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Wax Off: The Karate Kid’s Pat Morita Passes On

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I always thought Noriyuki “Pat” Morita was an under-appreciated comic talent. He had impeccable timing, a thing many comedians lack these days, and a strong sense of place in a scene. Even when mired in the role of Arnold on Happy Days, Morita made the most of his brief appearances, making him easily the funniest person on a not too funny show.

Morita was born in California in 1932 to Japanese parents, and he would unfortunately experience the indignity of the detention camp during World War II, just as Star Trek’s George Takei and many other Japanese-Americans did. What seems to come from such inhumane treatment is an understanding, not just of being Japanese, but of being caught in a immensely unjust moment in history. Morita came out of this a stronger and more determined person, and he also carried with him an intense propriety and awareness of human dignity, which becomes obvious when you watch his work.

As a diminutive handyman in John Avildsen’s The Karate Kid, Morita earned an Oscar nomination. He becomes a mentor of sorts to Ralph Maccio’s Daniel, a displaced New York kid who has been set upon by local punks who bully him. The kid discovers Miyagi knows the art of karate and wants to learn it in order to defend himself. Avildsen, who directed Rocky, explores similar terrain here, with Morita’s Mr. Miyagi taking on the Burgess Meredith role, and Macchio portraying the Stallone character as a skinnier and much younger Daniel-san.

I can recall this movie being the brunt of many jokes in the past. I myself have used the famous line, “Wax on; wax off,” in a negative way or to make light of a particularly annoying job I am faced with (the tearing up of an old floor and putting down a new rug comes to mind). Still, despite the often disrespectful attitude toward this as a silly film, I think Morita’s passing requires us to focus some attention on the work. Since I happen to own a copy of the movie, I watched it again last night and here are my impressions.

While the film is rather formulaic and is certainly a cinematic kissing cousin to Rocky, there are some differences that elevate it to a higher plane. The most obvious element is Morita himself. His performance as Mr. Miyagi is subtle yet emotionally intense, illuminating the variations in man’s relationship to nature, life, love, and loss. He is more than just a mentor to Daniel-san, he becomes a paternal figure, instructing him in not just the art of self defense, but of living a well lived life.

Of course, the end of the film is what one expects. Just as in Rocky, when a beaten and battered Stallone improbably comes back and defeats Apollo Creed, Macchio’s hobbled Daniel defeats the enemy in a karate tournament and then, without having to scream “Yo, Adrienne,” gets the girl (a glowingly beautiful Elisabeth Shue). We are meant to understand that Daniel has learned a life lesson. Miyagi has taken teachable moments to the highest level, forcing Daniel-san to confront his own fears but also to understand that one only resorts to brute force when there are no other choices.

Interestingly, Morita lost out on his bid for the Oscar to Haing S. Ngor, who won for his performance in The Killing Fields. Admittedly, this powerful film about war-torn Cambodia after the American evacuation was a more serious and respected piece, almost assuredly putting so-called fluff like The Karate Kid in a place where voters would pass over Morita for the unknown Ngor, who would scarcely be heard from again.

As I watched the film, there was one scene that particularly stood out. Miyagi is drinking whiskey and staring at a picture of his departed wife. For the first time in the film Daniel understands Miyagi as a person, one who mourns the lost loved one but knows how to go on with living. It is a touching moment, but Morita shines brightly as his face bathed in candlelight reflects the nuances of a real person afflicted but unbeaten.

So, Pat Morita, I promise never to use “Wax on; wax off” in a pejorative way ever again. Rest in peace, Mr. Miyagi.
ed: JH

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charlie Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://www.scoopstories.typepad.com Scott Butki

    Nice piece.
    I’m going to link to your piece from my blog.

  • http://asouthernbelle.blogspot.com Kitty

    Very nice tribute to a very talented man. We often forget the talent it takes to create the characters that are immortalized on film. This man came from very hard times – the son of immigrant farmers, he was a very sick child who spent many years in a hospital before he was shipped off to the detention camps. But, he emerged, not with hatred and bitterness, but with a desire to create laughter and entertainment. And we were the lucky ones for that.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for the comments, Kitty, and thanks for the link, Scott.

  • Bennett

    I really enjoyed this. Victor, what a fine bit of writing, and your reverence for Morita’s artistry is shared by many.

    Cheers!

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Thanks for this. I was a Pat Morita fan for many years; may God bless him.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    Very very sad day…

  • http://www.fifthdentist.blogspot.com The Fifth Dentist

    Good article, Victor.

  • http://www.rock-is-life.com George Dionne

    Great article. I loved the Karate Kid movies. I can’t believe he was just 74, I thought he was closer to that age during KK1.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for all the lovely comments, which seem more than apropos for Pat Morita. Unfortunately, sometimes we fail to appreciate people until after they’re gone.

  • http://www.18fingersofdeath.com James lew

    I finally understand in the past few years how important and meaningful it is to have great stories to tell about your life experiences. My story with Pat Morita is that I was blessed to have him play a part in my movie, “18 Fingers of Death” as my father. This was a special gift because it is my first project as a writer, producer, director and star. This was one of his last movies and I feel his performance is one of the best since his character, Mr. Miyagi. His combination of humor, humanity and
    honor shine in the movie. Thank you Pat for giving me some great stories to tell.