The Karate Kid trilogy could tell us a lot about Cobra Kai's third season
Cobra Kai and The Karate Kid spoilers follow.
On January 8, the hotly anticipated third season of Cobra Kai, the streaming series continuation of The Karate Kid franchise, lands on Netflix.
The hit show follows the grown up Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), and his high-school bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), as they both set out to teach karate to a new generation of kids with their rival karate dojos, all the while letting their petty 30+ year rivalry get in the way of their better judgement.
The show mixes new stories with a sense of reverence for the legacy of the franchise that began back in 1984 with John G Avildsen's The Karate Kid. That tale of the young bullied LaRusso finding a mentor in his building's handyman, the Okinawa-born karate expert Mr Miyagi (played by the late Noriyuki "Pat" Morita), continues to resonate with audiences, as the success of the show demonstrates.
That first movie kicked off a franchise that had a fair few stops on its way to the Cobra Kai series. Macchio and Morita returned for two direct sequels, followed by a Macchio-less part four, The Next Karate Kid, starring Hilary Swank in an early role, while a remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan came out in 2010.
When it comes to Cobra Kai, it is only the original trilogy featuring Macchio and Morita that has been referenced and revered, with flashbacks and clips from across the trilogy being utilised to recall key moments from the franchise's past that inform the current lives of Daniel, Johnny and their new students.
With season three getting ready to strike, now is a great time to 'Gi-up' and look back at the original trilogy to see which characters and threads could well come to play a part in the future of Cobra Kai, and how they can help the show continue to grow and improve. Cue Bananarama.
The Karate Kid
Many characters from the first movie have returned in some capacity across the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, particularly those close to Daniel and Johnny, from Daniel's Mother, to Johnny's old high school buddies who made up the rest of the Cobra Kai team back in the '80s.
The most significant character from the first who is yet to return is Ali, the ex-girlfriend of both Daniel and Johnny, as played by Elisabeth Shue. Shue, of course, went on to have a huge career, gaming an Oscar nomination for her role in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas. She's been keeping busy, with recent appearances in the likes of The Boys and the Tom Hanks-starring Greyhound.
The show and its creators (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) have been teasing Shue's involvement in the show from very early on, what with the character being the catalyst for Daniel and Johnny's conflict. The final moments of season two saw a friend request from Ali appear on Johnny's phone, after he tosses it into the sand in drunken anger, not realising that his high-school sweetheart may just be trying to reconnect.
While no confirmation has been made about Shue's return to the character and the franchise, the way the cast and crew have batted the question around in a playfully coy fashion in the past does very well suggest that Shue will be making an appearance sooner rather than later, a hope many fans will be dearly holding on to.
The Karate Kid Part II
Our first glimpse at the third season confirmed that Daniel will be returning to Okinawa, the birthplace of Mr Miyagi and the setting of 1986's The Karate Kid Part II. That makes the second film in the franchise the most significant when it comes to speculating where at least one half of the narrative will go in the next season of Cobra Kai.
The second film sees Daniel accompany Mr Miyagi on a trip to Okinawa when Miyagi receives news that his father is dying. There, Daniel learns that Miyagi's past is more chaotic than his calm and controlled demeanour suggests, as they encounter Miyagi's old friend Sato (Danny Kamekona), who holds a long-harboured grudge against Miyagi. While Sato and Miyagi mend their differences, Daniel still has to face off against Sato's best karate student, Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) in a final act bout set in a castle.
That aforementioned first footage from season three fed fuel to the rumour that Okumoto will be returning as Chozen, as we hear a character off screen question whether Daniel truly knew the late Miyagi as well as he believes he did. The most recent trailer that dropped this week not only confirmed Okumoto's return but also revealed that Tamlyn Tomita, who played Daniel's love-interest Kumiko in the sequel, will also be returning to the fold for the latest season.
Not only does the Okinawan setting allow the series the chance to reintroduce characters from the franchises' past, but it also gives the show and its creators the means to address one of their biggest criticisms: that of a lack of representation for Asian and Asian American characters in a property that is about martial arts. The likes of IndieWire critic Hanh Nguyen have highlighted that "having Daniel wax poetic about bonsai cultivation or slicing sashimi smacks of white-splaining."
The franchise as a whole has had a contentious history when it comes to on-screen representation of its Asian characters. While Morita's performance as Miyagi was considered a landmark of Asian and Asian-American representation, its legacy isn't so harmless, particularly when considering the fact that the California-born Morita put on a Japanese accent for the role.
Blogger Jon Moy, whose father was Chinese-American, shared his experience of the effect Morita's performance had on his family with Vanity Fair: "He's the reason people felt comfortable adopting racist accents in order to mock us."
There's a complicated history here, but the show would benefit from addressing it rather than hiding from it (as it seems to have done with its lack of representation for Asian characters in its first two seasons).
Cobra Kai is already a show that has done very well at unpacking outdated stereotypes when it comes to notions of toxic masculinity. Bringing in more Asian representation through pre-existing franchise characters and new ones alike should allow the show the means to address its biggest criticisms, particularly if it involves a story where Daniel is made to re-examine what he thinks he knows about Miyagi and his heritage, as the released footage would seem to suggest.
The Karate Kid Part III
One of the strongest aspects of Cobra Kai is how it has taken the '80s high-school bully figure in Johnny and turned him into a more layered character, demonstrating that there's always two sides to every story. Season two went even further by bringing back the more overtly villainous figure of the trilogy, Martin Kove's John Kreese, one of the founders of Cobra Kai and Johnny's childhood sensei. Kreese has also been afforded a similar level of sympathy, even if he is still someone who cannot be trusted.
Will that same level of sympathy be extended once again by reintroducing the villain of 1989's The Karate Kid Part III, Terry Silver, the co-founder of Cobra Kai and Kreese's best pal, played by actor and martial artist Thomas Ian Griffith? He is easily the most cartoonish character featured in the original trilogy. He is a scheming, cackling, cigar-chomping, toxic-waste-disposing Bond villain, with an alarming desire to beat up an 18 year-old kid.
An attempt to reframe this very '80s bad guy in a similar fashion to Johnny and Kreese could well be a fun challenge for the show and its creators, as Terry Silver is going to be much harder to take seriously based on his past behaviour.
But it would very much be in keeping with the approach the show has had so far, and with Kreese having now wrestled control of Cobra Kai out of Johnny's hands, the stage is very much set for Kreese to call upon his old friend and co-founder to further strengthen his hold on the dojo.
The original Karate Kid trilogy has plenty of characters within its mix who could very easily come back into play in the Cobra Kai series. But beyond simply reintroducing fan-favourite characters, there is also the chance for the show to grapple with some of the more uncomfortable aspects of both the franchise's past and its own shortcomings when it comes to on-screen representation.
With the potential in place to deliver nuanced portrayals of its Okinawan characters in a similar fashion to the more rounded portrayal of Johnny and Kreese, Cobra Kai has the opportunity to both adhere to fan service and acknowledge its culpability when it comes to representation on screen.
All shall be revealed in January. See you at the dojo!
Cobra Kai season 3 will stream on Netflix from January 8, 2021.
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