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.