Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Karate Kid: a life-altering moment…for a teenager

Every so often I have seen movies that profoundly affect me. They touch me on some deeper level I am not really sure I can explain. The first ever movie to do that was The Karate Kid.

Going to the movies
It was the summer of 1984. Every year I would spend two weeks in Brooks at my Aunt Monica’s with my cousins Henry, Fred, and Bobbi. That summer Henry spent some time with a friend of his who had moved to Red Deer. He came back, just before I went home, raving about a movie he had seen. It was called The Karate Kid.

It would have a really big impact on me.

It was advertised a lot. I remember the tag line that ended every commercial: “The Karate Kid – it’ll go straight to your heart”. And it did. The movie was playing at College Cinema, which was a two-screen theatre located in a mall on the south edge of Lethbridge anchored by Woolco. Up to that point, I did not have a licence, so the only time I ever got off the farm to see a movie was with my sister Barb. She had seen the commercials too, and was game.

Even getting into the movie was funny. When we got there, the tag line on the billboard above the entrance was: “The Karate Kid – it is his moment of truth”. We always got there a few minutes early in case there was a line. Back then, I looked a lot older than I was. At the time I was 14. When we bought tickets, my sister said, “One adult and one child.” Children were 14 and under.

“Excuse me ma’am,” the girl working the front said. “But where is your child?”

She really was not much older than me, still in high school for sure.

“I’m the child,” I said.

The look she gave me was utter disbelief.

“Um,” she hesitated. “Do you have ID?”

Of course I didn’t. What 14-year-old has ID? The closest thing was my learner’s permit, but that was at home. I didn’t even carry a wallet until the next year. She gave me the benefit of the doubt and let me in.

I still cannot believe I was ID’ed for being too old. Virtually everyone else I knew was ID’ed for being too young, not too old.

We grabbed a seat, and immediately were irritated by two guys sitting behind us. They just did not stop talking. About 20 minutes into the movie me and Barb moved seats. It was the only time I can recall ever having to move seats. Before we left I gave those guys a dirty look and mumbled something under my breath. It’s too bad it was pitch black.

The Karate Kid
Everything Daniel Larusso has
learned culminates in this moment
The movie was just absolutely amazing. I have always loved underdogs and this was the ultimate underdog story. To say Daniel Larusso got bullied was an understatement. He got the tar beat out of him at every turn in the first half of the movie. You couldn't help but feel for the guy. It wasn't the violence – it was the loneliness, and the helplessness. He had nowhere to turn. Then he met Mr. Miyagi who had his own demons to wrestle with. A boy without a father, a man whose son had died long ago. Together, they learned, and grew and helped each other deal with their pain. Then, to watch Daniel come back, get revenge on all the bullies, and learn all the right lessons doing it, was inspiring.

Daniel Larusso discovers he has
been learning karate all along
Wax on, wax off
And it had one of the best surprises I’d ever seen in a movie. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Larusso karate. Yet, all Larusso seems to do is chores. First he waxes Mr. Miyagi’s collection of vintage cars. Then he sands his seemingly endless deck. Then he paints all his fences. Finally, he paints his house. Larusso has had enough and confronts his teacher. Suddenly Mr. Miyagi reveals he has been teaching him karate, using muscle memory, all along. It was astonishing to see for the first time. I could hear everyone in the theatre gasp and exclaim, “Ohhhh.” The phrase “wax on, wax off” became slang in our language.

We can all relate
Daniel and Ali, he got the girl in the end
I think The Karate Kid resonated with me because I was about to start Grade 10 at a new school, I was about the same age as Daniel Larusso, and I had a lot of anxieties about high school. I was lonely, insecure, and beginning to like girls, who really didn't seem to return the favour. Larusso found his own way, and he got the girl in the end. It was a lift at the right time.

A comedian gets serious and Oscar comes calling
What made the movie in so many ways was Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. At the time he was a comedian, best known for playing “Arnold”, the owner of the local hangout on “Happy Days”. As Mr. Miyagi, he reveals his wife and child were killed when they were interned during the Second World War. It was a touching moment of social commentary without beating anyone over the head with a message. Before that he was just Pat Morita. I recall reading somewhere at the time that he went back to his Japanese name because the role of Mr. Miyagi had affected him so much.

What surprised me was he ended up getting nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for that role. I always point that out when people talk about the movie being schlock or fluff.

Teenage Rocky
At the end of that summer, I remember watching Leonard Maltin, the in-house movie critic on Entertainment Tonight talking about the crop of summer movies that was. The Olympics had just finished in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. He said The Karate Kid was a bronze medal hit, and called Daniel Larusso a teenage Rocky. I always liked that because Daniel Larusso looked like Rocky Balboa, and talked like a teenage version of the Italian Stallion. I have never found out if that was intentional or not.

One more time
School started and I told all my friends about it. I wanted to see it again, and I knew my sister wouldn’t take me a second time. At the time I hung out a bit with Joe Darveau, and he talked about going to see it. He wanted to see “Red Dawn” too. His Mom and Dad had already seen “Red Dawn” but they would take us to Lethbridge to see The Karate Kid. I cannot describe how difficult an endeavour it was to get off the farm and try and see a movie.

I didn’t see Red Dawn for a few more years. That’s funny because it has just been remade and is to be released shortly.

The pre-Netflix era
The other interesting thing is that back then it was not easy to see a movie after it left the theatre. You usually had to wait a year or more to see it on TV. Later, movies came out on video but not as quickly as they do now. Plus, not everyone owned VCRs. I wouldn’t get my first one for another year. So I had to settle eventually for buying a novelization (I have a whole collection of those, a legacy of the days before movies were on tape), and the soundtrack.

The Karate Kid on vinyl
Funny thing, the main song was “Moment of Truth” by Survivor. Another coincidence. Survivor had recorded “Eye of the Tiger” the theme song for Rocky III just over a year earlier. Now they had recorded the theme song for the teenage Rocky.

“The Moment of Truth” was only played during the closing credits, which was too bad, because it was really good. It didn’t even play in the opening credits when people would have all heard it, and it may have garnered more interest. The song I remember is “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito. It was the song that played during the climactic karate tournament as Larusso won match after match.

Conspicious by its absence was “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. That song went nowhere, then the movie breathed new life into it. When I got the record, I noticed it was missing, and questioned my memory. I thought every song made it to the soundtrack. Must have been some sort of copyright thing.

Always look him in the eye
The movie poster
I bought at Con-version
The next summer, I went to a science fiction convention in Calgary called “Con-version”. They had a Hucksters room in there, and I ended up buying a Karate Kid poster. It was one of the promotional ones that hung in a theatre lobby. It was an extreme close-up of Daniel and Mr. Miyagi staring at each other. Always look him in the eye, Mr. Miyagi said.

Finally a version I could own
Once it was out on tape, then DVD, I bought it. Every time I see it playing on TV, I watch it. It was on Encore Avenue recently which is the motivation for this post.

The other Karate Kid, and a familiar sound
A couple odd things I discovered in my myriad viewings. One, the makers of the movie had to pay DC Comics for permission to use the name “The Karate Kid”. He was a hero, part of the Legion of Super Heroes, which I actually read as a boy. Two, I wondered about the flute music that played around Mr. Miyagi and his home. It actually was done by that master of the pan flute – Zamfir. He had become famous on infomercials in the 1980s.

A lasting impression
The legacy of The Karate Kid is clear. It is an exceptionally well-made feel-good movie. We can all relate to a boy who is bullied when he’s just trying to fit in. He meets a man broken in his own way, and together they heal. Mr. Miyagi teaches Larusso karate not to get revenge or to fight, but so he doesn’t have to fight. He teaches him to be himself and treat people with respect. And the guy gets the girl in the end.

It was so good, they made it again. But that’s for another time.

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