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How Good Is the Actual Karate in ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Cobra Kai’? We Asked a Master

Sorry, but Daniel-san’s fighting stance is utter shit

Now that it’s on Netflix, Cobra Kai is reaching its biggest audience ever. Not only is the ham-handed 1980s-style melodrama pulling in fans of the classic Karate Kid films, it’s also attracting countless newcomers to the franchise. And while I’m sure most people are pleased with the flips, kicks and chops in the show’s elaborate fight sequences, I can’t help but wonder what real Karate guys are thinking. Like, is everyone just waving their arms around on screen and we just don’t know any better, or are the actors really doing karate?

To find out, I got a genuine karate master to weigh in on the matter. Sensei James Giuliano was a 2014 champion in the Italian & U.S. Karate Open and is the author of Passion for Karate: Step-By-Step Guide to Starting Your Karate Dojo. He’s also the founder of the organization Meka Karate and a karate instructor both in his native Australia and online on his YouTube channel. And now, in addition to all his other karate-related accomplishments, he’s examined all the biggest fight scenes in Cobra Kai and the Karate Kid films to offer an expert analysis on the matter. 

The Karate Kid (1984)

For the 1984 original, Sensei James says that the film is part of what inspired his path in life, and that the messaging of the movie is right on point with the principles of karate. Still, that doesn’t mean the fight scenes are all that great.

The Teachings of Mr. Miyagi

Sensei James: I grew up watching The Karate Kid and Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, that’s what made me love karate. For me, karate isn’t just about technique: The majority of it isn’t about the punch or the block, it’s about the lessons that you learn and the person that you become. And, as corny as it sounds, Mr. Miyagi teaches all those things. 

When I watched The Karate Kid recently and saw how Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel, I said to myself, “Shit! That’s what I do with my students!” Not with specifically painting a fence and all of that, but if you get too technical with your students, they find it hard to learn a technique. Instead, you try to make them not think about the technique and just learn the movements. Later on you tell them, “This is what you’ve been working on.”

For “wax on, wax off,” although it’s a movie, “wax on, wax off” does exist, though it’s not called “wax on, wax off.” Now, there are so many different karate styles and masters, so you’ll get a thousand different opinions across the world on things, but in my style of karate, there’s something called “kakete uke” where, if a punch comes in, then you block with one hand and grab with the other. So, technically, yeah, “wax on, wax off” is karate.

Daniel vs. Johnny

Sensei James: When I look at all the Karate Kid films, the stuff in the training is quite good, but when you look at the fighting elements, I know that it’s a movie, so they need to create something fun, not necessarily realistic. A lot of karate people would look at that and say, “That’s shit,” but the reason why they’re not using karate people in the movie is because they can’t act. But, anyway, when it comes to the fights, you can see the limitations. 

The first thing I notice is that Daniel’s stance seems like some kind of strange dancing on the spot. He’s in a very awkward position and when you do karate, the whole idea is to be balanced and to be able to move around, so the way he’s standing and moving is quite incorrect. Some of the kicks are good, but I just can’t handle Daniel’s stance — it really upsets me. Johnny’s karate is a little bit better. He’s actually doing some real karate moves, whereas Daniel is just awkward.

The Crane Kick

Sensei James: The crane kick is 100 percent Hollywood. It’s definitely not a real thing. Also, if you think about it, his leg is sore, so he’s going to kick with the other leg, but he’s going to land on his bad leg anyway. That’s not possible!

Even though it’s not real, I think it’s great because that kick made so many kids love karate. It’s been thirty-something years since this movie came out and I talk to my kids at the school and they know what the crane kick is. They know the one thing that wasn’t karate in The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid Part II (1986)

In the first sequel to The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi and Daniel travel to Okinawa to visit Miyagi’s dying father, but once there, they run into some trouble thanks to an old feud between Miyagi and a man named Sato. Eventually, a new rivalry grows between Daniel and Sato’s nephew, Chozen, which leads to a final fight to the death. As for what Sensei James has to say on the matter, while the movie is still more Hollywood than it is true karate, he says there are some improvements on the first.

Breathing Techniques

Sensei James: The thing where Mr. Miyagi tells him to breathe in, breath out and then do the technique, I do that with my kids. Breathing techniques are so important in karate because so many things are going on in your head — especially during a performance — so if you focus on the breathing and on the air coming in and going out, you cannot think at the same time. It clears your mind, and Mr. Miyagi does a great job teaching it here.

The Drum Technique

Sensei James: I think the drum technique is an actual technique, but I don’t think a sensei would be prepared to kill his student to show him how to learn it. It’s a bit extreme. 

Mr. Miyagi’s Fighting Skill

Sensei James: I wouldn’t say Mr. Miyagi’s karate is great karate. He’s doing fantastic for an old bloke — he lifts his leg up quite high considering his age — but it looks like the entire fight is built around what he can do. To be fair, that’s not his job in these movies. His job is about the message. So the messaging of Mr. Miyagi is great — the karate, not so great. 

Daniel vs. Chozen

Sensei James: The karate is pretty good in this scene — there’s a good mix of movement and flips, and it’s more realistic than the end of the first movie. I think the guy who plays Chozen is really trained in karate, so he’s probably helping Daniel along the way. I can’t really tell if Daniel is any better in this movie, but it looks better because of Chozen. 

The Karate Kid Part III (1989)

In the third film, many of the elements of the previous two movies are rehashed. This go-around, a new Cobra Kai villain enters the picture, as does a new rival for Daniel in the character Mike Barnes (known as “Karate’s Badboy” in the film). While the movie itself is fairly forgettable, Sensei James feels that they got more of the technical skills in karate correct, which he really appreciates.

Kata

Sensei James: This is when they begin to implement a little bit of what we call “kata,” which means they’re going into more detail, technically speaking, into karate. I know a lot about kata because I represented Australia and got top eight in the world on two occasions specifically for kata. Simply put, it’s a discipline of movements that contain power, speed and strength, mixed with slow and swift movements that were combined from karate masters from hundreds of years ago to help us develop our technique. Rather than do single moves over and over again, they developed these moves that come together and millions of people train these katas.  

There are two sides of karate: There’s the fighting, or kumite, and then there’s the kata — or the basic application of karate — and they both work together. Kata helps to develop your technique in karate and an awareness of your body and your movements. It builds a discipline within yourself. As for the kata in The Karate Kid III in the final fight, that kata is not quite like how Daniel is doing it. His is very slow because he’s only been practicing it for four minutes, so practitioners might look at this and say, “It’s not perfect,” but the fact that they’re doing it is impressive to me.

The Next Karate Kid (1994)

In the largely forgotten 1994 followup to the original trilogy, Mr. Miyagi has a new student in Hilary Swank’s Julie. The film hardly warrants an in-depth analysis, but I wanted to ask Sensei James one pointed question: Who’s better at karate, Daniel or Julie? 

Daniel vs. Julie

Sensei James: At first, I thought anything with The Next Karate Kid was going to be very bad, but when I looked at the fighting of Julie, I was impressed — she can kick really high! Julie is very flexible, and one thing about karate is that if you have fantastic flexibility, things become a lot easier. 

As for Daniel vs. Julie, well, I don’t think Daniel is great. [Ralph Macchio] is a good actor, so I think he learned enough to get him through. Still, I don’t know if I can say who would win, only because it’s Hollywood, and if the two of them fought in a movie, Daniel is still the star of the films, so he’d probably win. Julie’s kicks were definitely better than Daniel’s kicks though.

The Karate Kid (2010)

Despite the title, the 2010 reboot of The Karate Kid with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith doesn’t use karate at all. In it, Chan plays a kung-fu master passing on the art of kung fu, a point that upset many fans of the original. For this one, rather than comment on a fighting style he’s not as well versed in, Sensei James wanted to explain a little about what makes those styles different. 

Karate vs. Kung Fu (and Taekwondo)

Sensei James: I don’t know a whole lot about kung fu, but from what I can tell, it’s more of a flowing movement, whereas karate is more of a rigid movement. Aside from that, it’s a bit hard to explain.

Kung fu is Chinese, whereas karate is Japanese. Jackie Chan is from China, which is maybe why they made the change for the remake. When it comes to fight scenes, it’s hard to tell what fighting style someone is using because there are similarities between many of these styles. Taekwondo, for instance — which is Korean — does a lot of the same things as karate, but it’s much more kicking. In a fight though, it’s hard to tell what the style is, so it really comes down to the training, that’s when you can really tell the difference. That’s why, when it comes to the classic films and Cobra Kai, I say that what everyone is doing is karate. It’s not always very good, but it is karate that they’re doing.

Cobra Kai (2018 to present)

When it comes to the new revival series, Sensei James has been a fan of the show, so he was happy to offer his take on some of the biggest showdowns of the series thus far.

The Messaging

Sensei James: While I’m a fan, I feel that the messaging in Cobra Kai is quite different than The Karate Kid. I love that it’s based on karate and I love that it’s inspiring kids and I encourage my kids to watch it, but the messaging in Cobra Kai is the worst messaging ever. 

Without Mr. Miyagi, it’s just a very different thing. Cobra Kai is fun, but I wouldn’t encourage my students to watch it for the messages as it’s taken the aggression to a whole new level. I would say to watch it to have a bit of fun, but that’s it.

The Fights

Sensei James: The other half of Cobra Kai is the fighting, and I will say that the fighting in Cobra Kai is better than The Karate Kid. But there is a huge difference in how things are edited today. When I grew up, I loved martial arts films and there were good martial artists that were actors, like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but then there was a certain point where The Bourne Supremacy came in and movie production had worked it out where anyone could look like a ridiculous fighter. So, all of a sudden, there was no longer a need for guys like Jackie Chan

For Cobra Kai, I’m sure people have put the work in, but thanks to the editing we have today, the fights just look a lot better. For example, the fight in the bushes with that kid Hawk. The karate in that scene looked really good. Hawk seemed really skilled at what he was doing. 

There was another fight in the cafeteria, and I liked that one because I thought it looked good, but I also thought the messaging was better because Miguel wasn’t being the aggressor.

The mall was another big fight and I thought that one looked really good as well. This is actually my favorite from the series. There are great elbow techniques that we teach in there, as well as other stuff. It was also full of defense mechanisms too, which I really liked. I especially liked that it cut in between them doing the kata by the water. I like that scene because it shows you the point of the kata, in that, if you train these elements enough, you’ll be ready to use them if the time comes. There’s a muscle memory component to karate, and I feel like that came off well in that scene. I might even say that this is the best karate in the entire franchise. It’s really excellent.

The fight scene I probably have the biggest problem with is from the end of Season Two. I mean, I know there was this big school brawl to set up stuff for Season Three, but I just couldn’t understand the point of the scene. I know people love it and it looks really great and the karate itself does look good, but The Karate Kid had a reason for all of its fights. With this fight, it seems like they just wanted to do the biggest fight scene in the show, so let’s just have everyone knock the shit out of each other for no reason. It didn’t teach any lessons and it was just about setting up Season Three. 

I also have enjoyed Johnny’s fights in the show, like Johnny in the car park, where he kicks those guys with a jumping spin kick — that looks quite good. He also hurt himself a little because he’s not so flexible anymore, but it’s still a good kick! Johnny’s karate is quite good, especially if you go back and compare that to Daniel in The Karate Kid.

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