The 1980s were a time of large hair, great music, and some of the most ridiculous movies created in the United States. These films were heavily constructed by melodrama, witty and flirtatious one-liners, and the story of the American underdog. Perhaps one of the most famous of these underdogs is Daniel LaRusso—otherwise known as the Karate Kid.
The film earned its place as an iconic movie of the 80s largely because of its place as an underdog tale. Daniel, an Italian kid from New Jersey, moves with his mother to Southern California where he is immediately targeted by some of the members of the Cobra Kai Dojo. Through an intricate and entirely believable series of events, Daniel becomes the student of Mr. Miyagi, a Japanese handyman who is basically the quintessential Asian in American cinema. The film’s portrayal of Mr. Miyagi as a character constructs a representation of Asia—and especially Japan, but frequently, Asia as a whole—that is exotic, different, and perpetuates the novelty in such blatant “Otherness” that is assigned to Asian religion and culture in America.
There are only a few explicit religious references in Karate Kid, yet they cover a wide variety of stereotypical, vaguely Asian practices. One brief scene shows Mr. Miyagi meditating before a shrine in his home. Another scene includes Mr. Miyagi’s assurance to Daniel that “Buddha provide.” The other more obvious nod to religion comes from the following clip:
If the nondescript shrine and reference to the Buddha—always in Mr. Miyagi’s signature broken English—weren’t enough to cover Asian religion on their own in the movie, Daniel gives us a strongly popularized representation of Hinduism to round out the religious lineup. Mr. Miyagi, in his ever-patient and good humored way, laughs it off.
In a way, this scene summarizes the film’s attitudes towards Asia and, in a broader sense, American attitudes toward Asia. Mr. Miyagi is the monk figure that began showing up in American popular media earlier in the twentieth century and, to some extent, the nineteenth century. This figure is wisdom embodied, and he has unending patience and stoicism. The monk in American media is constructed in such a way that capitalizes on the most exotic aspects of Asian culture while still engaging American interests—and that means martial arts.
Karate Kid was not by any means the first movie to feature Asian martial arts, and Mr. Miyagi is not the first of the American-manufactured monks whose entire character revolves around his knowledge of karate. Exoticism and popularizing of the “Other” in Western media is not a new concept. The exotic Other has existed long before kung-fu movies in the United States. Earlier on in the 70s, the show Kung Fu came about, starring a man who was half Chinese and Half American. Kwai Chang Caine grew up training with Shaolin monks and eventually came out to none other than the Wild American West. There, he wows the public with his transcendent wisdom, skillful kung-fu, and towering height.
But it’s not just the martial arts that American popular culture capitalizes on in its archetypal movie monks: it’s also the mysticism. Every good exotic American-made monk has some sort of supernatural or magical powers. Mr. Miyagi has it in his magic touch, which he uses to mysteriously and immediately heal Daniel’s injuries multiple times throughout the course of the movie. (One of these times is during the big tournament at the end, which should probably be cheating—not everyone can have a magical monk-figure as their coach, giving Daniel a very unfair advantage.)
In Orientalism, Edward Said discusses what would become a foundational idea of postcolonial studies: the exoticizing of “Eastern” cultures in the “West” as a byproduct of imperialism and colonization. In Karate Kid, imperialist undertones are so strong that it’s hard to miss. Aside from Mr. Miyagi and his exaggeratedly-Japanese existence which consists of dozens of bonsai trees, a house and yard that seem to have some straight from Japan, and some sort of unelaborated-upon shrine, Karate Kid is wrought with imperial meaning, especially in Cobra Kai.
Cobra Kai Dojo is the competition for Daniel and Miyagi. The sensei and students of Cobra Kai are merciless and essentially unrelenting scumbags. The sensei of the Dojo, John Kreese, trains his students to show no mercy. He was also the “Karate Champion” of the United States Army when he served during the war at Vietnam.
In some very clear ways, Cobra Kai comes to represent the colonizer and Daniel and Mr. Miyagi could appear to be the colonized, if there were that kind of clear-cut relationship in Karate Kid. What is obvious is the way that Miyagi comes to represent the “East” while Kreese represents the “West”. This is done in very explicit ways, if not verbally, then certainly visually.
Cobra Kai operates in a very capitalistic way. The fame and pride that both students and teacher exhibit in the dojo and in competition are a couple of examples of this. Kreese himself is a soldier: he fought at Vietnam, and judging by his display, he is proud of his military roles.
Interestingly, Mr. Miyagi was also an American soldier. He fought in World War II while his pregnant wife lived—and died—in the Manzanar Relocation Center, where she had been placed for internment. Miyagi’s service is a very different kind of service than Kreese’s. Kreese fought with pride—and perhaps with arrogance—while his skills, at least in martial arts, won him fame and recognition. Miyagi, however, experienced injustice at the hands of the United States, believing that his wife and newborn son passed away because no one would send a doctor to them when there were complications with childbirth.
Mr. Miyagi, then, is a complicated monk figure. He represents not only the wise monk, but also the colonized “East”. Kreese, on the other hand, represents the power-hungry and corrupt Western colonizer. But if this is the case, then the conclusion of the movie is especially noteworthy: Mr. Miyagi and Daniel defeat Kreese and Cobra Kai in the tournament. In the imperialism analogy, this means that colonizer loses to colonized, which is not usually the narrative that is told. What is even more interesting is that Daniel and Miyagi win with a Crane Kick to the face of their opponent—even though blows to the face are illegal in the competition.