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Old School Karate? Cobra Kai’s Fangs Examined

Old School Karate? Cobra Kai’s Fangs Examined

The 1984 movie The Karate Kid was a stereotypical coming-of-age story that was once embraced by a generation without question. 2018’s Cobra Kai television series has allowed the same franchise to be re-enter the arms of this now rather jaded generation without having to feign being ironic or claim their indulgence under an insincere “guilty pleasure” excuse. With both the director and the composer of the original Rocky film on board, the film was a commercial and critical success. In hindsight, the first film was a culmination of a century of Orientalism, pseudohistorical ideas about the philosophical roots of martial arts, simplistic romanticising about combative strategy and adolescent underdog wish fulfilment.

No apologies for spoilers here because the entire plot of Cobra Kai hinges on the ending of the 1984 movie and the series contains nods towards the fallout of its two direct sequels. However, if you are already familiar with the films, then you may want to skip the following re-cap section.

Re-Cap

The Karate Kid was story of a working-class teenager, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who travelled from New Jersey with his single parent mother to California. A fish out of water, the movie’s alliterative title (borrowed from an unrelated DC Comics superhero) comes from a taunt our hero receives after his boasted prowess in karate fails to save from a beating administered by a WASPish bully called Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Lawrence is a black belt and top student at the aggressive Cobra Kai Karate dojo, where he and his gang are inspired by a cult of personality in the form of Vietnam veteran, Sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove). Kreese teaches his students the motto and philosophy of “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy”.

After further tormenting and eventually a second, more severe beating – this time at the hands of the Johnny’s entire gang – Daniel is rescued by an Okinawan maintenance man, Mr Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita). He reveals himself to be a karate master having defeated the entire gang singlehandedly. After trying to resolve Daniel’s dispute peacefully with Johnny via Kreese, Miyagi ends up agreeing to enter Daniel into the All-Valley under 18s Karate Championship, where Cobra Kai will be competing. This is on the condition the gang leave Daniel alone until the tournament. Miyagi teaches Daniel karate via a series of menial tasks designed to promote muscle memory and the value of balance both in combat and as a rule for life.

Despite suffering a foul to his knee, set up by Kreese and executed by a reluctant Cobra Kai member, Bobby (Ron Thomas), Daniel defeats Johnny in the finals using an unorthodox version of a jumping front kick, known as the “crane”. Johnny, who moments before had realised the lengths his teacher was willing to go to win, tearfully hands Daniel the winner’s trophy with the words, “You’re alright LaRusso”. Moments after the tournament, in a scene that was cut from the first film but added onto the beginning of its sequel, Johnny is berated by Kreese in the parking lot. The twisted instructor ends up breaking his runner-up trophy and when Johnny continues to argue back puts him in a choke. Mr Miyagi steps in, saves Johnny and avoids Kreese’s punches, which smash through two car windows. The bloodied Kreese is scared by the reality of being on the receiving end of an unmerciful opponent before being let off the hook. As revealed in the third movie, Johnny and the rest of Kreese’s students would leave Cobra Kai an empty dojo, but Kreese would remain unrepentant and vengeful. Daniel would travel to Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, with his teacher. They would also open up and run a bonsai tree shop upon their return. At the same time Cobra Kai would attempt a revival under the guidance of the dojo’s real owner and Kreese’s old wartime buddy, Terry Silver. The convoluted plot involved Daniel being temporarily tricked into joining Cobra Kai and getting persecuted by a one Mike Barnes. The plot failed, Cobra Kai was finished and Barnes was defeated by Daniel at the All-Valley tournament, making Daniel a two-time champion…

Plot Overview of the Series:

34 years after receiving the crane kick to the face at the All-Valley Karate tournament, Johnny Lawrence lives his life day-to-day as a handyman driving around in an old Pontiac Fire Bird, listening to tracks by Poison, Foreigner and Boston, whilst his nights are spent drinking himself into oblivion, reverently watching Iron Eagle. He is the stereotypical, alpha-male teenager whose best days were left in high school. Here and there he is reminded that he is no longer the popular 17 year old that seemingly had it all. He is a 50-something single-parent father, estranged from his only son who routinely gets into trouble, he works in a dead-end job, is regularly mistaken to be a vagrant and has no friends. Even his daydreams of the golden years are routinely ruined by the memory of being defeated by the kid who dethroned him and took away the love of his life. If the memory of that humiliating episode was not enough, the sight of the same kid’s success as an adult being pushed in his face via advertising billboards and TV commercials makes him feel like he is losing again every day. All of this has been Johnny’s life for a long time now, but now matters will escalate to breaking point. He will be forced to simultaneously handle the present era and dig deeper into the past.

Meanwhile, Daniel LaRusso appears to be living the perfect life. His car dealership is a huge success. He has a loving wife and two very bright children. Yet below the surface there are problems. Having lost his mentor, Mr Miyagi, seven years previously he is struggling to find a sense of balance. He has various problems with his family that he is feeling less and less able to manage. He is becoming increasingly distant from his daughter, Sam (Mary Mouser), who used to share his passion for karate and now is finding herself torn between schoolyard social politics. He has no connection with his overweight and game-addicted son. Loyalty to his mother has forced him to take on his disruptive and idiotic cousin (Bret Ernst) at the car dealership. His mother (Randee Heller) and his wife (Courtney Henggeler) clash. However, everything is about to come to a head in a way he could not have foreseen when a series of events leads his old school bully, Johnny Lawrence, to walk back into his life.

When bullied Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) is begrudgingly saved by Johnny, an unlikely mentorship is struck up. Miguel convinces Johnny when he is at his lowest ebb to teach him karate and to resurrect the old Cobra Kai dojo. The sight of the school rising again with its aggressive philosophy being preached to a new generation of teenagers is a shock for Daniel LaRusso who has twice been victim of the old Cobra Kai and feels he is doing his best put his past with Johnny behind him. The veneer of adulthood will soon be cracked as old rivalries resurface and many new players inherit a familiar legacy…

Review and Retrospective

“C’mon!” coerces Johnny Lawrence as he thrusts the can of beer into the hands of his adolescent protégé, Miguel Diaz, “It’ll put hair on your balls!” The reluctant teen looks back at his Karate sensei somewhat puzzled by the man’s metaphor, “Is that a good thing?” Everything about the aforementioned scene speaks of the jarring contrast between two generations. I am not just talking about the current ambiguity in pubic hair trends. The language and actions made by a much older adult in a position of authority (and adulation) to his student ticks a multitude of boxes in any self-respecting 2018 Child Safeguarding policy checklist that would indicate a cause for concern. This is the unashamed tone set for YouTube Red’s breakout 2018 hit series, Cobra Kai. By targeting the original Karate Kid audience, by using the dynamic appeal of online media and by putting the series in the “dramedy” genre that had been so successfully established by Netflix‘s Orange is the New Black, it would appear that Mr Miyagi’s fabled balance has been achieved. It is hard not to get caught up in the hype and yet, at the same time, question the substance of the appeal.

The landscape for The Karate Kid during the 2010s was not a favourable one. It’s not like the franchise had died a death, but its generation had grown up and out of the world of Daniel LaRusso. The original film is widely regarded as one of the greatest high school films of all time, coming across as the slightly younger brother of other well-known ‘80s teen classics, The Breakfast Club, Risky Business and Pretty in Pink. In a statement that now sounds like a slammed door in the less popular The Karate Kid Part III Daniel shouts at Mr Miyagi in exasperation “You know this is the ‘80s, Mr Miyagi, you can’t be so damn passive!” That film was released in 1989.

The Karate Kid cartoon series that was released the same year did not resonate with Saturday morning audiences of millennial children. They weren’t picking up their older siblings’ cast-offs. There was no enduring love for Remco’s range of The Karate Kid toys that had been released to coincide with the previous movie, The Karate Kid Part II in 1986, despite being technically superior action figures to Star Wars, G.I. Joe or Masters of the Universe.

The martial arts industry had enjoyed a big upsurge and interest thanks to the first two films. Despite targeting a notoriously difficult martial arts demographic – the teenager – the coming-of-age drama resonated with those who felt disempowered. This has long been the marketing gimmick for martial arts the world over when trying to sell their service. It can be traced back to the 19th century Health and Wellness movement, fantasized through the rise of the comic-book superhero and probably most memorably encapsulated by the Charles Atlas comic-strip adverts for his Dynamic Tension bodybuilding programme. The latter might have had a direct influence over The Karate Kid plot. Atlas’s original 1940s comic-strips started with skinny Joe being humiliated in front of his date at the fair by a big bully only to come back exacting revenge with a new muscular physique honed by the Dynamic Tension course. This advert was soon changed to the far more memorable beginning scene of skinny Mac getting sand kicked in his face whilst sitting on the beach with his girlfriend by a muscular bully. Daniel’s humiliating first encounter with his rival, Johnny, occurs on the beach in front the film’s love interest, Ali (Elizabeth Shue). This is where Daniel doesn’t so much get sand kicked in his face but gets his face kicked into the sand! Paying a certain degree of homage to this crude marketing device in Cobra Kai, Johnny haplessly tries recruiting adolescent male students with the line that karate will win them girls. It serves as yet another on-the-nose example of cultural shifts since the first film.

However, the martial arts subculture moved on from The Karate Kid in the same way that the swimmer sheds his water wings. Older Generation Xers, who had been caught up in the Kung Fu Boom of the ’70s, were often quick to point out the inferior level of fight choreography exhibited throughout the series. Only a few unnamed tournament fighters, Chad McQueen and most notably Ian Thomas Griffiths, who played the main antagonist from the third film, had previous martial arts experience. Soon those who had been drawn into martial arts through The Karate Kid discovered the actual moves on display weren’t very impressive. Good acting, direction, editing and cinematography covered up for the lack of skill on display. Johnny’s beat down of Daniel on the beach has a spiteful, visceral quality, but the actual combination he uses looks very awkward. Daniel’s fights are mainly reliant on the performance of his opponent and some clever camera angles.

Looking back, The Karate Kid sold some pretty slick martial arts snake oil. Daniel is taught a particular way to wax cars, paint fences, sand floors and paint a house until he is thoroughly pissed off. When this happens, it is revealed he has been training muscle memory for a series of blocks. This is taken to an even more ridiculous length when it is revealed that neither Daniel nor Mr Miyagi have a clue how the karate point-stop tournament system works, leaving Ali to explain just moments before the first fight. Despite this lack of rudimentary sporting knowledge and having not sparred once, Daniel somehow wins the tournament.

During the 1990s the rise of critical thinking in the martial arts subculture led many teachers to break the news to the deluded that actually striking first in a real self-defence situation is not only legal in certain contexts but often the best chance anyone has of being successful. These were the lessons coming back from karate black belts who had worked the night club door for any length of time (see “Watch My Back” by Geoff Thompson and “Working with Warriors” by Dennis Martin). Many progressive and revisionist traditional martial artists have done a lot to debunk the “always block first” interpretation that has been derived from Funakoshi Gichin’s quote that “There is no first attack in karate”. Finally, despite what we have been led to believe, the style of karate Daniel learns little resemble Goju-ryu/Goju-kan Karate-do. Miyagi takes his name from the school’s real-life founder Miyagi Chojin, but I don’t see Daniel knocking out tensho and sanchin katas. It’s a pity. Given that sanchin kata is all about dynamic tension this would have nicely looped Daniel back to the Charles Atlas! The actual style Daniel practises is the fictional art of Miyagi-do Karate, which is referenced in the first film and properly established in the Cobra Kai series.

Yet such generational confines have never been wholly respected by the holders of the franchise. Despite being a film firmly rooted in the ’80s there were certain aspects that must have seemed timeless to filmmakers. Martial arts films continued to be popular and The Karate Kid plot was continuously ripped off. The attempted soft reboot in the 1990s, The Next Karate Kid, starring future two-times Oscar winner Hilary Swank, bombed both commercially and with the critics. The 1990s and 2000s had reduced The Karate Kid memory to nostalgic parody. Billy “Tae Bo” Blanks was inserting “wax on, wax off” and Daryl Vidal’s fictional version of the jumping front kick, the “Crane”, in his 1990s workouts. In 2004 an unauthorised stage musical spoof, It’s the Karate Kid, claimed the original film as part of kitsch and camp culture. The show featured songs like “Way of the Fisting” and Johnny Lawrence’s gang was renamed “The Bitchkicks”. A drastic overhaul appeared to be the order of the day. The 2010 remake did well at the box office, but the critical response was lukewarm. Having reached the stage where it had become an obvious career vehicle for Jaden Smith, whose film star father had produced the film, it seemed safe to say that the book on Daniel LaRusso had been closed.

The creation of a remake usually signals the official end of a previous continuity. Cobra Kai was the sequel that no one had asked for and scepticism ran high that it would be any good. Yet there were signs that something like Cobra Kai might be exactly what its target audience wanted. In 2007 William Zabka directed and wrote his own spoof sequel to The Karate Kid. The film was a music video for No More Kings’ blatant tribute to the Johnny Lawrence character. The video saw a down on his luck adult Johnny Lawrence hanging out with all his old Cobra Kai buddies in a trailer in the desert, still tormented by his defeat by Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). He gets another opportunity to win the All-Valley Karate tournament and succeeds before realising it is all a dream. The video ends with Daniel driving over Johnny in his car. Quite a few key ideas from this video and song would resurface at the core of Cobra Kai. Three years after the release of The Karate Kid remake, Zabka and Macchio would guest appear in the “Bro-Mitzvah” episode of the sit-com How I Met Your Mother. They would be playing themselves and their involvement centred on a character’s belief that the real hero of The Karate Kid was Johnny Lawrence. Two years later online video producer and self-proclaimed geek, J Matthew Turner, put forward a fan theory in his short, The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully. The video might have only been half-serious at best but it proved popular in social media and a new, more favourable light was being shone on Johnny Lawrence.

Using Johnny’s point of view as a starting point for Cobra Kai was no sleight against the spirit of the first films. As Turner’s mock review had pointed out, there were certain redeemable qualities about Johnny’s character already present. However, the strength of the TV series is that it doesn’t just abruptly parody the original series by making Johnny the hero and Daniel the villain. A role reversal is certainly present, but the trajectories of the two characters are true to form and the overall plot is loyal to The Karate Kid brand. This is not a full realisation of Turner’s mock retrospective review. Miyagi is still venerated and respected, Kreese is still vilified and condemned. However, the jaded Generation X have become fans of anti-heroes. They like complexity and they like to post mortem their childhoods. If don’t believe me, count how many ‘70s and ‘80s franchises are still going strong today and how many more are being lined for yet another new reboot.

If the original series took its cue from Rocky, Cobra Kai has shades of Gran Torino. The middle-aged Johnny Lawrence shares many of Walt Kowalski’s traits. He is mentally tied to a perceived golden age, exhibits prejudicial world views that are representative of that age, is self-pitying and wishes to isolate himself from the current times, but underneath his grizzled and cantankerous exterior there is a genuine desire to do good. Discovering he has no connection to the current teenage popular crowd, Johnny begrudgingly becomes the champion of the misfits, nerds and geeks. It’s quite a believable symbiotic relationship: the jocks of yesteryear become the mentors of today’s outcasts.

When the crimes of his old karate school are put at his door, Johnny justifies his wish to re-enter Cobra Kai in the All-Valley tournament to Daniel with the simple statement that “I am not Kreese”. The series effectively explores the brilliant vulnerability and internal conflict Zabka displayed when Kreese gives him the infamous “sweep the leg” command. Johnny’s dubious teaching methods possibly took a degree of inspiration from some rather infamous characters in the martial arts world. For example, when he discovers that many of his students are flinchers because they have never received a punch to the face, he organises for them all to have that experience. There is genuine footage of schools that believe taking shots to the head is a great form of conditioning. However, amidst all the brutal training concepts that surprisingly don’t get Johnny into trouble with the local authorities (“I am not sure if I am allowed to be around children” he says early on in the show after doing his own version of a Mr Miyagi teenage gang beat down to protect Miguel), there are certain kernels of truth that would have been dismissed as part of the Cobra Kai evil in the original movie franchise. We can see why Johnny believes that “the way of the fist” is a pragmatic philosophy and “just the thing your pussy generation needs”.

Meanwhile, Daniel LaRusso has always been a feisty kid with a quick temper. Without Mr Miyagi as his mentor and in a position of power, we see forgivably human impulses rise in Daniel as he is faced with disruptions in his life. Early teasers for the show revealed the first scene where circumstances land Johnny in front of his old teenage rival. It appeared from the way the trailer was edited that Daniel was being cast as the heel, enjoying the benefits of his position over Johnny and unable to resist further rubbing his nose in the moment that still haunts his old bully’s life. However, the show is happily far too intelligent to give into such a base fan wish. Daniel’s slips to the dark side here and there are in line with the character we have known in the franchise and Cobra Kai does to pull him back. There are shades of Karate Kid Part III in this series, whether or not Macchio would like to admit this, and they serve the show well.

Although Generation X is squarely in the sights of this exercise in nostalgic art, the show is not purely held up by Zabka and Macchio’s performances. A cast of Post-Millennials hold their own in a way that echoes and surpasses the spirit of the first film. Taking the foreground is Mary Mouser as Samantha LaRusso, Xolo Maridueña as Miguel Diaz and Tanner Buchanan as Robby Keene, Johnny’s estranged son. Their individual stories are as interesting as their interaction, which is another key strength to Cobra Kai’s storytelling. Behind them we get a supporting cast that are reshuffles and expansions upon the tropes set up in the original film. Whereas the original film presented nuanced characteristics of Johnny’s gang, here we get the opportunity to watch the full evolution of Miguel’s school friends. Two teenagers help present a genuine problem in martial arts circles, going from being bullied to feeling empowered to being bullies in their own right. Another friend spots the faults in Johnny’s approach from the get-go, reminding everyone that the Nazis lost. The WASP element is concentrated into an entirely separate tribe of non-martial artists, presented as irredeemable bullies. Character development is at its weakest in this respect with all the alpha high-schoolers being transparent plot devices to represent all the evils of the current generation. Johnny even offers a critique on Cyberbullying, seeing it as an inferior form of teasing. The line is played for laughs, but the type of viewer who was concerned about the moral ambiguity of The Wolf of Wallstreet might think it is some sort of veneration of old school bullying.

The trio of Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald have clearly made a departure from the broad comedy that brought them success with Cobra Kai. However, it is easy to see that they have an accurate understanding of working a franchise. What makes Cobra Kai compelling and entertaining is the fact that it didn’t see a need to depart from The Karate Kid world. No apologies are made for the original trilogy and the plot is resolutely loyal to the original storylines. It is a move that the original studios and creators would probably have never done. The work is fan-fiction of the highest order. It operates in a world of absurd make-believe martial arts, where kata is a focusing exercise comparable to qi-gong, where abstract muscle memory exercises will endow an individual with hidden fighting skills they can pull out in real fight without any real fight experience and teenage sport karate is a huge event in Reseda, Los Angeles. However, it is also a world where fan theories and previously untold origin stories can be discussed amongst the characters themselves. How did Johnny meet Ali? Was Ali really the villain of the first piece? Would Daniel stalk Ali on Facebook? What was Johnny’s home life really like? What led Johnny to join Cobra Kai? What happened to Daniel’s father? What were the physical repercussions of a Mr Miyagi beat down?

Cobra Kai has to be accepted and embraced on its own terms if it is to be enjoyed. The series opens up real possibilities for future dramas that could look more critically at the real world of martial arts, but that isn’t what this show is about. Don’t expect an effective satire on martial arts or a send up of the original films. At times it feels like it is in Foot Fist Way territory, but the creative team has enough discipline to pull back. Don’t expect cutting edge martial arts choreography either. In line with the standard of the times, the fight scenes are much more fluid, but there are no standout performances or scenes. This won’t stop the fans from happily lowering their standards. One reviewer marvels at the sight of a single tornado kick thrown by a character near the end credits. We live in a time when Jonathan Tuhu has knocked out an opponent in a live Muay Thai match with 540 degree spinning kick! There is undeniable corniness throughout the series, which is unashamed but not always ironic. Not only is the story worked around a nostalgic scaffold, featuring scenes of alcoholic infused pathos and the constant presence of cars, but virtually every punchline a direct homage to the films. We also regularly get flashbacks to the original footage (albeit sometimes with previously unseen camera angles) and the original soundtrack is regularly used, including the full epic Karate Kid Part III version of Bill Conti’s score over a montage. The season ending was totally predictable, but it was exactly what the fans wanted to see. Cobra Kai is a nostalgic tour de force, obeying fan-fiction conventions to letter and relying on contemporary observations for most of its humour. There is definitely an art to playing all these chords correctly and, looking at the competition presented by other revival shows, nothing is more in tune.

 



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2 comments

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  1. Darren
    Darren 22 May, 2018, 12:42

    Funny, I never heard of Mr Clubb until very recently. I purchased one of his books (which turned out to be one of my two favourite titles so far this year), and now I see I’ve just read more of his work… this article. And I enjoyed reading it every bit as much as the book.

    Amazing author. Good work.

    I hope Cobra Kai gets released on dvd.

  2. Demitri Pevzner
    Demitri Pevzner 20 June, 2018, 22:53

    I have honestly not been this excited about a show in the last 10 years. This brings up so many sentimental memories while dealing with serious issues in a realistic manner…

    Zabka and Macchio certainly shine in their roles, but there is something equally satisfying in watching both characters strike a balance that pits each one as a reflection of the other, bringing a necessary equilibrium and meaning to both (the first time adult Daniel visits the Cobra Kai dojo to confront adult Johnny, and how they both smile afterwards is in my opinion iconic of their relationship dynamic which seems to define each character more than they like to admit. Likewise the scene where both are sitting in a car and singing along to REO Speedwagon in my opinion firmly cements the fact that they are in essence the same person shaped differently by circumstance, if that makes sense.)

    I’m hoping season two continues in the spirit of the first. Keeping my fingers crossed.

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