The Karate Kid (Movie Profile) – Episode 67
On today’s episode of Martial Arts Radio we talk about one of our top-referenced films from our interviews, The Karate Kid.
I’m the founder here at whistlekick, but I’m better known as your host, Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, in case you don’t know, makes the world’s best sparring gear and some excellent apparel and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome our new listeners and thank all of you that are listening again.
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Now, when we talk about martial arts movies, there are a few that immediately come to mind for most people. If you’re a martial artist or a fan of the genre, you likely know a lot of them. But for those that to not train in the martial arts, or are only casually interested, there is a much shorter list. Undoubtedly, The Karate Kid, the original, is on that list.
(Below is part one of a full rehearsal of the movie, including some different dialogue. You can watch the rest of the parts on YouTube from this video.)
Released in 1984, The Karate Kid made waves in both popular culture and the martial arts world. For several years after, martial arts schools of all types would be flooded with interested students that wanted to be just like Daniel LaRusso. To this day, if some sarcastically imitates the martial arts, they’re usually performing a crane kick, just like Daniel did. Did you know that technique, as demonstrated in the movie, really doesn’t exist in any traditional martial art?
When released, the tagline for the movie was “Only the ‘Old One’ could teach him the secrets of the masters.” Our love for Mr. Miyagi, whose first name was Kesuke in the original film (though it was stated as Nariyoshi in The Karate Kid Part 2) was due in large part to the brilliant acting from Pat Morita. It’s easy to forget, but Pat Morita’s Miyagi earned him Academy Award & Oscar nominations. Did you know that he was named after Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu karate? And yes, the style he teaches Daniel is Goju Ryu.
The movie was filmed in late 1983 throughout the Los Angeles area though some filming was done in Arizona. On set, the cast had a hard time believing Ralph Macchio, who starred as David LaRusso, was 22 years old. Filmed with a budget of only 8 million dollars, the movie grossed 90 million in the box office, all of that in the United States.
The other tagline used for the movie, “He taught him the secret to Karate lies in the mind and heart. Not in the hands,” really does a better job of capturing the spirit of the movie. The movie is beloved not for the writing or the acting, definitely not for the action sequences. People love this movie because we can relate to it. Before bullying was a buzz word, we could identify with Daniel wanting to just live his life. To have friends and a girlfriend in his new home… that resonated.
And it resonated for a lot of people, including some of the critics. Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, despite admitting that he never wanted to see the movie. In the end of his review, he calls it “one of 1984’s best movies.”
When we think about the movie, it’s easy to think of it in terms of sides – good & evil, though you could certainly make a case that neither Johnny (played by William Zabka) nor Sensei Kreese (played by Martin Kove) were evil. Bad guys, sure, but how much of Johnny’s disposition is the result of Kreese’s influence? We don’t know. While his methods were certainly positive, his students likely went through life with confidence and probably weren’t in Daniel’s position too often.
Zabka, who had no martial arts experience when he was cast in the movie, has stated numerous times, even during an episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where he plays himself, that people hate the character of Johnny so much that they try to fight him.
Of course, the connection between the two warring factions is Ali, Daniel’s love interest. Played by Elisabeth Shue, who temporarily left her schooling at Harvard for the movie, went on to act in a large number of roles. She’s still acting today, her most recent notable appearances being as Julie Finlay in CSI.
When you talk about a movie like The Karate Kid, everyone has their favorite parts. The wax on, wax off scene is not only imitated by people that see it, there’s some legitimate martial arts training in there. The scene with the fly and the chopstick inspired thousands of us to try just what we saw, though we all ended up like Miyagi rather than Daniel. Do you think Daniel’s success at catching the fly, which followed Miyagi’s comment of “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything,” was foreshadowing to the rest of the movie? Of Daniel’s success?
During the training session where Miyagi wears the baseball catcher’s equipment, we see Daniel start to apply his training. We’re right there with him as he truly starts to understand what he’s capable of.
And, of course, the most memorable scene for most is the end, with Daniel poised in the crane stance, ready to kick Johnny in the face. We know he can do it, we saw him do it earlier in the movie. But no matter how many times we watch him get ready, we still go there with him, or, at least, I do. To watch the film, to know his entire trajectory comes down to the timing of this single kick… few of us will ever have a moment like that, where a split second makes a real and distinct change in our lives.
It’s easy to see the influence the film had on not only martial arts, but popular culture. I started training the year before it came out. When I saw it, though, it validated what I was doing. I felt like I was Daniel LaRusso. I believed that martial arts would transform my life, keep me from being beat up by bullies and get the girl. I suppose two out of three isn’t bad, right?
But what most of us don’t realize is how different this movie could have been. The studio wanted to cut the scene where Miyagi is drunk, saying that it slowed the movie down too much. The director, John Avildsen fought hard to keep it in, and some believe it was this scene that earned him the award nominations.
Charlie Sheen was originally offered the role of Daniel, but he turned it down. Clint Eastwood’s son, Kyle, auditioned for the role but didn’t get it. His father was so mad that he banned all Coke products from the set… Coke owned the film’s production studio, Columbia, at the time.)
While there are a lot of rumors that Chuck Norris was offered the role of Kreese, the bad Sensei, it isn’t true. He has come out to say that, had he been offered the role, he would have turned it down because he didn’t want to represent someone who portrayed the martial arts in that way.
Pat Morita was initially turned down for the role because he was best known as a comedian. If you didn’t know, Morita was an actor on the sitcom Happy Days. The director thought Morita was the best choice, but producer Jerry Weintraub was concerned that the audience wouldn’t take him seriously. For his second screen test, Morita grew a beard and added a Japanese accent, which changed Weintraub’s mind.
And, in a string of almosts, Daniel’s original last name was Webber, Johnny Lawrence was Donald Rice and the song, You’re the Best was originally written for Rocky 3. But when Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger came along, they dropped it and The Karate Kid picked it up.
That great car Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel for his birthday? The producer gave it to Ralph Macchio who owned it for quite a while. If you’re wondering what it was, it was a 1948 Ford Super De Luxe Club convertible. And Johnny’s red leather jacket? Billy Zabka ended up with that.
The crew wearing the skeleton costumes in the movie complained that Pat Morita’s stunt double was hitting them too hard. Well, it’s not surprising that the work of someone like the legendary Fumio Demura would be authentic. The scene was repeated over and over because Demura’s strikes would throw everyone off. He told the director that if he could put his own team in the costumes, they’d get it right in a single shot. They did, and, they did. A lot of Morita’s influence in playing Miyagi came from the time he spent with Demura, including his mannerisms and speech.
What’s your favorite part of The Karate Kid? Did it have an impact on your life, or maybe you’re a martial arts school owner that saw a change in your business from the movie? We want to hear from you!
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