The Karate Kid is one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Fact. I fell in love with this movie (and Ralph Macchio) when I was in first grade or so. I even took Karate lessons for a couple of years in my efforts to be more like Daniel-san. (I got up to a blue belt before getting bored, but that’s immaterial here.)
I always enjoy a good sports movie with an underdog to root for, and that’s part of the reason I still love this movie today. As I was watching it again, though, I realized there’s more to appreciate about the film than I remembered.
The lovable Mr. Miyagi, for example. Who doesn’t want a Mr. Miyagi mentor of their own, right? I think Pat Morita was even nominated for an Academy Award for this role. He’s great. The bonsai trees, the efforts to catch flies with chopsticks, the antique cars. He also has a lot of interesting things to say.
One of the best parts of the film is of course the whole scheme whereby Daniel-san learns karate: through doing Mr. Miyagi’s household chores. Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence. Sand the floor. And so on. Every day he works late into the night, only to be told at the end of his labors, “come back tomorrow.”
Everyone will remember that transformative scene where, after complaining that he isn’t learning any karate and is mainly serving as Mr. Miyagi’s slave, Daniel-san finds himself successfully defending against Mr. Miyagi’s punches and kicks with his waxing, painting, and sanding maneuvers. In that moment we see him become, in a small way, the person who we’re to believe can credibly defeat all of the Cobra Kais at the film’s climactic All Valley Karate Tournament.
In the moment following their sparring, we see understanding dawn on Daniel-san’s face, but Mr. Miyagi simply says, “Come back tomorrow.” Best line of the film, if you ask me.
In order to learn anything, we have to keep coming back, over and over again. It takes a significant effort to decide to do something and to show up to do it. But to keep showing up, day after day, even when things are difficult and progress seems so hard to see and our efforts don’t appear to be paying off — that is when it is hardest, and, of course, when it really counts.
Mr. Miyagi has plenty of other wisdom to impart. When he shows Daniel-san how to “train” the bonsai tree, he has him close his eyes and shut out everything but the perfect image of the tree, “down to last pine needle.” Visualization and mental focus? Key components of success in sports or any other endeavor.
On the topic of karate’s colored belts, Mr. Miyagi points to his head. “Karate here.” He points to his heart. “Karate here.” He point to his belt. “Karate no here.” Once again the efforts of the mind and the desire to learn are what count, not the outward signifiers of success. A perfect message for the underdog in a sports movie, but worth noting in any situation.
One reason why Mr. Miyagi emerges as such a great sensei in the film is his contrast with Kreese, the evil (but kind of weirdly hot) sensei of the Cobra Kais. Kreese’s motto, The Way of the Fist, calls for his students to “Strike first; strike hard; no mercy.” Why? Because, as they chant in unison, “An enemy deserves no mercy.”
Only a fool would take this kind of talk seriously. And, in the film, many fools do. Designed to be the incarnation of arrogance and cruelty, Kreese’s character is the one to utter what is probably the film’s most famous line: “Sweep the leg.” In the critical fight, Kreese advises his student to break the rules of the tournament and put Daniel-san “out of commision” instead of fighting him fairly. Even an audience that is half asleep will pick up on the message being sent here: arrogance, cruelty, and violence are signs of weakness, not strength.
The wisdom of Miyagi-do karate is exactly the opposite of the cruelty of the Cobra Kais. It comes from discipline, love, respect, mental focus, and — strangely enough — mercy and pacifism. Karate is what we practice so we don’t have to fight.
So in the end, an adorable loser grows up, gets tough, learns to respect the discipline of karate, gets the hot girl, and wins the tournament. Pretty sweet deal. And all he had to do was keep showing up.