Hello Interwebs! With Cobra Kai season 3 out (and kicking ass, by the way), I decided to revisit the oft derided Karate Kid Part II and encourage more people to watch or revisit the film. Karate is about defense after all so, in that spirit, I assume my best defensive stance and aim to deflect any attacks this film has received over the years.
Warning: Major Spoilers For The Karate Kid Part II Ahead in the “Higher Stakes” section
Sequels are notoriously hard to get right. How is a film supposed to replicate the magic of an original story (assuming the first film was original/ good), yet add enough new elements to justify its existence? Short answer: most can’t. And even halfway decent sequels rarely match audience expectations! No matter their quality, the majority of franchise films end up in the shadow of their more popular forebears. Hence, most franchise-based movies are either largely forgotten or dismissed as inferior. This is the camp in which most people place The Karate Kid Part II: it’s seen as a substandard and arguably unnecessary follow-up which continued a story already firmly concluded. Though TKK 2 is admittedly not as good as TKK, I firmly believe it deserves more respect than it gets.
I think it’s common for movie sequels to give us basically the same thing we got in the original, but more— bigger set-pieces, expansive world-building, and higher stakes. TKK 2 gives its audience all these things, but boldly switches the formula of the first film to offer a distinctly different tale with similar elements. Here’s how TKK 2 makes itself worth-while:
TKK 2 is a bold film. Many sequels would have gone the safe route and simply kept The Valley as our main setting. But less than a few scenes in, Daniel and Miyagi leave The Valley, the continent, and even the western hemisphere to visit Okinawa. This seismic shift in the status-quo immediately does 2 things: gives the world a fresh start, free from audience expectations, and allows the film to wrestle away from TKK’s tone.
As to the first point: travelling to a new country means our setting will be a blank-slate to the audience. We’re not going back to the high school, or the country club, or the arcade, or anywhere the least bit familiar. In addition, we won’t be seeing most of our old supporting cast. After scene 1 there’s no Ali, Johnny, or Kreese. The Karate Kid Part 2 is, for all intents and purposes, rebooting itself to build thematically on what came before, rather than The Valley and its unique characters.
Regarding the second point: TKK 2 features a distinctive tone to the first. This is no longer a story set in urban America, but rather rural Japan. As such, the world’s fundamentally different culture and pace of life give TKK 2 a new energy. The pace is slower, more methodical, and contemplative. There’s also this vague mystical atmosphere surrounding Tomi Village, as if it’s some special place which time itself left behind. Traditional Okinawan ways are heavily contrasted with modern American culture from The Karate Kid.
Not only is the world different, but it’s expansive and well-developed as well. From coastal cliffs with ancient castles, to city bars and American-inspired dance halls, with agricultural sectors and old fishing-industry locations as well, Okinawa is largely explored. Okinawan culture is prominent as well. We see a Japanese tea ceremony, witness Japan’s cultural divide between traditional and modern, and experience how strongly the citizens care about family, honor, and history. We also get a healthy dose of Karate’s spiritual nature and what it really means to wield the ancient teachings with honor.
SIDE NOTE: I think it’s awesome that this film which came out in 1986, before calls for diversity in entertainment were mainstream, featured a majority Japanese/ Japanese-American cast, set itself in Japan, and revolved around Japanese culture.
“Big” set-pieces are few and far between for this film. There’s only a couple scenes with any real action. I don’t think that’s the point though. The Karate Kid Part II doesn’t need a series of action scenes to prove it’s a “bigger” movie than its predecessor. It’s bigger without them (both creatively and geographically). Everyone expects more action in sequels. TKK 2 gave us more restraint by design. Its protagonists morally abstain from fights, so heavy action wouldn’t make sense.
Alternatively, the film offers us one big exotic set-piece (all of Okinawa) which orchestrates its various locations into a cohesive world. TKK 2 is better off without a lot of action because, when the 2 big set-pieces at the end come into play, they feel more eventful and cathartic from both a narrative and audience standpoint. All that idealism and restraint finally matters in the end (well, it always mattered, but it feels more earned).
Many might think the film boring because of its relatively slow pace and meditative qualities. I believe these qualities to be a strength. Can you imagine how disappointing it would be if TKK 2 just copied the original movie beat for beat? The film’s massive world and the thoughtful tone created from that setting constitute a perfect environment for our protagonists to reflect on the nature of Karate and how they ought to use their skills. The audience hopefully grows to care about this place and its inhabitants and its culture in the process. For once, a sequel’s aims to create a bigger setting actually serve the story rather than arbitrary expectations of grandeur.
Every decent sequel ought to expand the boundaries of its initial world, whether through lore, themes, character development, or anything else I’m forgetting. The Karate Kid Part II does all such things to a fantastic degree!
Let’s focus on the film’s characters, as they drive the story. In yet another creative choice, Mr. Miyagi effectively acts as the protagonist for this movie. Daniel still seems like the hero, but this is clearly Miyagi’s story. The plot starts in earnest when Miyagi is warned that his father is dying. So he and Daniel travel to Okinawa. During this trip, Miyagi is challenged to a death-match by his former best-friend for decades-old transgressions. Miyagi would have had to kill his friend many years ago, but chose instead to leave Okinawa and never return… until the events of this film. The former friend (Sato) gives Miyagi time to leave again, but insists on the duel after 3 days pass.
Mr. Miyagi’s backstory is heavily deepened throughout this film. We learn of his tragic teen years, old loves and relationships, meet his elderly father, and discover the philosophies with which he was raised. More than with exposition, Miyagi most effectively displays his feelings regarding the film’s events and his own backstory through action.
Miyagi must deal with a variety of complicated emotions during TKK 2, stemming from love, guilt, frustration, nostalgia, pride, and ethical dilemmas. He really gets the brunt of the dramatic weight thrown on his shoulders this time around. If you’re going to watch TKK 2 for any reason, watch it to appreciate Pat Morita’s incredible performance!
Of course this film also gives a great arc to Daniel-San. His outlook on the world is largely expanded. At the beginning of the story he’d only truly been around the United States. Okinawa provides Daniel to see an entirely new country and way of life. And, unlike most Americans in movies, Daniel is largely affected by the culture around him. Japanese life resonates with his spirit and he learns to appreciate its intricacies
Daniel falls in love again in this movie, but his relationship with Kumiko is far different than he had with Ali. I’d argue his chemistry with Kumiko is even better. Don’t get me wrong: I’m an Ali fan, but Daniel and Kumiko were more well-suited for where Daniel’s emotional maturity was at the time.
Daniel grows up a lot in TKK 2. While Miyagi spent the majority of TKK helping Daniel, Daniel managed to return the favor more in TKK 2. He offers wise counsel and emotional support to Miyagi in a few pivotal moments. Beyond this, Daniel-San is less hot-headed than he used to be. He actually abstains from fights throughout the movie. In TKK, he would have openly fought Chozen (Sato’s aggressive nephew) a bunch of times for the way he was treated, but he’s since learned to be the bigger person.
Though their involvement is minuscule by comparison, TKK 2 manages to deepen TKK’s villains with only one scene. Johnny Lawrence is the antagonist of the entire first film (depending on who you ask, I guess), but TKK 2 makes us understand that he is a victim as well. I don’t want to spoil it here, in case you haven’t seen, but you might actually feel pity for the guy. The events of this film would largely go on to affect Johnny’s future, as demonstrated in Cobra Kai.
SIDE NOTE: I urge you to watch Cobra Kai whether you’ve seen any Karate Kid movie or not. It’s a great show in its own right, and also deepens the entire franchise. This article is about how good TKK 2 is, but Cobra Kai is truly the best Karate Kid sequel. I only choose not to write about it because I don’t feel I can add anything meaningful to the discussion.
John Kreese also features some development, though not as much. If you thought he was terrible before, he demonstrates just how psychotic he is in TKK 2. We learn more about his priorities and get a stronger sense of how his teaching style affects people.
The Karate Kid Part II also offers an origin for Miyagi-do Karate and effectively shows what its teachings are really about. Karate teachings are the thematic cornerstones of this film. I’ll focus on these more in the next section.
The Karate Kid told the story of an unlikely alliance between a troubled high-schooler and his maintenance man facing off against local bullies and helping each other grow in the process. TKK 2 is similar in that regard. Once more, Miyagi and Daniel are tasked with defeating the local “bullies” (only this time in an Okinawan village). Sounds basically the same as the first, right? The stakes are actually far higher in TKK 2 than the original.
This time, Miyagi and Daniel find themselves in multiple life or death situations, and they ultimately battle to save an entire village from destruction. I always liked the solemn reality-check Miyagi gives Daniel before the climactic battle with Chozen: “This not tournament. This for real!” TKK 2’s stakes push our heroes further than the first film and stress-tests their self-defense/ merciful ideals to a breaking point.
TKK 2 uses higher stakes to further explore karate itself and how the tenets of martial arts are about more than competent fighting skills. Karate is a way of life. Some, like Daniel and Miyagi, live that life admirably while others, like Chozen and Sato pervert it and miss the point. Cobra Kai basically served the same villainous purposes in TKK 1, but they were just high school bullies with no real influence. TKK 2 explores what happens when people take those twisted Karate lessons and obtain positions of power with them.
All the main characters in this story are relatively powerful, but it’s what they do with their power that counts. Those who exercise power responsibly, like Miyagi and Daniel-San, defend the weak rather than take advantage of them. Sato and Chozen use the villagers’ poor financial states, in addition to various scams, to keep them under control. They use their power and talents to dominate others while Miyagi and Daniel help those who can’t or won’t help themselves (including each other). Miyagi illustrates his ideals best when he explains to Daniel the two rules of Miyagi-do Karate: “Rule #1: Karate for defense only. Rule #2: First learn rule number one.” To boil this theme down to basics: our villains use power to be bullies while our heroes become guardians.
Themes of mercy are also heavily explored in this film. Daniel and Miyagi both have opportunities to kill some really bad dudes but ultimately choose not to. They know full well their opponents may have killed them if the situations were reversed. However, Daniel and Miyagi take the higher ground, choosing instead to comically humiliate the villains by “honking” their noses. In this way they assert their dominance whilst maintaining a sense of moral boundaries.
Sato and Chozen do not make the moral high-ground easy to stand on though. They goad Miyagi and Daniel-San into fighting at every opportunity. Miyagi and Daniel are both sworn to use Karate for defense only, so the antagonists escalate the conflict until a fight is unavoidable. They threaten beatings, destroy Miyagi’s ancestral home, and even try to murder Kumiko! Miyagi only agrees to duel Sato after Sato threatens to bulldoze the whole village. And, even then, Miyagi doesn’t intend on actually fighting. Miyagi would rather die than kill his friend over an arbitrary concept like honor. Still, Miyagi insures the fate of the village before the battle so that its citizens will be OK, regardless of how the duel with Sato turns out (he expects to die).
Sato thinks Miyagi to be a coward for all these decisions. However, during the storm, Miyagi saves Sato’s life by karate chopping through a beam of wood. Sato has been seen trying and failing to do this exact feat throughout the film. It’s here he realizes Miyagi would have beat him in their duel and that by, avoiding combat, Miyagi was acting out of mercy and compassion rather than cowardice.
Sato’s realization leads him to change his ways by the end of the story. The heroes offer a compelling enough example of human decency that Sato realizes his morals are misguided. Aggression breeds more aggression, but mercy and pacifism are what ends violence in the big picture.
Miyagi’s ideals of balance, self-defense, and pacifism are often easy enough to choose in life if you learn self-discipline. However, there are times when the world pushes you into making tough decisions, and sometimes fighting seems easier, but you have to question whether the fight is worth the consequences and whether there may be a better option.
Even the training in this film uses high stakes! In TKK, Daniel maybe only has to worry about getting a splinter from sanding, or perhaps wrinkly skin from all that car washing; in this film he nearly gets himself impaled to learn a new technique. In essence, he has to dodge a swinging hook to teach himself how to properly block attacks.
There’s also the scene where Chozen forces Daniel to break 6 blocks of ice for a bet (or else he’ll hurt Daniel). Instead of coming to Daniel’s rescue, Mr. Miyagi bets $600 that Daniel can break through all the blocks of ice. Daniel is forced under pressure to utilize the breathing techniques he learned earlier in the film so he can focus and overcome the challenge. Besides the tournament, there was never a time in TKK 1 where Daniel had his skills tested in a meaningful manner. TKK 2 features at least these two instances where Daniel would have gotten seriously hurt, if not killed, had he failed to properly use Karate.
TKK 2 offers is an important extension of themes established in the first film. The movie is large in scope, deepens this world’s history, furthers character development, and provides tougher moral challenges, resulting in a near perfect sequel (from a theoretical stand-point, anyways). If you have never seen The Karate Kid Part II, or you wrote it off years ago, I urge you to try it again and keep an open mind. This movie contains some important life lessons which are worth while to consider.
SIDE NOTE: I have a black belt in Taekwondo. It’s not Karate, but my master taught me with similar ideals to Mr. Miyagi. One of his most memorable lessons: “If you have to fight, you’ve already lost”.
Have you ever done or considered martial arts training? What, if anything, draws you to the Karate Kid universe? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time