'The Karate Kid:' Facts And Life Lessons From The 1984 Movie


Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

The Karate Kid (1984), starring Ralph Macchio as a high school student who must learn martial arts to survive at his new school, is a wonderful coming-of-age story and an entertaining popcorn flick. Yet there was more to it than that -- Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi, was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film spawned two sequels, a remake, and -- over 30 years later -- a spinoff TV series called Cobra Kai. Clearly, this unusual film had more going for it than your standard teenage thrills.

'The Karate Kid' Was A Small Film That Made It Big

Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

The summer of 2019 marked the 35th anniversary of the 1984 blockbuster -- and yes, though it feels like a small movie, it was a blockbuster. Made on a budget of just $9 million, the movie earned over $90 million at the box office around the world, making it the fifth biggest movie of 1984. And what a year 1984 was for fun movies -- The Karate Kid didn't make as much as Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, or Gremlins, but it exceeded the box-office receipts of Police Academy, Footloose, Splash and Revenge of the Nerds.

The Movie Dealt With An Ever-Present Issue: Bullying

William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

The movie tells the tale of underdog Daniel LaRusso, who finds himself being bullied after moving to a new school on the other side of the country. Like many other teens, Daniel tries to stand up against his bullies but finds his opponents to be karate students, and a thorough ass-kicking ensues. But then Daniel's apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, shows up and dispenses with Daniel’s attackers. And so begins his journey to master the art of karate and once-and-for-all put an end to the bullying.

'Sweep The Leg, Johnny'

William Zabka in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

The bully, Johnny, was played by William Zabka, an actor who became known as the quintessential 1980s movie bully. Zabka played similar characters in Just One Of The Guys (1985) and Back To School (1986), and he reprised his character in The Karate Kid II (1986). (Zabka was also in European Vacation, playing the boyfriend of Audrey Griswold -- who turns out to be a jerk, but not a bully.) Zabka has continued to act and in 2004 was nominated for an Oscar in the short film category. For years after his mid-'80s bully heyday, movie fans greeted him with hostility because they disliked his characters so much.

A High School Underdog Story With An Odd-Couple Twist

Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

On the one hand The Karate Kid follows a slightly predictable path -- we watch Daniel cope with his new school, plot his revenge, win the heart of a girl (Elizabeth Shue), and eventually confront and defeat his nemesis in a final battle.

But The Karate Kid is also a story about a friendship between a teenager and a lonely old man -- while Mr. Miyagi seems gruff and unemotional at first, we learn over time that he has an inner sadness. This is revealed in one particular scene when Miyagi gets drunk and tells Daniel that his wife died in childbirth during World War II.

There's A History Lesson Lurking In 'The Karate Kid'

Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

This aspect of the story is a complicated one, touching on a chapter of American history many consider shameful today. During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and put into internment camps, on the orders of President Roosevelt. The stated reason was that these Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens, posed a security risk, although in hindsight the motivation appears to have been more about race than security. In Hawaii, where the Pearl Harbor attack had occurred, only a relative handful of Japanese Americans (less than 2,000 out of a population of 150,000) was interned. In an unusual bit of reasoning, the Japanese population of Hawaii was considered too integral to the territory's economy for internment.

When Miyagi's wife dies in childbirth (the child dies as well), he is away fighting in the European theater -- as an American soldier. The fictional Miyagi identifies himself as serving in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a unit made up almost exclusively of Japanese Americans that really did exist. Miyagi is fiercly proud of his service, and, some 30 years after the fact, still heartbroken over the death of his wife, who (we might assume) did not get the best medical care at the internment camp.

Interestingly, the movie studio felt the emotional scene where a drunken Miyagi tells his story was a momentum-killer, and wanted to remove it from the film. Director John G. Avildsen insisted on keeping it, and it was this scene that earned Pat Morita his Academy Award nomination. 

The Life Lessons Of 'The Karate Kid'

Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid.' Source: IMDB

The Karate Kid also taught us that "first learn stand, then learn fly." From the beginning of Daniel’s karate journey he simply wanted revenge against his tormentors, a desire that was stronger than his actual interest in the nature of karate. Mr. Miyagi provided slow, subtle instruction in the martial art -- baby steps, making sure than Daniel learned the basics thoroughly. The teaching was so subtle in fact that the protege didn't even know he was being taught. The immortal phrase "wax on, wax off" seemed to be Miyagi's instruction for how to wax a car -- but it was actually instruction in a key defensive karate move. Despite his impatience, Daniel became a master of karate, so much so that he could perform the highly advanced crane kick, which turned out to be the winning move in his final battle.