The Way of the Sensei: How ‘COBRA KAI’ and a new Pat Morita documentary honor Mr. Miyagi

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Courtesy photo.

Travis Leamons // Film Critic

If there’s one thing Gen-X’ers and Millennials can agree on, it’s that Cobra Kai never dies.

COBRA KAI is a series that has become part of the pop culture zeitgeist, thanks in large part to Netflix acquiring it after YouTube Premium decided to move away from scripted programs.

YouTube’s loss is another win for the streaming giant. The mere presence of COBRA KAI being part of its content means greater access and availability and more eyeballs to feed its black box algorithm of program recommendations.

Once the first two seasons were available in late August of last year, COBRA KAI became the most-watched series on Netflix that September. For those who grew up in the era of power suits, boxy blazers, and whatever Joan Collins was sporting on DYNASTY, they only thought the last chapter had been written on the legacy of THE KARATE KID.

Like a crane kick to the face, I, like everyone else who learned karate by waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences, was stunned; COBRA KAI flips the script in having high school pretty boy Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as our down-and-out hero. In Johnny’s eyes, he wasn’t a bully to New Jersey transplant Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). Daniel was the real villain, starting fights with Johnny, an ex-degenerate about to start his senior year and looking to patch things up with his ex, Ali (Elizabeth Shue).

Daniel goes from being a poor kid living in a crummy Reseda apartment now an affluent family man in a Tuscan home, while Johnny, with so much promise and opportunity, turns into a hardscrabble lush working dead-end jobs in Encino.

COBRA KAI (L to R) RALPH MACCHIO as DANIEL LARUSSO and YUJI OKUMOTO as CHOZEN TOGUCHI in episode 305 of COBRA KAI Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

The role reversal was the first season’s hook, as still-living-in-the-eighties Johnny Lawrence revives the Cobra Kai dojo. But his students aren’t the ones who get picked first in a game of basketball during Phys Ed. They’re a last option; the picked-upon social outcasts in need of guidance. In need of a sensei. Johnny preaches the “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” philosophy that was burned into him by way of machiavellian master John Kreese (Martin Kove). As for Daniel, he counters with his own Miyagi-do dojo in honor of his late master, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). His style is more about defense and breathing. A eucalyptus tree compared to Johnny’s prickly pear cactus.

However, as the series has evolved, one thing has become abundantly clear: Mr. Miyagi, even in death, is what binds everything together. Daniel uses what Miyagi taught him to connect with his daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), and Miyagi-Do pupil Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), who happens to be Johnny’s estranged 16-year-old son. In contrast, Johnny takes his next-door neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) under his wing after coming to his aid from being assaulted by a group of bullies. Their relationship, albeit more hard knocks and deprecating, mirrors the bond Daniel and Mr. Miyagi had.

Miguel and his social outcast friends develop self-confidence thanks to Sensei Lawrence, but nothing really changes between Daniel and Johnny as fortunes change. A pair of loggerheads that is either trying to swallow their pride and bury the hatchet or choking on ego and digging it back up. That all changes with the re-emergence of Kreese and his coming back into the Cobra Kai fold. Johnny is trying to turn the page in what he was taught originally. Train to be merciful, not merciless. Kreese still clings to his no mercy ideology, which he sharpened serving in Vietnam. By the end of the second season, Miguel shows mercy during a school brawl and is seriously injured, Johnny loses the dojo, his old sensei assumes command, and the remaining students drink the Kreese Kool-Aid as it were.

With eager anticipation, Netflix blessed COBRA KAI fans a happy new year by dropping the third season at the start of January. Though getting there is rough going for the first few episodes. Both Johnny and Daniel swear off teaching karate, Samantha has PTSD, and Miguel still comatose with a spinal injury after the high school brawl.

At times you feel like you need a scoresheet to keep track of who’s good, who’s bad, and the number you picked as part of the “Will Miguel Finally Walk In This Episode?” betting pool. Creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg take turns inside THE KARATE KID sandbox as they dig further into the mythology of Miyagi-do. To save his luxury import car dealership, Daniel travels to Okinawa, and, in turn, reminiscences about the time he and Miyagi ventured to the Japanese island (in THE KARATE KID PART II). Acquaintances from his past are reintegrated, and it is a great tip of the hat to a sequel that is like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM – no Nazis or Cobra Kais present. An outlier.

While the hope-and-change millennial crowd will gravitate to the ongoing teenage soap opera between all the leg sweeps and karate kicks, the Regan era kids can bask in the nostalgia that drizzles out like string cheese from a can. Season 3 offers plenty of strolls down memory lane, including a reunion that feels like those last slurps of a Hi-C Ecto Cooler. Good until the last drop.

But the biggest surprise may be in developing Kreese’s backstory with Vietnam flashbacks as a prisoner of war and no John Rambo or James Braddock to help. It points to the moment where Kreese goes full-on no mercy and how this spawn of the Boomer Generation and inflicted that credo on two different generations of students.

Millennials likely won’t latch on to the Kreese subplot. That’s fine; I don’t care for some of the supporting characters, including Daniel’s spoiled son – who pretty much becomes an afterthought this season, thank goodness. He might as well be Judy Winslow on FAMILY MATTERS. She disappeared from the sitcom after the fourth season without explanation.

At its best, COBRA KAI is ridiculous and wonderful. As nourishing as a bag of Corn Nuts and a Coors Banquet Beer to wash it down. It’s a nostalgia reboot that works because it teeters between irony and sincerity while still culling through the KARATE KID legacy as it constructs new avenues.

That being said, the series could do a better job at casting. Miguel as a sort of Ecuadorian Daniel 2.0 is good, but mostly everyone is caucasian. The show’s lack of representation is a contentious issue for some but not baseless. Considering the ugly history of Hollywood and Asian actors, COBRA KAI could benefit from more diversity.

Someone who experienced the stigma of seeing acting parts slip through his hands because of his Asian background was Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. He is always remembered as Mr. Miyagi. He would earn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, filmmaker Kevin Derek explores the man behind the legendary character in the new documentary MORE THAN MIYAGI: THE PAT MORITA STORY.

Over 90 minutes, we get inside the life of a man who developed spinal tuberculosis at the age of two and was told he would never walk again. Spending most of his time in a full-body cast and lying on his stomach like Forrest Gump after being shot in the buttocks, Morita would undergo a special surgery that would give him the ability to walk. More than a year after surgery, his reward was being transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center. Isn’t that something? You gain the ability to use your legs and now get confined to an internment camp.

Derek pours over Morita’s Hollywood career – grinning like a Cheshire cat behind the camera and during post-production, I bet – with loads of archive material to fill in the visual gaps where interview participants cannot. Starting as a stand-up comedian managed by Lenny Bruce’s mother (the “Hip Nip” as she called him), Morita would become a sitcom saver in helping turn HAPPY DAYS into a ratings hit during its third season on the air. Revealed as the owner of Arnold’s diner, Morita had made his mark.

Courtesy photo.

Despite being titled MORE THAN MIYAGI, the documentary does spend a good deal on THE KARATE KID series and how the film’s legacy continues to grow and inspire. Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen speak candidly about Morita and their experiences making the films and how COBRA KAI honors Miyagi.

Elsewhere, Morita’s third wife, Evelyn, offers more intimate details, including his bouts with alcohol and childhood abandonment issues. The documentary attempts to debunk the myth surrounding audiences rejecting commercial vehicles headlined by Asian minorities. Still, it is a sub-discussion to Morita’s failure in headlining the first Asian-American sitcom on network television.

The topic of pigeonholing is discussed as Morita was so stellar as Arnold in HAPPY DAYS that Hollywood executives couldn’t differentiate between the character and the actor. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t circumstance. Being so good at playing a certain type of character means an easy opportunity to earn a paycheck. Straying outside your lane to try something different is a risk, but that’s Hollywood for you.

Kevin Derek’s documentary is a bittersweet tribute about an actor who overcame a debilitating diagnosis, achieved a modicum of success on television, and became a legend as Mr. Miyagi. While Morita is more than Miyagi, it is through him that we see Morita who he really was. A man subjected to ridicule for no fault of his own. A man whose affability made him a close friend to those who knew him best. Best of all, a man who showed that you could accomplish anything if he could catch a fly with a chopstick.

COBRA KAI: Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix. MORE THAN MIYAGI: THE PAT MORITA STORY will be available on VOD beginning February 5, 2021.

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