In my continuing rant about how movies today don’t compare to the ones I grew up with, I bring you my latest installment proving that argument…The Karate Kid. And I do mean the original one, not the bullshit Will Smith’s kid getting a movie remake project because he is Will Smith’s kid version, I mean the original one with Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. In this movie, Daniel is bullied badly when he moves into a new neighborhood, and strikes up a friendship with Mr. Miyagi. Through this friendship Daniel learns not only self defense skills through the ancient art of Karate, but learns life lessons as well. I am sure this movie is one of the reasons I have such an affinity for martial arts and the culture surrounding it.
I don’t remember being bullied much as a kid; it happened on occasion, but nothing to the degree like in the movie. I had two things going for me at a young age that I think helped avoid this. First, I learned very early on that the ability to befriend anyone meant that I had less people who would want to hassle me. Secondly, I wrestled and played other sports, and so I was friends with the kids who were usually doing the bullying, instead of hanging with the ones who were on the receiving end of it. I was a small guy all through high school, and even today I am average height at best. I wasn’t going to avoid fights by physically intimidating people, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s how I ended up a good negotiator in sales, it was a coping skill learned from this stage of my life. Learning to excel at sports was a big help too; if you were good at something, kids seemed to respect that to some degree and not target you.
As the movie progresses, the main character Daniel finds himself in the situation of having to defend himself from a bunch of high school kids that go to a local dojo to learn karate. The sensei (instructor) there is a man with a bad attitude, and he is teaching the kids to be bullies. He is not sharing the true spiritual value and lessons that should and typically do, accompany martial arts training. There is a sidebar story between Mr. Miyagi and this instructor that adds to the overall tension and conflict sequences in the movie. After a few of their own direct conflicts, the instructors end up allowing their respective students to resolve things in the annual karate tournament.
In preparation for the tournament, Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel rote physical skills necessary for self defense before ever teaching him offense like how to punch. Defense and balance are more important than striking in the beginning. After hours of muscle-memory developing skills disguised as chores, Daniel has logged a lot of time making the moves he will convert into self defense. The up and down motion of painting the fence, and the circular motions of sanding the floor turn out to be integral parts of blocking punches and kicks, and become the basis of his self defense. Daniel begrudgingly does the chores in good faith, and by the end of them, he is angry that he is doing work for Mr. Miyagi and not learning any martial arts skills. He is promptly shown otherwise in the next scene, as he uses the same motions he did painting the fence and sanding the floor to block a flurry of punches and kicks from Mr. Miyagi. He returns the next day for more.
By the end of the movie Daniel is competing in the local martial arts tournament and beating the students of the other instructor that were bullying him. One on one they are not so tough, and his accelerated learning approach is allowing him to beat the flashy style of all the others. At one point, in a real show of classlessness and flat out cheating, an opponent does an illegal move and strikes Daniel in the knee, sending him to the mat in a heap. The other fighter should have been disqualified, adding to the overall tension of the moment. Mr. Miyagi does not intervene, but rather waits to see how Daniel handles it. Daniel digs deep within to muster the will to go on. The other fighter does it again, and Daniel can no longer bear weight on that leg at all. It looks like he is going to have to forfeit as they limp back to the locker room together. He has an injury timeout of 15 minutes to try to get back on his feet.
In the very pivotal scene, Daniel asks Mr Miyagi to fix his leg so he can continue. They both know this moment will define him, and he is willing to go on. Miyagi works a little healing magic to get him out on the mat again. The crowd goes crazy as Daniel enters the gym again, and his opponent looks stunned. They can’t make him quit. The other instructor delivers one of the most notable lines of the movie when he pulls aside Daniel’s opponent and tells him: “Sweep the leg.” As much of an ass as Johnny is, even he knows that this is wrong, and he questions his sensei. “Do you have a problem with that? Mercy is for the weak” is the curt response he gets from his sensei. He turns to face Daniel, who is still quite hobbled, waiting for him to engage.
The photo above is the moment where Daniel has a flash of inspiration of an alternative way to win. He uses the Crane technique to not only aid the fact that he is fighting on one leg, but it is not something Johnny has seen from him yet. He only needs one good shot to win, and Johnny walks right into a switch kick to the face, ending the event with Daniel as the winner. In the usual Hollywood ending, Johnny realizes the error of his ways and he is the one to present the trophy to Daniel at the end. The crowd rushes the floor and Daniel is carried out as the conquering hero, having displayed a tremendous amount of courage and heart as well as skill.
So the takeaways from the movie are obvious, but it is presented in such a compelling way that to this day I still get chills remembering that last fight scene. The pervasive message of good triumphing over evil, of hard work making the difference between success and failure, and the core message of always believe in yourself and never ever giving up are infused into the story line. Maybe the age in which I viewed this the first time was a big factor in how I was impacted; I, too, was a kid trying to find his place in the world, and figure out how I fit in. While I wasn’t bullied like Daniel was, I could definitely identify with his struggles. I moved from rural farm country in PA to Phoenix when I was twelve, and felt like it took a while to find my place in the big city life I now lived. Sports was also my way in, and my way out. I made friends, was part of a larger group, and by default was included in social things that some kids don’t get to be a part of. I learned to deal with adversity, struggle, and all of the other things that sports brings front and center in life. I have done my best to take these lessons into every facet of my life, and also share them with all of my students now that I am a coach.
As the famous quote by PGA Hall of Fame Golfer Johnny Miller goes:
“It’s not so much what you accomplish in life that really matters, but what you overcome that proves who you are, what you are, and whether you are a champion”
I think that pretty much says it all….