Den of Geek:

Which style of Karate really teaches how to Wax On, Wax Off, and Sweep the Leg? We examine the martial arts used in Cobra Kai and The Karate Kid franchise.

Den of Geek:

“When ‘The Karate Kid’ premiered in 1984, new students rushed to enroll in karate dojos across the nation.

[Karate advertisement.]

However, for anyone aspiring to learn the true ways of Miyagi-Do or Cobra Kai as the case may be, dojos weren’t propounding deck sanding and fence painting as part of their curriculum. There are many different styles of karate and fans wondered which style Daniel and Johnny were really doing. Now that Netflix has picked up Cobra Kai from YouTube Red, opening up the franchise to new viewers, the question has come up again. What type of karate do they practice at Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai?

The Real Martial Arts Behind The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai.

Den of Geek:

The truth is it might not even be karate. With most Hollywood productions a hodgepodge of movie foo makes for better action than authentic martial arts. When The Karate Kid began production Ralph Macchio – Daniel, William Zabka – Johnny and Pat Morita – Mr. Miyagi, didn’t know any martial arts. Zabka had some background in wrestling but that was it. In many ways, it’s Daniel’s inexperience and awkwardness with karate that helps to sell the story. Only three of the original actors had studied martial arts prior to filming. Ron Thomas practiced jiujitsu which had little application for his role as Cobra Kai’s Bobby in the film. Martin Kove – Kreese, studied karate under the famous Grandmaster Takayuki Kubota. However, beyond training Kove, Kubota had little influence on The Karate Kid.

The martial arts depicted in The Karate Kid must be attributed to Grandmaster Pat. E. Johnson. He was the martial arts choreographer for the original films and played the referee. Johnson captained Chuck Norris’s black belt competition team to win 33 consecutive championships. And despite not disqualifying Daniel’s illegal winning crane kick, Johnson is a highly respected martial arts referee. Beyond The Karate Kid, he worked on other films including, ‘Enter the Dragon’, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Mortal Kombat’. Johnson and Norris practiced Tang soo do, a Korean martial art but this is where translation of the terminology gets complicated.

Den of Geek:

Tang soo do means ‘way of the tang hand’. Tang refers to the Tang dynasty indicating the Chinese origins of the art. According to legend, all Asian martial arts trace back to China’s Shaolin Temple. Translate the characters for Tang soo do into Japanese and it is ‘Karate-Do’. However, in 1935, Japan changed the character for ‘kara’ or ‘tang’ to a homophonic character that means ‘empty’ in order to distinguish its martial art from China. To complicate matters even more, Tang soo do was commonly dubbed Korean karate in the United States. Nevertheless, Tang soo do and karate are distinct disciplines.

Given Johnson’s choreography, Tang soo do influences Cobra Kai more than karate. From the first film to Cobra Kai when Johnny spars, he deploys a lot of high kicks characteristic of Korean martial arts. After the first film, Zabka continued to study Tang soo do with Johnson for many years. Another big tell is in The Karate Kid Part 3, when Kreese’s comrade Terry Silver, Thomas Ian Griffith visits Miyagi’s dojo to lie about Kreese’s death, he couches it as an apology from their mutual South Korean master. And in Cobra Kai, Johnny barks out a command that sounds like [Korean word], which means ‘get ready’ in Korean. Much of Tang soo do came to the U.S. via military veterans that served in Korea. Both Johnson and Norris, first learned their martial art, while stationed there. This makes a lot of sense for Kreese’s character. But what about Miyagi-Do? What style teaches wax on, wax off?

Den of Geek:

Although never overtly stated, there are many subtle references throughout the films and series. In The Karate Kid Part 2, Miyagi and Daniel visit Miyagi’s hometown in Okinawa. In the family dojo, Miyagi tells Daniel of the founder of Miyagi-Do, an ancestor of Mr. Miyagi who ended up in China by accident after getting drunk and falling asleep in his fishing boat, in 1625. He returned to Okinawa 10 years later with a Chinese wife, two kids and the basis for Miyagi-Do. This artistic liberty is a mishmash of Gōjū-ryū history.

Grandmaster Higaonna Kanryō, who lived from 1853 to 1916 was an Okinawan martial artist and translator who spent many years studying martial arts in China, including crane style. His top student, another native Okinawan, followed in his footsteps to train in China too. That student was another Miyagi Grandmaster Chōjun Miyagi, who lived from 1888 to 1953, the founder of Gōjū-ryū. Two more Gōjū-ryū easter eggs imply that it is the inspiration for Miyagi-Do. In The Karate Kid Part 2, a Gōjū-ryū patch can be clearly seen on Chozen’s Yuji Okumoto V. The Gōjū-ryū symbol is a golden, upraised fist often with the characters for Karate written underneath. And it is unmistakable. Chozen was trained by his uncle Sato – Danny Kamekona, a fellow student under Miyagi’s father, Charlie Tanimoto. So, they all practiced the same style.

Den of Geek:

Another major tell, lies in the kata that Miyagi teaches Daniel in The Karate Kid Part 3. It is based on seiunchin, an original Gōjū-ryū kata created by Higaonna Kanryō and passed down to Chōjun Miyagi. This is the same kata that Daniel recites in Cobra Kai and teaches to his students, including his daughter Samantha – Mary Mouser and Johnny’s son, Robbie – Tanner Buchanan. Real Gōjū-ryū practitioners often comment that it is a weak rendition of seiunchin. But again, it’s just a show not a documentary.

The original writer of The Karate Kid, Robert Mark Kamen, claims the idea of the story was loosely autobiographical. His first instructor was too violent and vengeful. So, he began studying Gōjū-ryū. Kamen says Miyagi was based on Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi, who lived from 1912 to 2003. A direct disciple of Miyagi and a national living treasure of Japan. Daniel’s all valley victory move was made up for the film. However, the same one-legged posture exists within northern Shaolin kung fu. The pose was featured on the cover of a kung fu book originally published in 1984, the same year that The Karate Kid premiered.

Den of Geek:

Northern Sil Lum, Moi Fah, Number 7 by Kwon Wing Lam and Ted Mancuso, is now out of print. Sil Lum is the Cantonese pronunciation of Shaolin. In the book, it’s not called a crane technique. The actual name is ‘Lift Stance: Black Crow Splits Wings’. When this book was published, there was a lot of debate about which came first within the martial arts community. The Karate Kid released in theaters on June 22, 1984. Since the book came out earlier that year and given movie production and post-production time, the crane kicks scenes were probably filmed before the book was published. Most likely it was an auspicious coincidence. The creation of the crane kick is colloquially attributed to Darryl Vidal. Although, he has said that it was Kamen who initially described the move. Vidal was the stunt double for Miyagi in the beach crane kick scene and played the last semi-finalist to face Johnny before Daniel. He was an up-and-coming martial artist when the movie was shot and still teaches karate at his school in California.

Den of Geek:

Despite these authentic underpinnings, the hard truth is that the martial arts have never been that good. While the fight scenes were dramatic, the technical skills displayed have been mediocre for such an iconic martial arts franchise. This all changed with the Cobra Kai Season 2 finale. The final fight included an outstanding long take. The hallmark of good fight scenes that was technically sophisticated, complex in its composition in cinematography. It was the crowning achievement for the entire franchise. The stunt coordinators for Cobra Kai are Jahnel Curfman and Hiro Koda. And both are signed on for Season 3.

For many martial artists, The Karate Kid was life changing. These devotees are eager to see if Curfman and Koda can sustain that high level of fight choreography for Cobra Kai Season 3..And if the writers can maintain the martial arts backstories, that will be even better as Mr. Miyagi would say [shouts a phrase].




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