A Deep Dive into the Story Telling and Karate of Cobra Kai
Season 3 has arrived!
When Cobra Kai first was announced I was concerned. Like many of my friends I’m very sentimental about certain shows, movies, and books. I didn’t want to see the wonderful Karate Kid characters that were created by Robert Kamen treated as poorly as I was seeing other great characters (Disney I'm looking at you). I didn’t want Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence to suffer the same fate. I also admit I had conceived of a story or two of my own about how Daniel and Johnny had turned out myself, being that I started martial arts hard core back in the 80s and had become an instructor myself along the way.
To my great relief, the YouTube Red -turned- Netflix series is an interesting exploration of the characters. Cobra Kai didn’t take long to find its footing and managed to introduce almost a dozen characters that were unique and engaging.
That all being said, I thought it would be fun to recap some of my biggest questions and takeaways after having watched the show. Be warned – this is spoiler heavy. If you aren’t done with the show, consider binging it and then coming back.
I’ve broken the article up into two major sections:
One caveat before you continue – this is just a TV show, a story, and an entertaining one to be sure. It truly does not need as much thought and analysis as I’ve done in this article. Please disregard the whole thing at your convenience.
Show Thoughts – Reflections on the Storytelling
Johnny’s Struggle was a Joy to Watch
80’s movie bad guys were generally pretty one dimensional. In the original movies, Johnny was a fun to watch, but his character arc was pretty simple and straightforward. He was a rich kid who joined a karate school, had a crew of buds hanging around him, and made life hell for the new kid. In However, in Cobra Kai William Zabka breathes so much more into the life of this character, allowing us to look at him then and now from a different perspective.
I think that one of the more interesting qualities that is displayed about Johnny is his persistent conflict. He seems to be at odds with himself at all times as he clings to what made him special in high school, occasionally recognizing that it is those same things that have led him to ruin. This conflict is played out in many subtle ways every time he is on camera. For example:
The Kreese Backstory
Sensei John Kreese was just a great vintage vintage bad guy. Back in the 1980s he just was rotten to the core in the Karate Kid movies. He is fun and just so easy to hate. But, just like Johnny, Cobra Kai has managed to give him more nuances and much greater depth than I originally anticipated.
It was well established in the movies that Kreese was a Vietnam vet who carried a lot of emotional baggage around with him. In Karate Kid III we learn that he saved fellow veteran Terry Silver on multiple occasions, resulting in a perceived life debt that Silver shows up to honor.
Kreese’s backstory is brushed only briefly touched upon in the movies. But in Cobra Kai we actually get to meet Kreese’s mentor, an elite captain who has experience in Korean Tang Soo Do. The captain also happens to have very black-and-white beliefs regarding friends, enemies, life, and death. it’s from this source that Kreese not only gains his martial ability but also his ‘no mercy” mindset.
In the end Kreese is forced to fight his mentor. Even making a decision to drop his would-be mentor into a big pile of snakes, which is likely where he sourced the name of his dojo. Thanks to these small flashbacks we see where Kreese’s mental outlook comes from and are even, on some levels, able to empathize with his struggle.
So much that got packed into the story, while so many other characters in the show are running around having dramas!
Snowflakes and MAGA’s – Too on the Nose with the Satire
The journey of Johnny reintegrating into society was a really nice narrative tool. Because of his emotional trauma and drunken haze throughout his 20’s and 30’s, Johnny is just now reemerging into society almost as if was in suspended animation. He struggles with modern times because he is so out of touch. He bounces humorously off of things like vegan food and asthma. On one hand, we laugh at Johnny for not understanding how far we’ve come in understanding technology, medicine, and societal acceptance. On the other hand we laugh with Johnny as he observes oddball modern trends set in front of a superficial L.A. backdrop.
That’s the good part. Unfortunately, Cobra Kai loses control of that tight storytelling in a lot of other ways as we see a smattering of callous, cartoonish representations of cultural extremes.
Throughout the show our main characters are constantly barraged with soft, ineffective Los Angeles snowflakes (to quote Kreese) who can’t seem to do their jobs. Teachers are obsessed with safe spaces, micro-aggressions, and other zeitgeisty buzz words that are stale. The teachers also cower at the first sign of trouble and have no ability to lead or control their student populace. Police are lethargic and incompetent, citing impotent protocols while desperately hoping the problem goes away on its own.
The local government council session in season 3 manages to pack multiple embarrassing moments into a few precious minutes. The council board, which seems to be a commentary on diversity in its own right, is led by a woman who is incredibly easy to sway and manipulate, I mean a simple plea from two youth, who were involved in the violence problem to begin with. Really they only want a waiver? Kreese ingratiates himself by insisting she be referred to as “councilperson”, because…you know…gender pro/nouns. In the same scene we see a gritty old man complaining that “there is an ordinance to change the name of manholes to maintenance covers. Do you know what we called manhole covers back in my day? Manholes!” lol lol lol. Gender pro/nouns, so topical so funny.
This feels like the show is playing to the basest of audience members. The kind of people who spend most of their time sharing political memes on Facebook and yelling about the youth. Why do that? The show already has a vehicle for clever social commentary in Johnny and a way to juxtapose him off of an extremist like Kreese. I think the show could rise above this easy low self nonsense.
Cobra Kai Seems to Exist in a Time Bubble
There’s a widely accepted assumption that the modern attention span lasts about a nanosecond before we flitter away to the next thing. Certainly there are some compelling examples of this (Facebook, Instagram, etcetera). Unfortunately content creators often ignore the flipside: our desire for long-term engaging experiences is still running strong.
Consider the following:
Cobra Kai rushes some things. Miguel goes from a hapless nerd to successfully defeating 4-5 older bullies in the course of 5 episodes. He doesn’t just survive, he turns into John Wick and is embarrassing them as he beats their collective butts. Don’t confuse this for what happened with Daniel in the movies. In Karate Kid I Daniel never beats up the whole Cobra Kai dojo. Mr. Miyagi buys him some time and then manages to teach Daniel just enough to narrowly win at the All Valley Tournament (some might even say illegally). Daniel never goes John Wick, and certainly not after the first 1-2 months of training.
This impatience also manifests itself in weird ways with the action on the show. These kids are fighting each other on a weekly basis and yet their wounds heal almost instantly. Even Miguel after his disastrous spinal injury seemed to go from “might never walk” to “karate fighting” in a few months. I believe the show made an assumption that the audience needed to see big fights almost every episode and that we would get bored and impatient if it didn’t happen. This resulted in a lot of logical and realistic leaps in order to hypothetically satisfy a meandering audience.
Martial Meditation – My thoughts and takeaways on how the martial arts were portrayed
Where we See Karate (and Where We Don’t) in Cobra KaiIn the original movies Daniel is taught techniques that are karate like. They resemble the fundamental basics and stance-work most dojo(s) would teach. Of course, they take some liberties with the crane technique, drum technique, etc., but that’s fine – it’s a movie. In Cobra Kai we do see some moments where karate is represented:
Here’s the kicker – we see students from all three dojo(s) performing techniques that are largely based on a variety of martial arts, including some light grappling. It looks fun on film, and we’ve all grown accustomed to this kind of on-screen action. But it’s a far cry from the source karate material.
Miyagi-Do is Not a Particular Karate Style
Individuals in the karate world were thrilled when a picture of Chojun Miyagi kept showing up in the TV series. But Miyagi-do isn’t really a karate style at all. It’s not Goju-Ryu, although there are some influences (like bits of kata, and techniques) which serve as an homage to writer Robert Kamen’s personal experience in the art. Miyagi-do is not Shito-Ryu either, despite Fumio Demura’s personal impact on the movies.
In Karate Kid II we see a smattering of karate portraits borrowed from various styles. They are described as ancestors to Mr. Miyagi. The photo below is described as Miyagi Shimpo, the founder of Miyagi-do karate (but it’s usually assigned to Aragaki Seisho in real life).
This is all fine as long as we don’t attempt to assign a particular style of karate to Miyagi-do. Like the portraits on the wall and the techniques used, it’s just a collection of stuff used to make a show.
Okinawan Kobudo (Weapons) Needed more work
Karate Kid II featured a few kobudo implements (weapons) as Daniel took on his new rival Chozen. The nunti was featured prominently, I was very happy to see this as an old school Okinawa Kobudo student since this weapon is somewhat niche. Cobra Kai decided to ramp up the stakes by integrating kobudo into season 3.
Yuji Okumoto (Chozen) and Pat Morita showed good competency with the weapon in Karate Kid II. They kept the techniques basic and usage to a minimum. Anyone who has handled a nunti will tell you, you don’t do a lot of tricks and gimmicks with this weapon. Outside of Miyagi breaking the weapon over his knee, the whole thing feels believable.
The young cast of Cobra Kai were asked to recreate the kind of action we might see in a Bruce Lee movie. In fact, the nunchaku used by Tory are of the style Bruce Lee made popular (black handles with a chain attachment). Unfortunately, the nunchaku used in most karate/kobudo dojo do not look like that. The traditional construction is plain wood with a rope connector, which might seem like a small detail but if the show went through the trouble of showing off Chojun Miyagi pictures why not continue that attention to detail in something so prominent as a climactic fight scene? If they needed the metal+black version for visual interest perhaps Tory could have brought them from her Cobra Kai dojo instead of picking them up inside the Miyagi dojo.
The kobudo element was problematic from the start. When Daniel is coaching Sam on the bo it feels like both had barely touched the weapon before beginning filming. I believe taking the time to really become acquainted with kobudo implements would have gone a long way in making this part of the arc worthwhile.
There needs to be more than simple Lip Service to The Ethics of Karate
I’ve heard that a lot of parents are enjoying this show alongside their kids. It makes sense, the parents can revisit the original characters while kids can enjoy the story with the younger cast members. The problem is that the real heart of the original movies is only paid lip service, brushed quickly aside to make room for more fights or romantic intrigue.
When you watch Cobra Kai as an adult you get some enjoyment from the nods to the original movies. Daniel loosely quotes Miyagi’s lessons and starts off every student’s training with karate-centric chores. The problem is that none of those lessons are ever lingered upon because the show is constantly keeping a fast moving pace. They don’t want anyone to lose interest and they need to cover ground for a myriad of major characters. This leaves those original lessons as little more than nostalgic footnotes. Individuals who aren’t familiar with the source material would barely notice.
On one hand I enjoy the struggle of both Johnny and Daniel as they attempt to guide their students. They try to communicate lessons about having mercy and using karate for defense only but their actions immediately undermine those words as they both routinely resort to violence and petty behavior. Even in season 3 after Daniel supposedly navigates through his uncertainty arc, he still thinks booting up his dojo and meeting fire with fire is the best choice. Having moral ambiguity in these characters is cool and interesting but at some point the viewer should be able to discern the real karate path of ethical action from the missteps taken by our major characters and I don’t believe that has been executed clearly enough. The problem here is the general public's perception. As an instructor of almost 35 years I know the pains both Johnny and Daniel are going through. They are essentially new Instructors despite their years of life experiences they are unsure where to guide their students. Mr. Miyagi did have some experiences in teaching the skills and philosophy he developed before meeting Daniel.
In the original movies we see Mr. Miyagi make difficult choices that lead away from violence and confrontation even at the cost of his pride. He only resorts to action when cornered or when needing to protect others. Cobra Kai gives these moments a brief nod (like when Daniel walks into the Cobra Kai dojo for a confrontation and walks away without fighting) but almost always undermines it shortly after for the sake of storytelling sizzle.
The truth is, in the world of Cobra Kai, the best bet for all of the kids in the show would be to get out of karate entirely. They would stop getting into gang fights and could actually learn other forms of conflict resolution. Staying in the karate cults, or switching between them, only serves to increase their personal confusion and dig them deeper into moral and ethical pits. I have to predict that we’ll see a turn toward cooperation and resolution in the coming 1-2 seasons, but since they’ve spent three seasons setting a basis for what motivates the characters into certain actions a change of heart will seem too sudden and unconvincing. The real lessons are already imprinted in the viewer’s mind.
I have used the original Karate Kid as a source of inspiration even when the real martial arts world doesn’t live up to that hopeful movie standard. I’m not confident Cobra Kai is setting itself up as the same kind of guidepost for Gen Z, although I do believe with some work it can still come to fruition.
Michael Rowe is the Founder of Alpha Omega Martial Arts and has been dedicating his life to the study and teaching of self-defense. It is his goal to motivate, inspire, and transform the lives of all his students; young and old!