Ever feel like a loser when things just ain’t jiving? Take a lesson or two from Daniel LaRusso, the kid fresh out of New Jersey adjusting to the culture of California. His story in The Karate Kid is an ultimate American classic and continues to inspire karate nationwide and evoke nostalgic high school memories. People love the movie so much that even today Netflix runs a highly successful TV series called Cobra Kai that brings back the same characters and actors of the original film—only this time, they’re forty- to fifty-year-olds. Simply speaking, The Karate Kid is a feel-good movie that nobody should miss out on.
Before getting into the storyline, some basics first. High school in cinema, as a rule, has two categories of people: first you have the cool rich kids with the nice cars and groovy hairdos who seem to get away with everything; then you have the not-so-cool, not-so-rich kids whose lives are basically the playthings of the so-much-cooler-and-richer kids. But there’s obviously a reason why: the quirky “loser” kids are just perfect for demonstrating movie heroics. Of course, at a surface level, we as an audience simply love it when we watch the underdog transform into a top dog and take his revenge. But more than that, his development in character is what really lionizes the “loser,” what impels the audience to think, “If he can, then so can I.” Daniel, as you might have guessed, so happens to be one of those not-so-cool kids, and his life typified the lifestyle of an American high schooler in the eighties. Whether its portrayal is true to fact or not, this principle, at least as it pertains to the movie world, is ever unfailing–new, clueless students simply make ripe victims for bullies. Daniel’s experiences, though quite dramatized and blown out of proportion, contain a grain of truth in its portrayal of a typical public high school atmosphere and depict a microcosm of the fundamental cruelty of this world due to flawed human nature. At the same time, The Karate Kid conveys a glimmering message of hope and friendship—both in the unlikeliest forms—that can inspire people across the globe and many generations.
From the get-go, Daniel has his misgivings about starting a new life in California–there are no winters, there’s too much smog, and the state is on the opposite coast of New Jersey. It simply doesn’t help when he sees the suspiciously murky water at his community pool, the grandma in the rocking chair, the leaky faucet in their condo, and the strange janitor catching flies with chopsticks. While he shrugs off the first three oddities, the last spectacle leaves a lasting impression on him.
Daniel soon becomes friends with Ali, a blonde cheerleader from the local high school who lives in “the hills”—a reference to the wealthy neighborhood. Things get heated when the biggest, baddest, richest boys of the neighborhood arrive on scene, one of whom, Johnny, Ali’s ex-boyfriend, meddles with Ali and her radio. Daniel, who stands up for her, ends up face flat on the ground with a black eye; turns out, the hoodlum is a star black belt student at the local Cobra Kai dojo.
As it would happen, Daniel attends the same school as Ali and Johnny’s gang. Though she approaches Daniel several times, there’s an unspoken divide between them since she’s from “the hills” and he’s not. Plus, Johnny’s gang constantly looks over their shoulder, creating trouble for Daniel and exploiting his physical weakness with their karate skills. Though Ali detaches from normal convention and her “rich kid” group to engage in activities with Daniel, he is loath to reciprocate, afraid that Johnny’s gang will jump him at any moment. Meanwhile, the janitor at Daniel’s apartment, Mr. Miyagi, shows several acts of kindness to Daniel, whom he suspects is having a difficult time at school.
Daniel has his moment of revenge at the school Halloween party by dousing Johnny with water in the bathroom. Fuming, Johnny gathers his gang and, after a long dog chase, severely beats Daniel up—all until Mr. Miyagi comes swooshing down and single-handedly thwarts them with his hitherto latent karate skills. Soon after, Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing and trains him for the under-eighteen state tournament two months away, warning the Cobra Kai sensei to ensure that none of his students (aka Johnny and his gang) harass Daniel till then. During training with Daniel, Mr. Miyagi utilizes unconventional methods, subjecting him to washing and waxing his cars (he has almost ten), painting his entire fence, and sanding the ground. So strange, not to mention tedious, is this approach that Daniel, and viewers, soon suspect that Mr. Miyagi is merely using him as a slave under the name of karate! After initially swallowing it for four days, Daniel confronts him, claiming that he’s learned nothing. Mr. Miyagi, after reviewing the circular and lateral motions that Daniel’s been practicing doing those chores, suddenly brings out a karate punch and kick, which Daniel instinctively parries with those exact chore motions. Who could’ve guessed that such tedious tasks were able to teach advanced karate? Motivated by his own progress, Daniel diligently works to expand his repertoire per Mr. Miyagi’s guidance, increasing both in his karate finesse and respect for Mr. Miyagi.
Their relationship develops beyond just karate lessons as they, both somewhat alienated from society, become intimate friends. On one occasion, Mr. Miyagi shares his personal life experiences, including the tragic death of his family and his reception of a Medal of Honor during World War II; on Daniel’s birthday, he gifts a karate uniform and car. Relating karate imagery with life in general, he urges Daniel to find personal balance in his life, hinting that he should resolve his relationship with Ali, which has become turbulent of late. Overwhelmed, Daniel renews his admiration for this Japanese man, realizing that he hasn’t been merely a karate teacher or janitor, but has become an important father figure that was absent in Daniel’s life.
When the day of the tournament arrives, Daniel is equipped with refined karate skill and the reassuring company of Mr. Miyagi and Ali. He somewhat effortlessly advances to the semi-finals, where he’s deliberately injured by one of Cobra Kai’s students through an illegal move. If Daniel backs down, then he’ll forego his chance for the title to Johnny, the other finalist. Forfeit being the last item on his list, it’s a one-legged Daniel, unrecognizable from the weak, pitiful boy we see at the beginning of the film, who finds himself determined to re-enter that arena…
Adapting to a new environment, Daniel was unable to find peace and harmony, painfully aware of his social and physical inferiority to his neighborhood peers. This self-consciousness rendered him defensive and ultra-sensitive, causing him to push away people in his life when he needed them most. Yet through the consistent and gentle prodding of an old, Japanese man who could barely speak English, and okay fine, maybe through some serious butt-kicking karate too, Daniel was able to find healing and balance within his personal life and forge a relationship that went deeper than karate.
Nobody likes playing the loser. It makes us feel vulnerable, paralyzing us with shame, fear, and bitterness. But this movie exhorts us to look beyond our misery, our “loser-ness” and to find value in friendship or a passion or even both. Sometimes we need people the most when we want them least, even if they may be the unlikeliest of candidates. Or maybe we’re aware of this and just looking in the wrong place… Perhaps it’s that quirky nerd you share history class with, or that other kid with the broken English, or by golly, what if it’s your apartment janitor? After all, we could all use a little love to make our problems a bit more pleasant and the drear of life a tad brighter. Or perhaps what we all need is just some nice, juicy karate…
The Karate Kid. 22 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Karate_Kid.
Ebert, Roger. “The Karate Kid Movie Review & Film Summary (1984): Roger Ebert.” Movie Review & Film Summary (1984) | Roger Ebert, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-karate-kid-1984.
Meis, Dana. “Karate Kid Wallpaper.” Pinterest.com, i.pinimg.com/originals/74/5e/a1/745ea1638f70007a124727492e377f2f.jpg.