Sometimes I get drunk and watch old action movies for fun, and I recently decided to do that with The Karate Kid. Usually, it's a hilarious exercise because the movies don't hold up all that well (ahem, Top Gun).
Karate Kid, though, was real AF, and in many ways felt more progressive than movies I see today.
For one thing, the feminism is real. Elisabeth Shue's character, Ali, is not your typical airhead love interest (it so depresses me that I have to write this). For one thing, she's always out doing stuff with her friends. She clearly has an interior life and a social life, and isn't just waiting around for Daniel. She also isn't shy about telling him that she likes him and telling him what she wants and expects. When a guy grabs her in a way she doesn't like, she punches him. Daniel doesn't see that and assumes she was cheating on him, and one of her friends sets him straight, telling him that she shouldn't have to explain something like that to him—he ought to trust that she's a good person.
When Daniel gets a new car, he rushes to show it to Ali—and wants her to drive it. I noticed myself cringing because I was so sure she would crash it and become the butt of a joke about women not being able to drive. (And what does that say about how I've been socialized?) Instead, he helps her figure out the controls (just as he had to do a few minutes before), and they drive off happily.
Also, let's talk about Daniel's mom. Lucille LaRusso is a single mother figuring it out under difficult circumstances. What's striking here, though, is that you never see her lamenting that she's alone or doesn't have a partner. You see a woman who's excited to make her own way and discover a new career. She's frustrated and struggling in some ways, but she's also forming herself in a way that you can tell is thrilling for her. She wants to be in California, and she wants to explore her job opportunities. Daniel's unhappy about it, in a teenage way, and she expresses sympathy but is also clear that she's a person and she deserves this. She's awesome, and different from the way I often see single mothers portrayed now. (She does have one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in the movie, though, when she declares to Daniel, "I could never make this much money in computers!" That, too, is telling, though—it's an artifact of the time when computers were considered women's work and were consequently devalued. Hmmm...)
I often feel like there's this idea that society gets more progressive over time, but it's all too rare now to see a love interest character who's as much her own person as Ali is. This really gives the lie to the idea that feminism has been accomplished. I feel like U.S. society has gone backwards since this movie was made, in many ways.
What I really want to talk about, though, is the drunk Mr. Miyagi scene. I remembered it from childhood, and I remembered that his wife had died and he was wrecked over it.
It was a memorable scene, and there are a lot of clips on YouTube of him singing the Japanese Blues. What I didn't remember, however, is exactly how cruel and damning his story is. If you look carefully at the newspaper clips that Daniel is reading, you'll see that Mr. Miyagi fought for the U.S. during World War II and was decorated for his bravery. At the very same time, his pregnant wife was in an internment camp, where she died while giving birth—probably unnecessarily because it seems like she doesn't get proper medical treatment. (I couldn't find a clip of this whole part, but the movie can be rented and streamed on Amazon).
A lot of people on YouTube seem amused by his drunken antics, but I sobbed through this scene. It seems like the truth about the imprisonment of Japanese people in the U.S. has only been coming out recently, but here's a very popular movie from the early 80s facing it head on.
I'm not going to say this is a perfect movie, but it's a very good movie and it held up way better than I thought it would.
I thought I would be annoyed at Mr. Miyagi's mysterious oriental-ness, but he's a real character, with a past and an arc. You see him in the movie learning to face down racism and get out and make his own life despite his grief. He and Daniel adopt each other, and that helps them both. I'm a sucker for a powerful father figure relationship, and for chosen family stories, and that's what this movie is.
Oh, and that crane scene that's often mocked these days? Watch it again in its full context. I dare you not to cry.