What The Karate Kid Taught Me Wrong

Don’t get me wrong–I think this movie is awesome. I’ve watched it more times than I can count, and I can count fairly high. I can quote every memorable line, and my philosophy towards martial arts–which, in turn, impacted my philosophy towards life–was largely developed from this movie.

But of course, Hollywood exaggerates and embellishes for the purpose of entertainment. Interestingly, the latest reincarnation of the franchise, the popular Netflix show Cobra Kai, revisits and qualifies a lot of these same myths while still maintaining the signature 80’s cheese and nostalgia of the original. Which myths the series propagates and which it contradicts is one of the most compelling aspects of the new show.

So what were the most significant martial arts legends created by the original movie that don’t apply to real training?

You Can Develop Skill By Doing Unrelated Things

“Wax on, wax off” became entrenched in pop culture as a method of learning to block by waxing cars, painting fences, sanding floors, and painting houses[1]. When Daniel-san finally has had enough manual labour, Mr. Miyagi does the big reveal–he has been learning Karate all along, and is now instinctively able to deflect a series of unscripted attacks[2].

It would be so cool if it worked in real life. So cool. Unfortunately it doesn’t.

You can’t learn to swim without getting into the water, and you can’t learn to block without lots of reps of someone attempting to hit you. If you’re learning correctly, you will occasionally get hit.

I think this myth has had an impact on people’s perception of the Uchi-Deshi (内弟子, a live-in disciple or student) concept. I’ve seen and heard multiple reports of Uchi-Deshi programs that seem to focus on the student’s sanitation skills rather than their martial ones.

Like many things, it depends on how this is done. If you are spending an intense period of time training day in and day out with an outstanding instructor, then it is probably worth it. If you’re spending large amounts of money to be a live-in maid and catch a couple classes here and there, you’re probably falling for a scam. If you spend more time vacuuming than learning, you might have gotten short-changed on your end of the bargain.

Again, in The Karate Kid world, Daniel’s chores were actually a secret form of training[3]. In reality, when someone says, “I’ll show you the secrets of Karate when you complete all these chores,” the chores are probably just menial labour.

I’ve travelled to train at other instructors’ schools, and of course it’s important to be grateful to your hosts. It’s good manners to clean up after yourself when you’re a houseguest. I might buy a gift for their house and maybe a bottle of wine, if my hosts are so inclined.

But I truly get the sense I would have been welcome to visit no matter whether I did the dishes or not, which is the true spirit of camaraderie in martial arts. Not everything should be done in expectation of reciprocity.

Mysterious Methods Are Better

A lot of Mr. Miyagi’s appeal is his mysterious nature and background[4]. East Asian culture, especially in regards to martial arts, tends to be mystified in mainstream media representations in North America, which is a distinct contrast to the far less exotic reality of physical violence.

For reality-based martial artists, there should be a lot more transparency in the learning process. A mantra that I learned from my instructor’s accreditation program for teaching English as a second language is, “Why are you doing what you’re doing the way that you’re doing it?” Both parties involved in the exchange of information and the development of skill should be able to articulate an answer to that question.

Outside the silver screen, less mysterious and more pragmatic methods of instruction will benefit the student every time.

Win The Tournament, Get The Girl, Walk Off Into The Sunset

Yeah, it was that easy—in 1980’s Hollywood. In the 21st Century, even the fictional Cobra Kai characters don’t have it so easy.

I was once a fly on the wall for an interesting conversation between a poet and editor, discussing the poet’s debut collection being released. The editor acknowledged that there would be some congratulations, some fanfare, perhaps even an award or nomination, but then, “Don’t expect it to change anything.”

Although I have very rarely competed in martial arts, those I know who have all say the same thing—it’s nice to be recognized if you win, get a medal, and have your picture taken, but it doesn’t change your life. The same is true for rank promotions and seminars. Little Johnny in the third row picking his nose and staring out the window on a Tuesday night doesn’t give any shits that Sensei just got his next Dan rank. He just wants to know when he can go home and play the next level of his video game.

As an instructor, pay extra attention to Little Johnny. If you don’t connect with him early, he might grow up to ride motorcycles, smoke weed, and pick on the new kid at school[5].

Good Guys Win

In Karate, it has long been asserted (optimistically to a fault) that a practitioner’s moral development and skill acquisition are inexorably linked to one another, such that, “No matter how you may excel in the art of Te or your scholastic endeavours, nothing is more important than your behaviour and your humanity as observed in daily life.”[6] Ethics aside, The Karate Kid reinforces the fallacy that if you’re a good person, you will be better at martial arts.

Daniel-san is a tool at the beginning of the movie[7]. He is an instigator, provoking conflict with his antagonists instead of turning the other cheek[8]. When he becomes a student of Mr. Miyagi, he learns the right and wrong way of applying his skills, learning to fight “so [he] won’t have to fight.”[9] Funny enough, for the purpose of plot development in Cobra Kai, he seems to have forgotten many of those life lessons and regressed back to the original model.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where human beings received material reward for moral behaviour, but we don’t. In martial arts, the fairest and most sportsmanlike competitors are not often the ones who come out on top. It’s a crap shoot. I’m sure there are altruistic CEOs and lottery winners too, but the distribution is far too even for it to be a cause-and-effect relationship.

So, if you’re setting out to be a good person in this dog-eat-dog world, good for you! Don’t expect the universe to reward you for it. You can try your best and do things the right way, but sometimes at the end of the practice, coach will still turn to you and say, “Great hustle, kid. You’re cut.”

This is another aspect that Cobra Kai has revisited and modified, adding a lot more grey area to the original movie’s black and white characters.

Conclusion

Like many things that are meant to inspire and entertain, The Karate Kid shouldn’t be taken literally. Watching a video recording of actual Karate, even when it’s practiced with effective methodology, may not appeal to many (Zoom lesson? Anyone? How about I teach these crickets?).

However, despite the myths that the movie perpetuates, it captures the right essence of practice—especially the way Karate can be a lens through which all aspects of your life are seen as a pathway towards self-improvement.

Remember to focus on the forest, rather than the trees that have been Hollywood-enhanced for your viewing pleasure.


[1] The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Columbia Pictures, 1984.

[2] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[3] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[4] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[5] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[6] McCarthy, Patrick (editor). Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 122.

Nagamine, Shoshin. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do. Tuttle Publications, 1976. Pg. 20

[7] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[8] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[9] The Karate Kid, 1984.

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