Newark, New Jersey, September is a great way to start a movie that is very much not set in Newark, New Jersey, nor in September. By the time the opening credits finish, we're in California. The landscapes along the way, the tiny bit of dialogue voiceover, establishing the car needing a push at the Canyon Portal Motel--there is something weirdly charming and, in retrospect, a little strange, about this montage. We don't just meet Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Lucille (Randee Heller) as new arrivals in California; we get a glimpse of them before the transition, we see the process. We come with them. And, of course, most of the audience is not watching the film in California, so Daniel meeting Ali (Elisabeth Shue) at a beach party in September is strange.
And really, that's all exemplary of how The Karate Kid introduces characters through their actions rather than having people tell us who they are. There's a little bit of exposition--like Freddy (Israel Juarbe) asking Daniel why he and his mother moved to California--but that's reasonable in context. Instead, their actions and interactions tell us who they are. It takes a few interactions to figure out Ali or Miyagi (Pat Morita), for example. She's "beyond cute" but doesn't quite throw herself at Daniel; Miyagi is cryptic. Then there's Johnny (William Zabka) and his Cobra Kai buddies, who are almost caricatures, but have just enough charisma to feel like maybe they're real people, not just assholes. (Later, one of them--not sure which one--will even try to keep Johnny from beating Daniel too much.)
Miyagi's first lesson for Daniel is about one of his bonsai trees. "Close eyes. Trust. Concentrate. Think only tree. Make a perfect picture down to last pine needle. Wipe your mind clean, everything but tree. Nothing exists whole world. Only tree." This after Daniel has said today's title to his mother. Such a small bit of the film, memorable but small--the bonsai tree. But, it ties right into the setup, that coming to California, where Lucille excitedly points out all the palm trees, might not make life great... It's actually an interesting thing because we don't really get to know their situation. Daniel tells Freddy that his mother got a job in California and that's why they moved, but when we see her at work, she's working at a restaurant--the Orient Express--though they will train her for management. This isn't the kind of job you move across the country for. Lucille says something about working in computers, so maybe the restaurant is a second job. But then, that means that she moved to California for a computer job and immediately needed a second job. Their situation isn't good, whatever it is.
(Purportedly, the original script included an explanation; Lucille moved to California to work at Rocket Computers and the company immediately went bankrupt. She just happened to be outside the Orient Express restaurant when another woman quit the job there.)
Meanwhile, Daniel gets involved with Ali, who is not working class like him.
And, after Miyagi saves him from the Cobra Kai guys, Daniel gets involved with Miyagi.
And, it is structurally interesting that the film switches primary locales from the South Seas apartment building to Miyagi's house. Location matters in the film. The Cobra Kai Dojo is sterile and white, the young men wear their white gis and blend right in, to the place and to one another. Meanwhile, Daniel's "training" takes place in Miyagi's front and back yards--and Miyagi's house's location, near oil derrick pumps, reminds Daniel of Newark--on a small boat, on the beach. The Cobra Kai training is like Daniels' book earlier in the film, rote memorization and repetition. Daniel's training is repetitive but it is steeped in mundane tasks--wax on, wax off; right circle, left circle; up, down; side, side. On the one hand, the film's use of Miyagi as a near-magical Asian is built on a cheap stereotype, but some of the subtlety of Miyagi's religious and cultural beliefs and practices are quite nice.
As much as Miyagi fits some racist stereotype--and I've got plenty of articles and blogs bookmarked on my phone to write about just such a thing--Morita imbues in him a fantastic sense of depth. Kreese (Martin Kove) feels like a more reductive stereotype, a cliché while Miyagi feels like writer Robert Mark Kamen and Morita himself deliberately presenting something beyond the clichés. Morita supposedly copied that mannerisms and speech of Fumio Demura, who was his fight double in the film.
One final note, unrelated to the film itself, for today: the ending of The Karate Kid will always be tied to the beginning of Halloween for me because our VHS copy had poor overlap between this film ending and that film starting. Miyagi smiles, a proud teacher and father figure. The music swells. And, we would know that John Carpenter’s creepy theme was about to cut in at any moment.
”The Moment of Truth” just started playing during the credits and I didn’t even know that song was there.