Many think of Johnny and Bobby as the villains of Karate Kid, but they were victims of parental neglect. Where was the supervision while the children of this town were sent to that over-the-top fascist, Reese, to become trained bullies? Johnny was wallowing in the throngs of unrequited love, and he still managed to hoist the trophy to Daniel after losing the final match. Who told Johnny, “He’s had enough, man!”? Bobby. (Johnny still tried to kick him again, but remember Daniel had soaked him with that hose in the bathroom. Jesus wouldn’t have done that.)
The evil character in Karate Kid was Freddy. Freddy is the sniveling sycophant who befriended Daniel when Daniel kicked the door open at his new apartment and accidentally hit him in the face. Freddy asked him how he did that, and Daniel told him he knew karate. Okay, he’d only had a few lessons at the Y back in Newark, but he wasn’t lying. He’d taken karate and he kicked open the door. Both true! Then he tries to smooth over a heated argument between Ali and Johnny and gets beaten up by the reigning, three-time karate champion of the town, and Freddy just watched and then decided he was done with him. Freddy should be the most reviled character in all of film. He gets off scot free because he’s not in the movie that much, but seriously, what a dick! And then someone decided to include him in the celebration scene at the end. No way, Freddy. Way too little and way too late. Was that supposed to add something? Daniel didn’t need Freddy’s belated approval to realize he was a good guy, after all. No one cares what you think, Freddy, you jerk.
Mr. Miyagi, of course, is the real star of this movie. There’s no mention of Daniel’s father, but Miyagi doesn’t become a father figure; he becomes a mentor. A subtle difference but I think that aspect of their relationship gives the movie its magic. The movie begins when Daniel comes into Miyagi’s custodial room and spends hours working on a “baby tree” as he calls it before Miyagi corrects him, “Bonzai tree.” But Daniel has earned Miyagi’s admiration with his patience. Daniel is nearly an adult with adult problems and Miyagi treats him like one. Like after Miyagi saves Daniel from that last kick after the Halloween party (who realized Daniel lived that close to the school, by the way?), and Daniel has recovered and Miyagi tries to say he doesn’t want to be involved. “But you’re already involved!” Daniel’s right and Miyagi recognizes that. Daniel and Miyagi are peers, one is just more experienced and sage than the other.
I was fortunate to have a relationship like that with my father. I moved back in with my dad a few years ago to work on some writing and, I suppose, figure some things out. We were both working. He had projects around the house that he would work on and think about. I was writing in the mornings and editing and submitting in the afternoons. We would meet in the garage and talk. My dad was an artist when it came to building. He got frustrated when he couldn’t find a storage shed the size he wanted, so he scaled down the measurements of the ones in stores and built his own. I’ll post pictures, one day, of the gazebo he built in the backyard with a design only in his mind and on pieces of scratch paper. That summer, he was piecing together stone to wall the back porch and fretting over how they would fit together. I think his favorite part was the fretting.
Before I mailed out a story, I would give it to my dad to read. He would read it and I would go and find him in the garage, and he would usually nod like he liked it and disappear and work for a couple hours. Then he would find me. He didn’t really have the writing experience to give a complete critique, but he would often give a thought that gave me the perspective to make a critical adjustment to a story. Far more impactful, I look back and realize now he had spent those hours deeply contemplating what I’d written.
Mr. Miyagi loved Daniel like that. A father loves a son like that, but a mentor’s love for a protege is rare, because the mentor, viewing his protege as an equal, craves for his protege better than he had for himself and that is selfless. That is why Karate Kid doesn’t end with a crowd shot of Daniel hoisting his trophy held by the crowd (including, for some reason, Freddy!), it ends with a freeze shot on Mr. Miyagi beaming with pride.