Cobra Kai and Martial Arts Philosophy

The original Karate Kid movies suffered from many flaws: bad acting, wooden dialogue, and a painful soundtrack. (Does anyone really think that someone who whines as much as Peter Cetera could successfully fight for your honor or be the hero that you’re dreaming of?) Worst of all, from a martial arts standpoint, it seriously propagates the ludicrous notion that someone could defeat a series of black belts in a karate tournament after using absurd training methods for a ridiculously short time.

No nostalgia trip, the Cobra Kai TV show understands and leans into everything that made the original Karate Kid movies terrible. Self-aware of the source material’s shortcomings, Cobra Kai winks enough at them to make them intentionally funny this time around—virtues in this new context.

Still, Cobra Kai never treats its characters or subjects with cynicism. It retains the primary attribute of the films: their sincerity. The actors (William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence, Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, John Kreese as Martin Kove—all of the principal original actors return for at least guest appearances, save for the late Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi) generally play their roles straight. This keeps Cobra Kai from falling into parody, and instead transforms it into a tribute, similar to how Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville gently lampoons Star Trek as it simultaneously, open-heartedly adores it.

Cobra Kai’s greatest asset, however, is the authentic martial arts philosophy that serves as both its heart and foundation.

Philosophically, Mr. Miyagi seems to have imparted to Daniel Gichin Funakoshi’s maxim, “Karate ni sente nashi,” which translates to “There is no first attack in karate.” The Cobra Kai mantra that Kreese taught Johnny: “Strike hard, strike first, no mercy!” (They mirror the surface-level divergence between real-life samurai philosophers Takuan Soho and Yagyu Munenori on one hand, and Miyamoto Musashi on the other, whose writings make for essential martial arts reading.)

Those philosophies may seem diametrically opposed, but upon further inspection, they don’t differ so much. The biggest problem the former presents is identifying when the opponent’s first strike has come—sometimes intent must qualify as an attack or a person will not act in time to secure their safety. The biggest problem with the latter is how Kreese never tethered it to any moral anchor, especially in the Karate Kid films.

In a great Cobra Kai scene, Johnny—the films’ villain, although some (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) revisionist deconstructions would dispute that, which creates hilarious opportunities for meta-commentary that the TV show never wastes—throws his students into a cement truck to teach them what happens when they fail to keep moving. They get stuck in their ways.

The episode juxtaposes those scenes with Daniel teaching his students to keep their balance on a wobbly raft barely floating atop a murky koi pond.

We see the different personalities and teaching styles of both senseis, but those exercises both show the necessity of constant adaptation. Perhaps you find Daniel more appealing, humane, and empathetic, but his students end up just as filthy in the pond as Johnny’s do in the cement truck.

Much of the series plays on those themes—the characters need to adapt to changing circumstances, but pride, prejudice, and devotion to stylistic purity block their progress.

In the climactic All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament at the end of season four, some of Daniel, Johnny, and Kreese’s students successfully escape these constraints, with their instructors’ grudging blessings.

This theme plays out outside the dojo, of course, as modern martial arts serve as an excellent metaphor for many other life experiences. Just as Daniel, Johnny, and their students find themselves enslaved by their karate styles, they often find themselves unable to see through the absurdity of their Montagues-and-Capulets feud.

Cobra Kai, however, holds up those rivalries to ridicule by showing its characters’ backstories, from Kreese’s rough childhood to his brutal Vietnam War experiences, from Johnny’s abusive stepfather (played by Ed Asner, whose sister, the late Esther Edelman, lived for years in Carbondale) to the effect of his drunken, absentee parenting on his son, Robbie.

As badly misguided as they are, Kreese and Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith)—the villains of Cobra Kai, at least pending another round of silly revisionism—genuinely care about their students and have their best interests at heart.

All of the show’s characters may mean well, but they lack the tools to do anything but fail, and too often their nominal rivals don’t give them the room or chance to grow and overcome their many disadvantages.

Cobra Kai plays many things for laughs—especially its over-the-top, intentionally inept fighting techniques—but never the humanity of its characters or the martial arts philosophies they so imperfectly strive to embody.

Perhaps one lesson Cobra Kai tries to teach, then, is that we should not let our perceptions of someone, or anything, ossify. Martial arts should help us to see the world, its people, and the challenges we face for what they are—everything they are. Cobra Kai shows us what happens when we don’t.

For example, Daniel and Johnny’s inability to communicate civilly can touch each other off in hilarious ways—despite sometimes sincere efforts and occasional simpatico moments, as when REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run” comes on the radio. They both find themselves singing along, surprised that the other loves the song. Then, a poorly chosen word lands on an overly sensitive spot, and it’s back on. However funny the impetus for the revival of Daniel and Johnny’s conflict, in Cobra Kai it always plays out as tragedy, not comedy.

No spoilers here, but season five sticks its landing—not perfectly, but Cobra Kai makes that point moot by building itself on ridiculous imperfections—and nicely sets the stage for season six. We can’t wait for it to arrive.