OF BONSAI AND BALANCE: THE HERO’S JOURNEY IN THE KARATE KID

Karate Kid

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2012 issue of Paracinema Magazine.

“First learn stand, then learn fly.”

If there’s one overused approach to the academic examination of film it’s the application of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. First presented by Campbell in his seminal 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” the idea of the monomyth (also known as The Hero’s Journey) explores our shared history and examines a common thread that appears in the nature of our different cultures. It presents a pattern in myths, legends, fairy tales, etc. in which the hero goes through specific stages to transform into an archetype. Campbell’s book looks at why/how this pattern naturally emerged out of different stories from all over the globe and traces it throughout history. Of course, the monomyth pattern existed long before Campbell laid it all out in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” in works like “Beowulf” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” and that seemingly omnipresence of it is what makes the monomyth so damn interesting and important.

Since Campbell’s theory has made its way into the cultural consciousness, people have been applying the monomyth to nearly every film imaginable – most notoriously the Star Wars films, The Matrix, and the Disney animated films. It’s interesting to look at all of these films that are on the surface very different and pick apart their universal themes, but oftentimes these examinations simply lump them together into a generic category as “films that follow the Hero’s Journey.” Instead of celebrating the uniqueness of films, it turns them into cookie-cutter clones of the same story. When screenwriters deliberately use the monomyth to structure their stories the result is oftentimes dull and heavily lacking in the character development department.

One film that has been criminally overlooked in discussions of the monomyth is John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984). The film features plenty of monomyth reference points (passing into a strange world, meeting a supernatural aid, the trials, etc.), but these are no more than the loose structure of the work and don’t drive Daniel LaRrusso’s journey. His actual transformation is driven by the dynamic themes of the films such as economic discrimination, single motherhood, and, most importantly, alienation. There’s a lot more going on in The Karate Kid other than its ability to fit into the classifications of the monomyth. That’s one of the reasons the film has remained so compelling and continues to resonate with audiences almost 30 years later.

There’s no denying that the monomyth structure exists in The Karate Kid, but it also broadens the reference points in many ways: humanizing the supernatural aid; presenting a female lead disinterested in playing either the temptress or goddess; putting Daniel through a series of trials that are more about humility and self-control than beating the piss out of Johnny. Whether he did it consciously or not, writer Robert Mark Kamen’s (Taken, The Fifth Element) approach to the monomyth is one that daftly toys with the pattern and makes the character’s actions more than just tools to move onto the next stage of the journey.

Campbell’s book presents 17 stages of the monomyth in a very deliberate order – beginning with the “Call to Adventure” and ending with the “Freedom to Live.” Because of the film’s rather abrupt ending, Daniel’s journey ends on the “Ultimate Boon” stage of the “Initiation” phase. The film was originally supposed to end after Miyagi’s confrontation with Kreese in the parking lot (the scene that opens The Karate Kid 2), but it was decided to hold it off for the sequel. There is no return home for Daniel; essential to the hero’s process in Campbell’s theory. However, the stages of the monomyth that are present in The Karate Kid contain a wealth of depth and humanization. Beginning with Daniel’s entrance into an unfamiliar supernatural world: Los Angeles.

Campbell explains that a hero must leave his familiar world of comfort and cross over to a dangerous, unknown realm. The Karate Kid opens with Daniel and his mother Lucille Larusso (Randee Heller) traveling from Newark, NJ to their new home in Reseda, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of LA. As they pull away from their home in Newark, their car is flanked by kids waving goodbye to Daniel. He moans as she sings “California, here we come.” Not because he doesn’t like her voice, but because he doesn’t like the song. When they pull up to their new home at a ramshackle apartment complex (a “Garden of Eden” Lucille calls it), it becomes even more obvious our petulant protagonist is not thrilled about their uprooting for LA.

As Daniel enters the apartment complex, he meets a herald of sorts: Freddy Fernandez (Israel Juarbe). Wearing a wonderfully offensive shirt that reads “Makin’ Bacon” and portrays two pigs having sex (how’d that get past censors?), Freddy invites Daniel to a beach party that night. It’s at this beach party that several elements of the monomyth converge in a lightning-round of Daniel’s journey. But before the party, Daniel has his first encounter with the man who will become his supernatural aid: Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).

The Larusso’s apartment came complete with a broken faucet, so Daniel goes in search of the building’s handyman. After receiving some confusing directions from a bad omen in the form of an elderly woman (Frances Bay – who warns Daniel “You should go back to New Jersey”), a terrifically long tracking shot follows Daniel to the door of Miyagi’s workroom. Our introduction to Miyago sets him up as a mystical stoic engaged in an exercise that is surely beyond a normal human’s understanding (catching a fly with chopsticks). Daniel apprehensively remains in the doorway – shook by the presence of the man who will become his mentor, healer, and father figure. His trips to the beach with Miyagi later in the film are a lot different than the party Daniel attends in the next pivotal scene.

The beach party starts off harmless with a round of soccer and a weenie roast, but as day turns to night things turn dark in more ways than one as an eerie fog rolls in and several important elements of the monomyth emerge and overwhelm Daniel. The first is Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), who acts as both Daniel’s “Goddess” and “Temptress.” It’s love at first sight for Daniel and it’s this love that drives Daniel to accept the “Call to Action” – the second monomyth element present in this scene. The third element comes roaring in sporting a red leather jacket and riding a dirtbike: Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Johnny will become Daniel’s dragon to slay, but first he has to get his ass kicked a few times – the first step on Daniel’s “Road of Trials.” Campbell suggests that the hero must encounter his nemesis three times and get defeated twice before slaying him (like Jesus’ three encounters with the Devil). Daniel certainly gets defeated during his first rumble with Johnny.

His failed attempt to defend to Ali leaves Daniel with a black eye and the loss of respect from Freddy and the other kids (“I thought you said this guy was cool?”), but Ali sees Daniel’s bravery. What makes Ali so incredibly strong as a character is her melding of the “Goddess” and “Temptress” figures, but also her disinterest in being either. Campbell explains that the “Goddess” figure is the hero’s ultimate boon and represents all-powerful, unconditional love. Later in the film Ali also acts as the “Temptress” – the figure who tries to seduce the hero into abandoning his journey. While in the Campbell model the “Temptress” is a metaphorical woman attempting to veer the hero from his path for possibly nefarious purposes, Ali only has Daniel’s well-being in mind. She tries to convince Daniel not to fight because he doesn’t have to in order to posses her boon of love. She’s also a realist who knows Daniel will just keep getting his ass whooped.

Ali does some fighting of her own: socking Johnny in the mouth when he steps out of line at the country club social and later deflecting Daniel’s pleas for forgiveness at Golf N Stuff. In a lot films, the “Goddess” and “Temptress” characters are written as shallow tools to move the hero further along on his journey – inserted in the film simply because tradition requires them as part of the monomyth. But Ali is a fully-formed character with her own battles and unique traits. She doesn’t have to be Daniel’s “Goddess” or “Temptress” but she has the natural capacity to be both – making her an actual human being rather than a stock character in the myth of Daniel.

The second confrontation with Johnny and the Cobra Kai takes places in what Campbell calls “The Belly of the Whale.” This is the stage of the monomyth in which the hero is totally consumed by the unknown and appears to have died. The hero must be brought to the brink of death to be reborn and begin his metamorphosis into a hero. For Daniel, his metaphorical whale is the dark, foggy field behind his apartment complex where the Cobra Kai, symbolically dressed as skeletons, beat Daniel into unconsciousness after chasing him from the Halloween dance at school. He’s saved by Miyagi, who takes out all five of the Cobra Kai with ease. As Daniel’s vision fades, he sees a spectral image of Miyagi looking like a god (the old vaseline on the lens trick).

Daniel is revived by Miyagi inside his home (or, temple) and it is in this scene that their relationship becomes one of hero and “Supernatural Aid.” In Campbell’s theory, the aid is traditionally an old man or woman who helps the hero by providing him with training, knowledge, and protective talismans. The most famous example of this character in cinema is Yoda. Since his introduction in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s became also required that a hero movie has its “Yoda.” The figure has become like a blatant stock character that unsuccessfully apes Yoda’s humor and wisdom. Miyagi, on the other hand, is strongly humanized and a fascinating character. We see him at his strongest (tearing through the Cobra Kai) and at his weakest during the devastating, heart-wrenching anniversary scene where Daniel learns about the death of Miyagi’s wife and son in an internment camp.

This powerful revelation doesn’t occur until after Miyagi has been training Daniel for some time. To Daniel and to someone watching the film for the first time, Miyagi’s instruction seems like nothing but a tedious series of chores. Daniel is forced to clean and wax all of the antique cars in Miyagi’s lot, then sand his long and winding back porch, then finish both sides of his enormous fence, and finally, paint his house. All of these chores require Daniel to perform a specific hand movement, such as clockwise/counter-clockwise circles and the famous wax on, wax off motion. Unable to take the chores anymore, a furious Daniel confronts Miyagi demanding to know what the connection is between chores and karate. This, one of the film’s most goosebump-inducing scenes, is the “Apotheosis” moment in Daniel’s journey.

The “Apotheosis” stage of the monomyth is when the hero experiences an epiphany of wisdom and the destruction of his ego. Commonly in mythological stories this stage occurs after the hero has been consumed by the metaphorical whale. He reemerges with a deep understanding of the universe and his place in it. For Daniel, it’s his realization that he wasn’t just waxing cars and sanding a porch – he was learning muscle memory for defense. More than that, Miyagi was developing Daniel’s personality; teaching him humility and self-control. In Campbell’s model, the “Apotheosis” follows possibly the most important stage: “Atonement With the Father.”

During this stage of the journey, Campbell explains that the hero must abandon his ego and confront a great power that possesses the ultimate boon. This being doesn’t necessarily have to be the hero’s father and in the case of The Karate Kid, it’s Miyagi. Following the embarrassing disaster at the country club social, Daniel enters Miyagi’s home to find him blisteringly drunk and wearing an old military uniform. Daniel’s immediately wary – he’s never seen the stoic old joker this way before. Before passing out in his bed, Miyagi explains to Daniel that it’s his wedding anniversary. The celebration quickly turns to sadness as Daniel learns that Mrs. Miyagi died due to complications during childbirth in a Manzanar internment camp while Miyagi was overseas fighting in WWII. Their child did not survive. Miyagi was given the Medal of Valor for his service.

After tucking Miyagi in, Daniel blows out the candle and bows to him – the ultimate sign of respect. He fully understands Miyagi now and atones with him as his new father figure. Daniel’s real father is dead (no reason is ever given in the film), and with Miyagi as his surrogate father he can attain everything he needs to slay the dragon and claim his reward. It’s an incredibly moving scene and one that Paramount wanted Avildsen to cut out of the film for pacing reasons. To do so would have erased an extremely important scene in the film that establishes Miyagi as Daniel’s surrogate father and presents him as one of the most complex and human “Supernatural Aids” in cinema history.

While all of this is going on, Daniel is progressing through his “Road of Trials.” According to Campbell, the trials are a series of tasks and ordeals in which the protagonist begins his transformation into a hero by using the talismans and knowledge given to him by the ‘Supernatural Aid.” Besides the two ass kickings given to him by Johnny and the Cobra Kai, I’d include Daniel’s date with Ali at Golf N Stuff as part of his trials. Accompanied by his overly-enthusiastic mother, Daniel has to retrieve his goddess from a deeper level of the underworld: the Hills! Ali’s parents, who look like they’ve just returned from a tennis match with Robin Leach, are clearly uncomfortable with this scrappy kid from Reseda dating their daughter; driving her away in a beat-up station wagon that has to be roll-started. Even at Golf N Stuff, Daniel encounters several wealthy friends of Ali who drive by in expensive cars. More than ever before, Daniel is traveling through an underworld of strange and nightmarish figures (rich folk).

Following his “Apotheosis”, Miyagi continues to train Daniel, stressing more the philosophy of karate than anything else. He’s teaching Daniel about finding balance in both martial arts and life. The mystical talismans he provides Daniel with include his supernatural healing power, the bonsai tree karate gi, and the now iconic tenugui (headband). The most important tool given to Daniel though, is the Crane Technique. Miyagi never actually teaches it directly to Daniel, but he plants the seed in Daniel’s mind, explaining “If done right no can defense.” The Crane Kick is an absurd move that any white belt could see coming a mile away, but that’s what makes it so fantastic and mystical. This is the essential tool that allows Daniel to slay the dragon Johnny in their third and final encounter at the All Valley Karate Tournament.

Under their militant sensei Kreese’s (Martin Kove) command, the Cobra Kai systematically break down Daniel physically and mentally at the tournament. Daniel’s knee is injured one fight before his final battle with Johnny, and it’s Miyagi’s supernatural healing power that puts him back in the fight. In one last effort to defeat Daniel, Kreese orders Johnny to “sweep the leg.” This cripples Daniel, forcing him into the Crane Technique. One well-timed Crane Kick does the trick, and Daniel has finally slain the dragon, won the goddess, and receives the “Ultimate Boon.” Campbell explains that the “Ultimate Boon” is the goal of the quest; what the hero set out to acquire. In this case, Daniel doesn’t just receive a trophy, but also the respect and admiration of everyone who’s kicked his ass over the past few weeks. It’s Johnny who hands off the trophy to Daniel, exclaiming “You’re all right, Larusso! Good match!” The audience swarms around him. He’s lifted up high as everyone cheers for his victory. His “Road of Trials” is now over and he has become a superior being.

The Karate Kid ends abruptly during the tournament revelry with an awkward freeze-frame on Miyagi’s grinning face. The final stages of the monomyth are absent because of this. In the sequels, The Karate Kid, Part II (1986) and The Karate Kid, Part III (1989), Daniel basically rewinds his journey and forgets everything he knows. They’re sequels, what can you do?But as a stand-alone film, The Karate Kid remains a truly unique and soulful interpretation of Campbell’s monomyth. Director John G. Avildsen and writer Robert Mark Kamen fleshed out a journey for Daniel that’s filled with complex characters, pain, and triumph; a heartfelt story that rises above monomyth pigeonholing. It’s the myth of a scrappy kid from Newark named Daniel Larusso that continues to inspire and move audiences to this day.

Patrick Cooper

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