watched it this time around with my cousin and it was his first time seeing it. i think watching it through the eyes of someone seeing it the first time reminded me of the first time i saw it and made me think about it, not as the great 80s nostalgia/sports movie that it is, but as a coming-of-age film that has a lot more to offer.
the film isn’t just about learning karate, it’s about learning how to live life. i’m not sure if i ever fully realized that in my previous viewings. it’s pretty explicit in the film so i’m not sure how i missed it, but i guess i was always caught up in the moment – daniel getting the girl, defeating the evil karate dojo, etc. in the film daniel and miyagi talk about balance and what it means. they talk about it being important in karate and it’s the balance of everything in karate (daniel asks because he wants to learn how to strike), but miyagi later points out that balance is the key to everything in life as well as karate. these nuggets of karate wisdom are found throughout the film.
one thing that really resonates with me is the value of hard work. we see daniel do an extraordinary amount of hard work in the middle part of this film. there’s all sorts of manual labor that miyagi has him do seemingly because he’s a masochist or slave driver. however, in probably the best scene in the film, we see how this hard work is useful in more ways that just strengthening his arms. sanding the deck and painting the fence become karate moves and that revelation that hard work pays off in unforeseen ways is a great lesson for young kids and adults alike. it reinforces the fact that karate isn’t just about fighting well, it’s about living better. living with balance, confidence, etc.
i also love the socio-economic stuff in the film. daniel lives with a single mom and they’re working class, he’s trying to date an upper class girl, he’s learning about karate from a handyman…it’s no mistake that when daniel is supposed to pick up ali at the country club he comes in through the kitchen. in a lesser film they would have overlooked this detail and had him coming in through the main entrance like everyone else. it would have been a missed opportunity. it’s subtle (i’d bet that most people miss the importance), but it reinforces the point.
when daniel trains on the beach it’s a nod to an avildsen theme of training near the ocean. it’s used in rocky as well and it works. it brings up all the feelings/images of the churning power of the sea, the changing of the tide, etc. it’s about the power within us and the desire to change for the better.
as it true with all great films this one has a fair amount of comic relief as well. there are puns, usually having to do with the language difference, throughout the film. a couple i remember are when daniel and miyagi are on the boat and miyagi tells daniel to stand on the bow of the boat. daniel stands and bows. miyagi, the grumpy old man that he is, says no, don’t bow, go stand on the bow. daniel figures it out. another is when miyagi is drunk and he says bonzai! daniel asks what a small tree has to do with anything. miyagi tells him, not bonsai, bonzai. good stuff.
other nuggets – reference to manzanar. miyagi’s pregnant wife is interned there while he’s fighting for the u.s. in wwii. she dies while giving birth. manzanar is one of those atrocities that we seem to have forgotten because it’s not as bad as slavery or the genocide of native americans or the holocaust, but it did happen and it happened on the watch of “the greatest generation.”
after daniel gets his license miyagi reminds him that a license doesn’t replace eyes and ears. it’s a throwaway line that is easy to miss, but it has great meaning if you actually stop and think about it. unfortunately it’s not given a lot of time to breathe, instead they move on with the conversation, but it’s there for you to pick up after you’ve seen it 15 times.
a last point is that in both versions of the film there is a character that befriends the daniel early in the film and is then forgotten throughout the rest of the film. in the original we see exactly why this early friend (freddy) leaves the story, but this explanation is completely lacking in the remake (showing once again that those who remade the original didn’t have a real grasp of what the original was doing). the reason we never see freddy again past the first 10 minutes is that freddy abandons daniel after daniel gets his ass kicked by johnny. remember, freddy’s first interaction with daniel was after daniel kicked open the gate and freddy thought daniel knew karate. freddy is an asshole kid just like most high schoolers – he wants to be part of a cool crowd and wants to hang out with tough guys. as soon as he finds out that daniel isn’t a tough guy we never see him again. remember, daniel fits in well that first night, it’s only after he gets his ass kicked that he becomes an outcast. of course, ali is the exception to this which is why she’s the perfect girl for him. like his mom and miyagi, ali is there for daniel through the entire film. it’s easy to miss this element, but it’s important. freddy represents the capricious nature of adolescents.
final note that i found uplifting. miyagi points out in another profound one-liner that there are no bad students, only bad teachers. that goes for freddy, who really isn’t a bad kid, as well as johnny and bobby and the other cobra kai assholes.
this is great piece of work. it’s the best sports film of all-time and maybe the second best coming-of-age film of all-time. there are some cheesy songs, but really it’s a great film and it’s moving into my top 25 effective immediately.