Culture Blog

Japanese Prisoner of Nostalgia: Cobra Kai Season 3 is the Final Nail in Karate’s Coffin

Before we begin, let’s do a quick recap of Cobrai Kai. Season 1 was fun, flippant and self aware – we forgave our anti hero, Jonny, for being a bad father and a loser because he encapsulated the frustration that many men have with politically correct culture; and we forgave Danny Lurusso for being bad at karate and having no charm because he is the Karate Kid. In Cobrai Kai Season 2, however, this nostalgic momentum ground to a halt as the worst elements from season 1 were pushed to the forefront. Bad teen actors, doing bad karate, with bad dialog. Unfortunately these angsty teens do not benefit from latent Karate Kid nostalgia.

Now to season 3. Let me preface this by saying that if you are a huge Karate Kid fan then you will enjoy 60% of the nostalgic tsunami which batters the dialog. Additionally, Jonny’s anti-hero charm remains intact. However the good qualities of the season are outnumbered by the bad. There’s way too many story lines; Danny Lurusso going back to Okinawa is embarrassing; the teen angst reaches new levels of cringe; and, Jonny’s story arc, as fun as it is, does a lazy 360 – back to the dead-beat dad of season 1. But, this article isn’t about any of that. This is about one facet about the show, the shows very sinews, the thing which binds all of the several messy storylines, that is, the shows shockingly bad karate. What went wrong?

Spinning round house….I’m convinced Ralph Macchio (Danny LaRusso) can’t get his leg higher than this.

Kicking Against the Current

There is a reason why most of the fight choreography on television is by gymnasts, doing a bastardized version of wushu/kung fu. Even the newest ‘Karate’ Kid movie, with Jaden Smith was (incongruently) based in China, doing kung fu. Why kung fu? Because it looks good. If you want the audience to suspend their disbelief to such a degree that we can conformably watch septuagenarians and 5 foot tall teenage girls beat up gangsters – then, at the very least, you need slick and believable fight choreography; this is where Cobrai Kai fails, miserably.

Why is the fight choreography so bad (borderline arthritic) in Cobrai Kai? The reason kung fu works on TV is because the underlying philosophy is ‘to flow’ which gives an impressive and gymnastic aesthetic. Wushu, is a form of kung fu which is essentially gymnastics, occasionally with swords. Karate, on the other fist, tends to be rigid in execution, and emphasize power – there are no flowery and dance-like karate styles around.

My T-shirt I made on Amazon

So, not only does Cobra Kai have to deal with a rigid and unfashionable TV fight style, they also have a main cast of people who can’t do it. In one episode in season 3, a peripheral Cobrai Kai cast member (who is obviously a stuntman/boy) rips out a 540- spinning kick, attempting to kick a bonsai tree off a wooden pole. That is not karate, that is either gymnastics or Korean taekwondo. Unfortunately, our main cast members suffer from no such talent for spinning. The fight scenes in Cobrai Kai are gawky and staccato.

If Karate Looks Bad on TV, Then Why Was the Original Karate Kid so Popular?

The kung fu and karate crazy of the 70s and 80s was undeniable led by Hollywood; most likely kicked off by Bruce Lee’s near perfect movie: Enter The Dragon. Obviously, Karate’s movie Mecca became The Karate Kid. But eastern style martial art themes were found in almost every single 80s action movies from Road House to Bloodsport – try and find a roundhouse kick in an action movie before the 1970s; now try and find an action movie after 1980s that doesn’t have one.

Karate in movies was still in vogue throughout the 90s, all though largely in B movies. Why was Karate so popular back in the day? I would argue two fold; because it was new and the people doing it were cool. Jean Claude Van Damn, Michael Jai White, Patrick Swayze etc. looked like they could kick you in half. The story of The Karate Kid – that of a bullied kid beating up his bullies with an esoteric, eastern martial art, was new and interesting. But, something dreadful has happened to traditional martial arts in recent years.

YouTube and MMA Happened

The veneer of authenticity and mysticism which traditional martial arts, including karate, has enjoyed since the 80s, has been rear-naked choked, arm-barred, wrestled, boxed and knocked out; all in the cold light of the YouTube camera.

Tribute to Andy Hug - YouTube

Swiss, Any Hug, used a hybrid of Karate and Kickboxing

A whole new generation grew up watching viral videos on YouTube. Anybody interested in martial arts will be very familiar with the YouTube rabbit hole of traditional martial arts VS boxing or MMA. Within this niche, there are hundreds of videos of Karate guys getting destroyed by Muay Thai fighters, for example. This is not a cherry picked phenomenon, but a consistent pattern when traditional karate (and indeed kung fu) practitioners fight boxers, kickboxers and MMA guys. The internet’s top bro, Joe Rogan – who was obsessed with taekwondo as a young man – is constantly ragging on traditional martial arts these days, to his 10s of millions of listeners.

The emperor has no Gi. The Kata is out of the bag. A whole generation is red-pilled on traditional martial arts. Want to pull off a karate styled axe-kick? Then use a boxing feint to disguise it, like Andy Hug in K1. Want to KO your opponent with a front kick? Then it helps if you’re a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who trains with MMA fighters. Want to use ancient pressure points to debilitate your opponent? Forget about it; it is nonsense, and we all know it now.

What does this mean for the future of karate on TV?

The Final Nail

As our previous examples show, karate is not totally useless as a martial art – as long as it’s used alongside other styles. Therefore, it ceases to be ‘traditional’ karate and falls under the ‘MMA’ umbrella. There are no ‘katas’ in MMA, or uniforms (gi’s); it is simply the art of fighting.

Jiu-jitsu and karate blackbelt, Lyoto Machida, KOs Vitor Belfort with Karate style front kick

With this in mind, I eagerly anticipated the return of ‘The Karate Kid’ in the form of Cobrai Kai – wondering if they would try and add some realism and grit to the fighting scenes, to cater for an audience that is now used to seeing messy MMA fights and street brawls on YouTube. They didn’t. The series had the impossible task of dragging karate into the new world. However, all it achieved was to re-enforce the negative stereotype that traditional martial arts is for nerds who can’t really fight.

I guess we’ll have to wait for ‘The MMA Kid’

By James

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