“Daniel LaRusso’s gonna coach? Daniel LaRusso’s gonna coach!”
That one line about sums up what I was expecting Cobra Kai to be. I was thinking it would be a needless throwback to a series that should have ended when it did—with Mr. Miyagi twisting John Kreese’s nose in the parking lot. Karate Kid II and III might as well have stayed on the cutting room floor. The Next Karate Kid? Never saw it, and I’m sure Pat Morita also didn’t. And the remake with Jackie Chan and Jayden Smith? Never saw it, don’t plan on it either; but based on the preview, that is probably the biggest insult to the franchise altogether. I mean come on, it takes place in China, is about Kung Fu—how stupid do they think we are? But I digress.
In 1998, Jonathan Silverstein and I did a project for our high school statistics class. Which decade was cooler, the 80s or the 90s? Silverstein, it was well known, was obsessed with the 80s, but he still had friends (as it said in our yearbook). The consensus of the survey was that the 80s definitely had cooler TV and movies. And one of the most timeless bildungsromans of the 80s was the first Karate Kid.
You all know the story. Daniel is a nerdy kid from Newark, NJ whose mother moves to Reseda, CA. Right away he earns the ire of a biker/karate gang by hitting on the leader’s ex-girlfriend. After getting his ass kicked several times, he gets bailed out by his building’s handyman—a simple fisherman from Okinawa who likes to trim bonsai trees and catch flies with chopsticks. Mr. Miyagi prefers to use diplomacy than his fists. But when he realizes that John Kreese was a man who teaches kids that the best defense is a good offense, and that karate is about hitting first and hitting hard, Miyagi maneuvers Kreese into getting his Cobra Kai to leave Daniel alone until Miyagi can train him to face them in a tournament.
Right away, we contrast the Miyagi-do way and the Cobra Kai way. Kreese said the best defense is a good offense. He taught them how to punch, and to never turn their back on their opponent. Indeed, Kreese has won accolades for his fighting, especially from his days in the military. And we see that Kreese does run his dojo like a drill sergeant. His fighters are highly disciplined. One could say there is no code of honor among the Cobra Kai. But theirs was a code of being badass.
The Miyagi way was the complete opposite. Okinawa is a small island where there is nothing to do except fish and karate. While Kreese is about yelling and drilling, Miyagi is about balance and breathing. In fact, the Miyagi way is so counterintuitive, it’s hard to believe it’s even karate! But my understanding is that this is how traditionally karate was taught in Okinawa. They didn’t start with punching and kicking; they started with balancing and breathing exercises. Once you found your center and learned how to properly breathe, the punching and kicking would come to you.
Indeed, that’s how Daniel first learned. We all remember the Miyagi way, immortalized as “this hand wax-on, this hand wax-off; don’t forget to breathe.” After a week of that, and Daniel losing his temper, Miyagi famously demonstrated how “wax-on; wax-off” was all along karate. Was it more effective than the Cobra Kai method? Based on the movie, one would think so. Daniel was a total n00b, but by the time he got to the tournament, he was able to handle himself in a fair fight. Of course, the Cobra Kai play dirty. “Sweep the leg” would not work against a more experienced karateka; but since Daniel was still relatively new, it worked. But then, Daniel pulls off a crane kick (which, to quote an old teacher of mine, is a second-degree black belt kata, and you’d get your ass kicked if you tried it in a real fight), winning the tournament.
That was then. Fast forward 30-something years later.
When I was in yeshiva, one of my rabbis used to talk about the time he was in synagogue and the guy sitting in front of him was talking about that Yeshiva of Flatbush vs MTA basketball game from 20 years ago and how he was still living in that moment. “What a loser!” the rabbi said. Never getting over a high school basketball game as an adult? It appears, as the deux ex machina would have it, both Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence are still living in that moment.
The tables have turned. Johnny was the rich spoiled asshole, while Daniel was the working class nerdy kid. Now, Daniel is a successful owner of a car dealership chain with a nice house with a pool in Encino. Johnny is an alcoholic who can’t keep a job, is estranged from his kid, and living in squalor. Daniel, years later, has changed his life for the better. And Johnny’s life has spiraled.
For those of you who like How I Met Your Mother, you know there are those who say that Johnny might have been the real good guy in Karate Kid. The way events are portrayed in the movie, it’s hard to sympathize with Johnny. But now, Johnny is given dimension. No, he is not a good guy. From the get-go, we see that he is still an asshole. Johnny is an anachronism of the 80s, when casual racism, sexism, classism, and just being a dick in general, was a lot more acceptable. Johnny has not, and will not, get with the times. And it’s not just him telling his acolyte to listen to Guns N’ Roses. It’s like Johnny is stuck in that time warp, where he doesn’t know about social media, or about what kids are into these days.
Sorry to get political, but I bet Johnny voted for Trump. What our generation needs, he said, is to stop being a bunch of pussies. Indeed, karate was considered a very manly thing back then. Elvis Presley was notoriously a huge fan of karate. I know, Sterling Archer has called karate “the Dane Cook of martial arts”, preferring Krav Maga (where there literally are no rules—perhaps more akin to the Cobra Kai way).
But this show is not just about Johnny and Daniel rekindling their rivalry. It’s not just about Johnny trying to not be the next John Kreese (but inevitably holding his mantle), while Daniel becomes a new Miyagi. It’s the next generation too.
And here’s where the show got it right. In some of these next generation shows (I’m looking at you, Fuller House), the kids are not that interesting. The plot lines between them are too contrived, the callbacks are overdone, and no one really cares about the drama between them. It’s like they are living vicariously through their parents, reliving their lives. But the writers don’t bother to make them compelling. Not in Cobra Kai.
First, we have Daniel’s kids. Anthony is kind of that side character who isn’t that interesting. But his daughter, Sam, she is in her own right an interesting character. The rich girl who is embarrassed by her father. She starts off as that mean girl, but pretty quickly we see there’s more to her than that. And then, she begins to fraternize with the enemy. And that becomes the impetus for a lot of the drama.
Miguel Diaz is the breakout character. An Ecuadorian-American who just moved from Irvine, falls in with the nerds, and gets his ass kicked by the rich assholes. Starts off like Daniel. But his savior was not Mr. Miyagi; it was Johnny Lawrence. Similar to Miyagi, Johnny is at first reluctant to take on Miguel; and Miguel’s mom doesn’t want him learning karate either. However, as inevitable as it is, Johnny becomes Miguel’s sensei, and Miguel becomes his top student.
Finally, we see from the inside, how Cobra Kai really worked. Johnny is much more nuanced than Kreese, who was pretty much just an angry douchebag. We don’t have all that much of a backstory for him (yet: season 2, perhaps?) Johnny is not a bad guy. He just has a lot of demons. And he loses many students because he tries running his dojo the same way Kreese did. But those who stick with Sensei Lawrence begin to become pretty badass. Some for the negative (“Hawk”, who gets a full back tattoo and a Mohawk, becomes a bully himself).
In the movie, it was pretty black and white: Miyagi good, Kreese bad. Daniel the flawed hero, Johnny the dick who was pretty much what Kreese made him. In the end, good triumphs, Daniel wins for Miyagi-do, and Cobra Kai is shamed. Miyagi, good teacher, following old code of honor from Okinawa, cutting bonsai trees, and focusing on balance and breathing. We all got to know the Miyagi way quite intimately.
In this show, we see further glimpses of the Miyagi way. Daniel ends up training Johnny’s estranged son. No rowboat this time, but a tree. Either way, Daniel shows him how balancing and breathing are the most solid foundation to karate. And the “wax-on wax-off” is done very silently and subtly. They didn’t overkill it. But we, the fanboys, knew what was going on, and we smiled as Daniel showed him how all this time he was teaching him how to block.
But then, at the climax, in the tournament, we revisit the question of whether the Miyagi-do way really is superior? While the movie made it look like it was, in this show, we see some of the shortcomings. We see that Sam is willing to sit back and critique both methods (“you shouldn’t have swept the leg, it was too obvious” and “you telegraphed that kick”). So we see that Johnny’s method makes the Cobra Kai into tough fighters, and they go far. But some, like Hawk, take it too far and end up fighting dirty (to Johnny’s chagrin).
In the final faceoff, Miguel ends up winning. But it was a tough fight. Indeed, Daniel’s student pulls off the one-handed double kick that Daniel could never pull off—his secret was the half-pipe on a skateboard.
But the twist, oh the twist. Turns out that all this time, John Kreese was looming in the background. Or was he? Johnny said that Kreese is dead. Was he? And is Johnny really all along trying to please his old sensei? And Daniel wants to reopen Miyagi-do. But Miyagi only ever had one student (I’m only counting Daniel LaRusso). A whole dojo for Daniel? Definitely not the Miyagi way. But I am interested to see where he goes with this.
I don’t know how this show holds up without the nostalgia factor. But if you were a fan of the original movie, you must see this show. It’s not even a question.