The Karate Kid at 40: why the film’s lasting appeal stems from a simplistic stereotyping of the ‘mysterious east’


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Author: Paul Bowman, Professor of Cultural Studies, Cardiff University

Original article: https://theconversation.com/the-karate-kid-at-40-why-the-films-lasting-appeal-stems-from-a-simplistic-stereotyping-of-the-mysterious-east-228433


Forty years after the release of The Karate Kid, many fans of the film still can’t hear the name “Daniel” without wanting to add a “san” to it. They may channel the iconic teacher Mr Miyagi, with his deep guttural intensity. And they may even repeat the film’s most famous saying, “wax on, wax off”, raise their arms and stand on one leg whenever they hear that someone does karate.

But are these fragments the sum total of the film’s legacy? And are they mere harmless fun – or do they register as racism, or something like it?

Arguably, the very appeal of The Karate Kid derives from its most problematic dimensions. Academics call this Orientalism – the romantic idealisation of the mystical “other”.

In most respects, The Karate Kid is entirely conventional. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is the new kid in town. He attempts to socialise, falls for a girl and provokes the wrath of her recent ex-boyfriend, Johnny (William Zabka), who also happens to be the senior student at a tough karate dojo, Cobra Kai.

The beatings and harassment Daniel experiences induce the hermit-like caretaker Miyagi (Pat Morita) to offer him guidance and, crucially, karate lessons.

The film’s director, John G. Avildsen, had previously directed Rocky, in which an over-the-hill, working-class underdog rises to the challenge, takes a heroic beating, and gets the girl. The Karate Kid retools this formula to expand its appeal into the teen market, replacing the brutal boxing of older men with teen heart-throbs and the extremely cinematic practice of karate.

The official trailer for The Karate Kid (1984)

Orientalism

Coming a decade after the kung fu craze of the 1970s, The Karate Kid translates Hong Kong kung fu into Hollywood karate. It registers the popularity and power of a macho, militarised karate – Cobra Kai’s bad-guy sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), was a Green Beret soldier. Against this, the film advocates the “exotic” idea of a pacifist and cultured karate, one based on balance and harmony.

Yet, the idea that “true karate” is pacifist and philosophical owes considerably more to hippy counterculture and the 1970s TV series Kung Fu than it does to anything actually eastern.

Indeed, The Karate Kid is arguably a vital part of the “spiritualising” and “existentialising” of Asian martial arts that took place in western popular culture in the early 1980s. The major 1983 BBC TV series (and accompanying book) The Way of the Warrior: The Paradox of the Martial Arts is another example – in which the 1970s love of spectacular Asian martial arts is still present, but now people are also asking: “Is that all there is?”

The answer given by The Karate Kid is a resounding “no” – Asian martial arts are not just about macho pugilism. They are paths to development, self-improvement and “peace”. This is expressed through Orientalist imagery and straightforward binaries, opposing the heartless, macho, militarised modern “west” with a sensitive, nurturing, philosophical and ancient “east”.

Orientalist binaries are everywhere in western culture, from “white saviour” action films like The Last Samurai (2003) to ostensibly woke, multicultural films such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). In all of these examples, the west is spiritually empty, the east a treasure trove of ancient values.

The problem is that this is the very hallmark of Orientalism – the simplistic, reductive stereotyping of the “mysterious east”. Orientalism is not quite racism, but it’s not a world away either.

Certainly, Morita had to fulfil a certain stereotype. We know this because he auditioned twice for the Mr Miyagi role. The first time, he spoke in his own voice with an American accent. He bombed.

So he returned with a thick Japanese accent and sentence constructions worthy of Charlie Chan, the fictional 1930s film detective long criticised for perpetuating stereotypes of Asian characters. This time, Morita aced it – because he now conformed to what scholar Jane Iwamura calls the “oriental monk” stereotype.

Reboot and sequel

The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid arguably tries to avoid all this, mainly by deconstructing and demystifying Mr Miyagi, transforming him into the broken Mr Han.

Playing Han, Jackie Chan is finally allowed to act for a western audience – to have depth, complexity and feelings. Yet it seems the film-makers lost faith in this approach, soon making Han take his protégé, Dre (Jaden Smith), to China’s Wudang mountains for a heroic dose of Orientalist mysticism.

Two men stand facing each other in a karate dojo.
Netflix series Cobra Kai revisits the characters from The Karate Kid decades later.
TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Perhaps western (and indeed, global) audiences cannot get enough of Orientalism. They seem to devour it with relish. Netflix’s nostalgic Cobra Kai series picks up Daniel and Johnny’s story decades later, but offers a much more tongue-in-cheek take.

In early episodes, we see Daniel, now a father living in a wealthy part of Los Angeles, accused of “cultural appropriation”. He asks his daughter’s Asian-American friend where his parents are “originally” from, to which the reply “Irvine, I guess” turns the interrogation back onto the question of his own values and prejudices.

Ultimately, Cobra Kai reckons with Orientalism by ridiculing it. And there is value in this. But what such easy laughs do not help us work out is what else was (and is) going on. We might want to laugh at the Orientalist themes of the past, but we should also remember: we loved them, and we probably still do.