Breaking the Narrative Episode 86: Wax On, Whacked Off! An Overview of The Karate Kid Parts 1 – 3!


With the advent of YouTube’s Cobra Kai net-only live action show we are given a unique chance to not only see various different forms of mentorship and masculine interaction but how perspective can make or break the context of an action.  However, to begin doing this we need the entirety of the core work this is a supplement to. That means we will be covering the movie franchise as it relates to this series. What that will include is all three movies starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso and Pat Morita as the iconic Mr. Miyagi. What it will not include is either The Next Karate Kid staring Hilary Swank nor the attempted hard reboot staring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan.

In addition, considering the presentation of the original movies, we will be coming at this from the perspective that was given by the films, of Daniel is the ‘Good Guy’ and Johnny is the ‘Bad Guy.’ When I go for Cobra Kai, I’ll apply its perspective appropriately so that it can be seen how important it is to take time to view a situation from all sides. With that in mind, Let’s Hammer This In!

First entry is pretty straightforward. Larusso moves to Reseda in Los Angeles, finds Elizabeth Shue hot, and gets his ass handed to him by Johnny. After a few months of this rivalry Johnny and his Cobra Kai brethren gang up on Daniel, and he is subsequently saved by Nariyoshi Miyagi – a United States World War II veteran originally from Okinawa. The rest of his backstory, we’ll cover when discussing the second movie, due to relevance. The point of this particular entry is to not only the cover the budding master-apprentice relationship between Miyagi and Larusso but the conflict that is seeded with the Cobra Kai dojo, run by Vietnam veteran John Kreese. What can be shown here is a difference in ethos between the two eras of Army veteran.

The primary conflict here is overall about discipline. At the beginning, Larusso has absolutely no discipline, while Lawrence is absolute discipline. This conflict is also compounded by their respective teachers’ views on honor and the battlefield, Miyagi tackling a sense of death before dishonor, while Kreese’s motto of no mercy influences every movement of his dojo. The simplicity of the story in the movie allows for the conflict to become centered not so much between the two pupils and their animosity (which is over a frivolous relationship that will be found to be fleeting anyway) but about which school of thought is superior.

A training montage for Larusso reveals that he is taught via muscle memory. This is also due to the portrayal of Miyagi as slower with English and fearing not being understood properly so he takes a show not tell approach, doing this through various chores such as the iconic ‘wax on, wax off’ approach. This continues over the course of the film up until the day of the tournament the franchise is known for. However, the biggest part of character development between Miyagi and Larusso, I feel, is when Miyagi memorializes the loss of his wife and son, which happened in an internment camp during World War II. It was this simple and short scene which not only increased understanding between Miyagi and Larusso, but cemented between them a father and son relationship due to Daniel’s lack of father figure prior.

We all know the ending of the original movie here, Larusso wins despite great hardship, Miyagi humiliates Kreese in a bout between the two masters, then we go on to part two. In this sequel it’s six months later when Nariyoshi receives news on his father’s impending death. He decides to return to his home after abdicating for the dishonor of falling in love with his spiritual brother’s chosen bride. Sato (the man in question) has become very successful and a pillar of the community in Miyagi’s absence. Miyagi explains this old story to his student and now spiritual son Daniel and that both he and Sato had learned Okinawan karate, which at this time would have been developed into what we know as Shotokan-Ryuu, from said dying father. Sato’s father was unable to teach for reasons not made clear in the film.

It’s revealed that not only had Miyagi left because he didn’t want a death match with the man he saw as a brother, but he felt Sato was ultimately better for Yukie, the woman whose love the two men coveted. It’s also brought to light that Sato bought out most of their old village. Sato, at this point, despite having been married to Yukie all this time, still yearned for that death match with his old friend. It’s here that Daniel was taught the ultimate secret of the Miyagi family style, a defensive technique based around an old drum that’s typically played with by children in Japan. The move is a block followed by a swift counter in the opposite direction, using the rotational force to not only redirect the attack of the opponent, but direct them into your attack. By the end of the film, Daniel displays this technique as a sort of ‘slap your opponent silly’ variant of the idea.

This is after Sato’s nephew Chozen challenges Daniel, seeing him as a rival because he is Miyagi’s student, even after Sato and Miyagi quelled the remaining bad blood between them. The grudge has been made pointless after a typhoon ravages the village. Miyagi restores honor between both men by saving Sato’s life, and the men do the right thing in helping rebuild the storm-ravaged village. Both men have lived out their lives, and it would be shown as petty to have their friends and family suffer their youthful differences. Kumiko – Yukie’s niece also fosters a young crush on Larusso and is made the reasoning for Chozen to challenge Daniel even though deep down he simply wanted to fulfill his Uncle’s grudge. He also depicts a lust for his cousin in the film. I won’t begin to tackle the Japanese incest joke here, even if the relations are only through loose marriages and not in any way blood related. I wonder if my father’s banjo is in tune….

Now we head off into the third and final part of the original franchise, which starts out while our protagonists are still in Okinawa. Kreese is destitute and a vagrant after losing all of his students, and ends up visiting his old army buddy Terry Silver. Silver is an initial investor in Cobra Kai who runs a corrupt industrial waste disposal corporation that has been bending and breaking California’s legendarily strict environmental conservationist laws for years. Its at this point that Silver, who wants to take vengeance himself for his best friend’s defeat by Miyagi, sends Kreese off to Tahiti to cool down and re-opens the dojo with a fake story about his demise from a heart attack. This is his ploy to coerce Daniel to defend his title at the tournament, as Daniel sees no need to compete again. To him, they have more important things to deal, such as he and his mother being homeless, and Miyagi without a job, when Daniel’s apartment is shut down.

Where is Daniel’s mother at this time? Oh she is back in Jersey nursing her brother back to health. She does not think of telling her son what’s going on until its too late. Silver, at this point, hires a ringer to take on the still-underage Larusso. Daniel is still unamused by the prospect of fighting in a tournament again, basically having become as much of a Zen Buddhist as Miyagi has shown to be through out the trilogy of films. To get themselves back on their feet as well, Daniel had a pretty entertaining idea of the two men starting a business selling bonsai trees. Happy with the idea, and Daniel putting what savings he had into the concept already, Miyagi agrees to it.

The final straw comes when our ringer and the corrupt Silver destroy the budding business, leaving one last challenge to which Daniel reluctantly agrees to, just to be done with it. He has shown surprising growth within the two years of knowing Nariyoshi. This should go to show the effect a positive male role model can have upon a young man. Miyagi states however that he sold his truck to get new trees for their business and as such can’t finish training him for the tournament. Silver then offers to ‘train’ Larusso in the more violent Cobra Kai style for the tourney, and insults the more balanced and peaceful Miyagi style. This infuriates Daniel, leading to an aggressive outburst akin more towards his earlier self in the franchise. After a nightclub outburst, the now strained relationship between Miyagi and Larusso is mended when it’s revealed that Silver was simply baiting them with a ruse in order to defend his own twisted view of honor and  warrior code.

We then have the renewed vigor of the two, now more family than friends, finishing Daniel’s training and taking on the tournament anew. This leads to Daniel’s second win in the tournament and a lifetime ban on Cobra Kai from ever entering a tournament again. Silver and Kreese walk away in utter disgrace. I want it to be said here that other than the recap bit at the beginning of the third movie that Johnny Lawrence is nowhere to be found, as he had left the dojo out of growing distaste for his master’s tactics and treatment of his students. We will touch upon this more next week as we tackle the Cobra Kai series in viewing where Johnny has gone as a character.

So overall what we have from this perspective is Daniel starting as the new kid in school, having to deal with the seemingly strong and popular Johnny, having grown up into a less volatile and measured man due to the influence of a father figure in his life over the span of two years. Yes, the real world movies took a total of 6 years to complete, but is supposed to span the years between Larusso being sixteen growing into 18. This means by the time Daniel is shown in Cobra Kai he is 50 years old, 6 years younger than Ralph Macchio who portrays him. This is entertaining considering that William Zabka is 52 and was supposed to be a year older in the story.

So from this point of view, Daniel is a product of a single mother situation who finds himself in making an older male friend who ends up mentoring the youth through his hardships. In turn the youth helps Miyagi with his own long-lived demons, in his form of grief over losing everything by giving himself into fighting against his old home country in favor for his new home, then tackling the the darkness of why he left said country in the first place. This is in essence, cleansing the seasoned master of his own sins and purging Daniel of the dark emotions that would have defined his life if he had let them, only suffering a resurgence in them decades later which we will touch upon in our Cobra Kai review.

Story-wise, it helps to know all three of these movies to comprehend fully the sequel series, but ultimately the first two movies are the only ones that truly have weight on Daniel’s character development. The whiplash of his reversion to his more savage self is only a dramatic tool for having the master and apprentice have a falling-out, and have to work out those differences, presented for an emotional effect upon the viewer. It is one that ends up hitting very flat overall. As someone who has actually learned a level of martial arts, I will say that while Macchio has performed what he was given in terms of ‘technique’ well, neither the style of Miyagi-Do nor Cobra Kai would stand to muster against someone who actually knows what they are doing. They are show forms much like a lot of what is currently taught in the United States.

If you are desiring to have your child learn martial arts in any capacity, please do your research not only on what forms are taught in your community, but the purported masters of them. Most legitimate black belts and masters are tested and trained for decades before they are can go through the steps of opening or even inheriting their own dojo. If they claim that they ‘taught the police’ or were ‘military teachers’ confirm that with the leadership of those institutions before putting your child in their tutelage, because someone teaching either a falsified form or any style without the proper balance will only lead to a lot more pain and misunderstanding in the long run.

In double-checking things you can find my old teacher, now Shihan (師範) Chuck Newton online. Shihan is an honorific that translates to Master Instructor and is a rank above the more commonly known Sensei. As he has gotten on in age, the training of newer students was passed down to another student of his named Dennis, who I do not remember personally but is possible I’ve trained with, as it has been over 20 years since I’ve been his personal student. Point is there are usually councils of older masters and grandmasters who go over rules on how to formally train students in this country, and it’s not that hard to trace any particular master if you take a few minutes and look them up. It’s in your best interest if you are at all interested in having either yourself or your children trained in self-defense.

This tangent but it is relevant overall in the scheme of things. Finding a good martial arts master is a good way in helping find positive mentors for children as they grow up, and something I do intend to do myself, even to the point of retraining my own body in some ways where I’ve gotten rusty… but this is a discussion that can be continued in next week’s episode. If you have any experience in martial arts, please describe it in the comments below and we can expand upon that next week. Until then Please Remember to Game Freely!

Alex Tinsley
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About the author

Alex Tinsley

A student of Fine Arts and Japanese culture of six years at Murray State University. Having never graduated due to difficulties with a specific teacher has gained a unique perspective upon the issues being faced by men and boys. A father of a young boy and loving husband.

By Alex Tinsley

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