The Karate Kid: an instant classic, and the ultimate underdog movie. Ask anyone between age 25 and 45 to explain “wax on, wax off” to you and they’ll instantly know what you mean. When the Karate Kid was released in 1984, it met with more commercial and critical success than you’d ever expect from a kid’s movie. It could be the power-ballad soundtrack, or the sweet karate moves that caught all of our attention. Or there’s the pugnacious and oh-so-dreamy Daniel-san.
But I believe what makes the movie really special is Mr. Miyagi. Pat Morita starred as the quintessential sensei. Morita was nominated for an Academy Award, in fact, for his role as the handyman/karate expert. The director initially turned him down for the role because he worried that audiences wouldn’t take Morita seriously considering that previously, his most famous role had been as Arnold, the restaurant owner in Happy Days.
However, it only took a few gems of Miyagi-style wisdom to drop from the actor’s lips in his trademarked broken English to change the director’s mind. What makes the Karate Kid so powerful isn’t its critical accolades (It holds a 90% on rottentomatoes.com, a distinction held by only a couple hundred movies of all time.) It’s not the commercial success either (almost unprecedented for a movie with a production budget of under $10 million, and certainly enough to spur three sequels and a modern reboot.) Rather, it’s the powerful effect it had on the psyche of the young generation, due in great part, to Mr. Miyagi’s trademarked wisdom. Here are 6 powerful lessons taught by Mr. Miyagi in the various karate kid movies:
- “Sun is warm, grass is green:” Although this is from a later sequel with Hilary Swank, I’m putting it first because it had a surprising impact on my own life. Mr. Miyagi tells his temperamental student to recite this mantra whenever she feels angry and frustrated. Somehow, it gets her through a nightmare babysitting session, which she manages not just to survive, but to enjoy. The mantra teaches us to focus on the good, and be grateful for the simple blessings we’re surrounded by. Mr. Miyagi teaches us the power of a mantra to re-focus the thoughts and gain control over impulses.
- “Win lose no matter, you make good fight, and respect, then nobody bother:” Mr. Miyagi repeats this principle many times: it’s not about whether you win or lose. It might be a well-worn adage, but this one is powerfully illustrated by Mr. Miyagi’s own life. He’s basically a superhero. And he’s certainly the best teacher anyone could have. He makes the Cobra Kai teachers look like chumps, despite their success and worldly accolades. That’s of no concern to Mr. Miyagi. His power isn’t used for personal gain, and he doesn’t invest his energy in stupid things. He brings his focus into a quiet happiness and satisfaction that’s hard to come by in our modern, competitive world. He lives his life according to personal values and lets others scramble in the rat race.
- “It’s ok to lose to opponent. It’s never okay to lose to fear:” This continues lesson #2: it’s not about winning or losing, because you’re not really competing with your opponent. Rather, it’s about achieving balance, and victory over the self. Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel that decisions made in fear or anger are never right.
- “When you feel life out of focus, always return to basic of life:” And what is that “basic of life”? Breathing. Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel a brief lesson on breathing and meditation in order to help him gain his focus and get back to work. Life gets hectic, and worrying about all the things that you wish you could or think you might control gets you nowhere. Rather, when we reign in our consciousness and remember the most essential thing–life, breath, in and out–we can see clearly.
- “If it comes from inside you, it’s always the right [choice.]” This is a lesson taught as Mr. Miyagi introduces cultivation of bonsai trees to his student. At this point, Daniel has learned many of Mr. Miyagi’s basic lessons: to eschew anger, fear, and selfishness. To fight only as a last resort. To practice self-control and focus. Here, Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel to start listening to his internal voice and trust his instincts. Once you learn to banish the negative voices in your life, you are able to hear your personal truth and live it.
- “Wax on, wax off:” Farbeit from me to explain one of the most oft-quoted lines of the American history of film, but I’ll try. This is truly Mr. Miyagi’s first lesson (even though I left it for last.) While Daniel believes that he’ll be running drills and learning hand-to-hand combat, Mr. Miyagi first puts him to work on household chores, assisting him in his handyman duties and fixing up his house. Frustrated by the repetitive and mind-numbing work, Daniel eventually explodes, and Mr. Miyagi shows him that in truth, Daniel has been learning all along.
It’s just about the most satisfying scene in any movie, and it teaches a few powerful lessons. First of all, you’re progressing more than you think. Many lessons are learned subtly, through time and repetition, until it becomes a part of our very instincts. Second of all, it takes hard work and dedication to learn anything worth learning. And thirdly, put your trust in your teacher.
This is just a tiny sampling. Which lessons did you learn from Mr. Miyagi? How have they come into play in your own life?
Guest post by Christine Hill