided between the Miyagi way and the brutal Cobra Kai dojo that Lawrence has revived to try to make a living. Like the original films, the series is pure 1980s high school cheese. But like the original films, it’s well done and tells a solid, entertaining story with a heart.
In Season 3, the All Valley Tournament has been canceled by a city council that just doesn’t get the tournament’s purpose and wants all the fighting between the kids to end. One kid, Miguel Diaz, was kicked off a second-story balcony and nearly killed.
After the three divided dojo leaders — Daniel, Johnny, and Johnny’s evil mentor John Kreese — have failed to persuade the council that the tournament should go forward, bullying victim-turned-fighter Miguel steps up and delivers this speech.
“When I first moved here, I was bullied. I realized that there was no escaping it. There’s always gonna be a kid who wants to steal your lunch money, or give you a wedgie, or a swirly…Instead of burying your heads in the sand, pretending that bullying doesn’t exist, or that you could just get rid of it, what you need to do is teach kids how to defend themselves.”
“Karate is about discipline. It’s about inner strength. It’s about confidence. Lessons that you can use for the rest of your life. Look, I don’t know where I would be today, or who I would be today, if it wasn’t for my sensei.” Miguel turns to Johnny, who has had quite the story over the show’s three seasons.
“We don’t need this tournament to do cool kicks or sell tickets. We need it to show the bullies of the world that we’re not afraid.”
In 1984 such a speech would have been unremarkable. The culture understood it. Fathers (or senseis) mattered, and so did the right of self-defense. Taking on and taking down a bully was a rite of passage.
But now? Miguel’s speech in Cobra Kai is practically revolutionary. It goes against more than 20 years of “anti-bullying” campaigns that have mostly empowered bullies and failed to eliminate what is a negative trait in human nature.
Cobra Kai is a welcome change from the usual cultural pabulum that dominates. And it’s still every bit as cheesy and fun as the original film.