Lately, there’s been a lot of attention on movies that were released in 1984. I’ve seen write-ups on “16 Candles,” and the original “Ghostbusters” will actually be re-released in theatres come August.
In 2004, Sony Pictures released a 20th anniversary “Special Edition” of “The Karate Kid” — which debuted June 22, 1984 — but according to a source at the studio, there will be no 30th anniversary DVD edition of the classic that starred Noriyuki “Pat” Morita and Ralph Macchio.
Back in 1984, I had no interest in seeing the film. I mean, it featured an old Asian martial arts sensei who spoke with an accent. How original. Why’d I want to pay money to see that? The movie poster featured a profile of Morita looking like an old man with reading glasses.
The trailers were a turn-off as well. Daniel-san (Macchio) asks Mr. Miyagi (Morita) what kind of belt he had. Miyagi laughs, then tells him, “JC Penney. $3.98!” Oh, how droll. No thanks.
But while working at “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem,” my boss, Don Bustany, asked me if I’d seen the movie. He told me everyone should see it, that it was about so much more than just martial arts. Noted film critic Roger Ebert — who admitted he hadn’t wanted to see the movie either — gave it four out of four stars.
I believe it was Rick Momii of Tozai Times who pointed out how extraordinary it was that an Asian American character was shown in a close-up in the final shot of a film, giving him the last word (a simple smile and nod of approval when Daniel LaRusso defeats his tormenters one by one and wins the karate tournament).
Someone in APSU (Asian Pacific Student Union) — an umbrella organization of Asian American college groups across Californi — mentioned there was a scene that talked about Miyagi being in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Wait, what?!
As I joined National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR) in December of that year, the redress struggle was my #1 concern. Then Morita got nominated for an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actor.” Wait, for playing a martial arts instructor?!
When I finally rented the video, I saw what all the hoopla was about. Besides the loveable character Morita created, it came down to the crucial “drunk” scene where Miyagi reveals to his student that in World War II while he fought in Europe as a decorated soldier, his wife and child died during childbirth at Manzanar because no doctor came to help.
It showed audiences the private pain of a noble, humble man — one example of what most Japanese Americans had experienced from being put in prison by their own government. It was clear that scene got Morita nominated for that Oscar. Yet it was almost cut out of the film because it was running long and executives at Columbia Pictures said it didn’t further the main plot.
Morita said he begged the director to keep it in, as it paid tribute to the suffering of his parents in those camps. Thank goodness that scene remained. Every time I edited it into a video montage of “best scenes by Asian American actors” that I’d use in speaking engagements, it got to me. My eyes were so full of tears, I couldn’t see.
Watching the 20th anniversary DVD a few weeks ago, the emotions were the same. How incredible. Not only did the movie teach audiences that karate — despite the dismissive way it was portrayed in television and other films — was a serious discipline, but it taught a criminally overlooked history lesson about what this country did to its own citizens.
In the video commentary, we learn that writer Robert Mark Kamen was himself a martial arts student. He named Mr. Miyagi after the founder of the Doju School of Karate, and he took the philosophies of that discipline seriously. Not only that, throughout the movie, Miyagi constantly corrects others when they mispronounce his name!
While Kamen, director John Avildsen, and Macchio discussed the “drunk” scene, Morita was strangely quiet about it; maybe it was too personal to talk about in a group.
Years later at an East West Players roast of George Takei, I told Morita it was the single best scene any Asian American had ever played in any film. He nodded a humble thanks. When he died in 2005 and The Sacramento Bee called me for comment, I repeated that assertion.
Because the movie was so popular (it was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1984 with $90.8 million), several of its catch phrases and bits made their way into pop culture: “Wax on, wax off,” trying to catch flies with chopsticks, and the “crane” stance. All of which were attributed to Miyagi’s Asian heritage, which made a lot of us grimace.
To be fair, the way in which a frustrated Daniel — and the audience — learns that he hadn’t been wasting his time waxing his teacher’s car and painting his fence for four days when he really wanted to learn how to fight is ingenious. It’s one of the highlights of the film and can’t help but bring a smile to your face (LaRusso finally blows his cool and Miyagi reveals he’d been developing LaRusso’s muscle memory and skills all along when the sensei reviews the “Wax on! Wax off!” and “Up! Down!” motions then throws punches at him, and the student reflexively defends himself).
The chopsticks thing, I guess, was demonstrating the importance of concentration, and the “crane” stance and kick delivers in the final match scene when LaRusso defeats the bully — his girlfriend’s ex — for the championship. However, it’s inevitable that all three examples became generally lumped into “Orientalism.”
A few years ago, while speaking at a conference at Harvard, I went to Faneuil Hall and saw some Asian musicians performing instrumental pieces. Some wise-ass white guy started doing the “crane” to laughter from the crowd. I was pissed off that they’d openly mock serious music because it sounded so “Oriental.” Would they’ve done the same to African music? In fact, at George Takei’s Hollywood Walk of Fame induction ceremony, some white guys quipped that the taiko drummers sounded like an Indian rain dance, and many laughed. Grrr…!
In the video commentary, recorded in 2004 — the year before his death — Morita explains that when he auditioned for his role, his voice suddenly dropped an octave, and he spoke with an accent. After he left the room, he asked himself, “What the — How— Who was THAT?!”
After playing bit parts and Arnold, the Chinese-accented restaurant owner in “Happy Days,” for two seasons, Pat Morita became a star. In 1987, he got his own television series as the cop “Ohara.” And the previous year when I saw the second “Karate Kid” film in Glendale with a mostly white audience, I realized how beloved the Miyagi character had become. When Ralph Macchio’s name appeared on screen, there was loud applause. But when Morita’s name came on, it was even louder. The place went nuts.
Pat Morita had become the real star — and draw — of these films (there were four). For years, when meeting with the television networks, I used that example as proof that Hollywood can make anyone — of any ethnicity — a star.
Despite the fact that the film was directed by Avildsen — who won an Oscar for handling “Rocky” and hired Bill Conti to likewise do the music — there was no memorable instrumental in “Karate Kid.” And even though Survivor — who’d had the #1 record “Eye of the Tiger” from “Rocky III” in 1982 — contributed a song to the “Karate Kid” soundtrack, it wasn’t a hit. Bananarama did score their first Top 10 U.S. single with “Cruel Summer,” though. In the second movie, Peter Cetera’s “The Glory of Love” went all the way to #1.
And don’t forget the cute, flirtatious chemistry between Daniel and Ali (20-year-old future Oscar nominee for “Leaving Las Vegas” Elisabeth Shue) and some of the wondrous one-take camera shots and a six-minute dialogue scene between Miyagi and LaRusso that was clearly done in one take captured in one continuous camera sweep.
So even though Sony Pictures is passing on the opportunity to celebrate this classic film upon its 30th anniversary, I recommend you seek out the 20th anniversary edition and appreciate one of those movies that wasn’t just enjoyable, but positively contributed to the understanding and acceptance of Japanese Americans.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.