The Real Martial Arts Behind Cobra Kai and The Karate Kid
Which style of Karate really teaches how to Wax On, Wax Off, and Sweep the Leg? We examine the martial arts used in Cobra Kai and The Karate Kid franchise.
When The Karate Kid premiered in 1984, new students rushed to enroll in Karate Dojos across the nation. However, for anyone aspiring to learn the true ways of Miyagi-Do—or Cobra Kai as the case may be—Dojos weren’t propounding deck sanding and fence painting as part of their curriculum. There are many different styles of Karate. Fans wondered which style Daniel and Johnny were really doing. Now that Netflix has picked up Cobra Kai from YouTube Red, a whole new crop of fans has discovered the show and the question has come up again: What type of Karate do they practice at Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai? The truth is it might not even be Karate.
In any movie or series, the filmmakers and showrunners aren’t beholden to a specific style. They are telling a story, not making a documentary. With most productions, a hodge-podge of movie-fu makes for better action than authentic martial arts. When The Karate Kid began production, Ralph Macchio (Daniel), William Zabka (Johnny), and Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi) didn’t know any martial arts. Zabka had some background in wrestling but that was it. Like David Carradine in ‘70s TV show Kung Fu, they earned their roles with their acting skills, not their martial arts proficiency. In many ways, it’s Daniel’s inexperience and awkwardness with Karate that helps to sell the story.
Only three of the original actors had studied martial arts prior to filming. Ron Thomas practiced Jujitsu, which had little application for his role as Cobra Kai’s Bobby in the film. Martin Kove (Kreese) studied Karate under the famous Grandmaster Takayuki Kubota. Kubota was a noted celebrity trainer who cultivated many famous students including James Caan, Robert Conrad, Ron Ely, George Kennedy, Sam Peckinpah, Hilary Swank (who starred as The Next Karate Kid) to name a few.
He created his own style of Karate called Gosuku-Ryu. Gosuku means “hard fast.” Ryu literally means “flow” but is a suffix commonly used in Karate to denote a specific system or style. What’s more, Kubota patented a self-defense weapon, a rod-shaped keychain fob the size of a sharpie. He named it the Kubotan after himself, and it is still widely used by Police and Enforcement today. However, beyond training Kove, Kubota had little influence on The Karate Kid. In action films, actors play roles that require them to portray themselves as masters of different styles than they practice in real life.
Cobra Kai – Strike Hard, Strike Fast, No Mercy
The martial arts depicted in The Karate Kid must be attributed to Grandmaster Pat E. Johnson. He was the martial arts choreographer for the original films and played the Referee. Johnson is a student of Chuck Norris and captained Norris’ Black Belt Competition team to win 33-consecutive national and international championships. And despite not disqualifying Daniel’s illegal winning crane kick, Johnson is a highly respected martial arts referee. Beyond The Karate Kid, he worked on other films including Enter the Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mortal Kombat. Johnson and Norris practice Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art, but this is where translation of the terminology gets complicated.
Tang Soo Do means “Way of the Tang Hand.” Do means “the Way,” same character as the Dao in Chinese. It’s the same word in Korean and Japanese and serves as a suffix for many martial arts like Karate-Do, Judo, and Taekwondo. Soo literally means “hand.” Tang refers to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) indicating the Chinese origins of the art. According to legend, all Asian martial arts trace back to China’s Shaolin Temple, the legendary cradle of Kung Fu. For simplicity, many English translators shortened “Way of the Tang Hand” to “Way of the Chinese Hand.” It’s a respectful nod to that origin tale.
Korean and Japanese characters are derived from Chinese too. Translate the characters for Tang Soo Do into Japanese and it is Karate-Do. However in 1935, Japan changed the character for Kara (or Tang) to a homophonic character that means “empty” in order to distinguish its martial art from China. To complicate matters even more, Tang Soo Do was commonly dubbed “Korean Karate” in the United States. Nevertheless, Tang Soo Do and Karate are distinct disciplines.
Cobra Kai is the name of the school, not the style. The Kai in Cobra Kai literally means “assembly” or “meeting” and within the Karate vernacular, it’s a suffix that denotes an organization or group. Cobra is just a name, the school mascot. While there are many snake styles of martial arts, particularly in Kung Fu, the Cobra is seldom commonly specified in Asian systems. More often, it is seen in American school logos, like the symbol of William’s Kenpo Karate Dojo in Enter the Dragon. There’s a nod to Kung Fu legend in the name. The rival of Snake Kung Fu is Crane style. In the Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith redux of The Karate Kid, the snake comes into play.
Given Johnson’s choreography Tang Soo Do influences Cobra Kai more than Karate. Throughout the series, there are subtle clues alluding to this. From the first film to Cobra Kai, when Johnny spars, he deploys a lot of high kicks characteristic of Korean martial arts. After the first film, Zabka continued to study Tang Soo Do with Johnson for many years so it is his foundation style. Another big tell is in The Karate Kid Part III. When Kreese’s comrade Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) visits Miyagi’s Dojo to lie about Kreese’s death, he couches it in an apology from their mutual South Korean master. In real life, Griffith is a black belt in Kenpo Karate and Taekwondo. Cobra Kai perpetuated the Tang Soo Do influence very subtly in Season 1. In episode 7, Johnny barks out a command that sounds like “jun be” which means “get ready” in Korean.
There’s some historical validity to Kreese teaching “Korean Karate.” Much of Tang Soo Do came to the U.S. via military veterans that served in Korea. Both Johnson and Norris first learned their martial art while stationed there. This makes a lot of sense for Kreese’s character. The photo of Kreese in military uniform that hung in Cobra Kai declares him as the U.S. Army 1970-72 Karate Champion and Silver is his old Army buddy.
Miyagi-Do – Karate Here. Karate Not Here.
But what about Miyagi-Do? What style teaches “wax on wax off?” Since Pat Morita wasn’t a martial artist, his body double was a distinguished Karate master named Fumio Demura. Demura espouses Shito-Ryu Karate, but that’s not evident in the movies. It is implied that Miyagi teaches a style of Karate called Goju-Ryu. Goju means “hard soft” (the Go is the same character as in Gosuku-Ryu and the Ju is the same as in Judo – “the Soft Way”). Although never overtly stated, there are many subtle references throughout the films and series.
In The Karate Kid Part II, Miyagi and Daniel visit Miyagi’s hometown in Okinawa. In the family dojo, Miyagi tells Daniel of the founder of Miyagi-Do, an ancestor of Mr. Miyagi who ended up in China by accident after getting drunk and falling asleep in his fishing boat in 1625. He returned to Okinawa 10 years later with a Chinese wife, two kids, and the basis for Miyagi-Do. This artistic liberty is a mishmash of Goju-Ryu history. Grandmaster Higaonna Kanryo (1853–1916) was an Okinawan martial artist and translator who spent many years studying martial arts in China, including Crane style. His top student, another native Okinawan, followed in his footsteps to train in China too. That student was another Miyagi – Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953), the founder of Goju-Ryu.
Two more Goju-Ryu Easter eggs imply that it is the inspiration for Miyagi-Do. In The Karate Kid Part II, a Goju-Ryu patch can be clearly seen on Chozen’s (Yuji Okumoto) gi. The Goju-Ryu symbol is a golden upraised fist, often with the characters for Karate written underneath and it is unmistakable. Chozen was trained by his uncle Sato (Danny Kamekona), a fellow student under Miyagi’s father (Charlie Tanimoto) so they all practice the same style.
Another major tell lies in the Kata that Miyagi teaches Daniel in The Karate Kid Part III. It is based on Seiunchin, an original Goju-Ryu Kata created by Higaonna Kanryo and passed down to Chojun Miyagi. This is the same Kata that Daniel recites in Cobra Kai and teaches to his students, including his daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Real Goju-Ryu practitioners often comment that it is a weak rendition of Seiunchin, but again, it’s just a show, not a documentary.
The original writer of The Karate Kid, Robert Mark Kamen, claims that the idea of the story was loosely autobiographical. He says he was beaten up by bullies after the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. That experience led him to start martial arts. His first instructor was too violent and vengeful, so he began studying Goju-Ryu. Kamen says Miyagi was based on Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi (1912-2003), a direct disciple of Miyagi and a National Living Treasure of Japan.
The Crane Kick
Daniel’s All-Valley victory move isn’t from Goju-Ryu. It was made up for the film. However, the same one-legged posture exists within Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. The pose was featured on the cover of a Kung Fu book originally published in 1984, the same year that The Karate Kid premiered. Northern Sil Lum: Moi Fah No. 7 by Kwon W. Lam and Ted Mancuso is now out-of-print (Sil Lum is the Cantonese pronunciation of Shaolin). In the book, it’s not called a Crane technique. The actual name is “Lift stance, Black Crow splits wings.”
When this book was published, there was a lot of debate about which came first within the martial arts community. The Karate Kid released in theaters on June 22, 1984. Since the book came out earlier that year, and given movie production and post-production time, the Crane kick scenes were probably filmed before the book was published. Most likely, it was an auspicious coincidence.
The creation of the Crane Kick is colloquially attributed to Darry Vidal, although he has said that it was Kamen who initially described the move. Vidal was the stunt double for Miyagi in the beach Crane Kick scene and played the last semi-finalist to face Johnny before Daniel. He was an up-and-coming martial artist when the movie was shot and still teaches Karate at his school in California.
What Style is Season 3?
Despite these authentic underpinnings, the hard truth is that the martial arts have never been that good throughout the Karate Kid franchise. The unusual training methods are absurd and there’s no way an 18-and-under tournament like the All Valley Karate Championships would be held without safety gear. It’s movie fiction. While the fight scenes were dramatic, the technical skills displayed have been mediocre for such an iconic martial arts franchise.
This all changed with the Cobra Kai season 2 finale. The final fight was applauded by fans of the genre as an outstanding piece of fight choreography, worthy of the brand. It included an outstanding long take—the hallmark of good fight scenes—that was technically sophisticated, complex in its composition and cinematography. From a martial standpoint, this was the crowning achievement for the entire franchise. The stunt coordinators for Cobra Kai are Jahnel Curfman, a former gymnast and dancer turned stuntwoman, and Hiro Koda, a decorated Karate champion and longtime stuntman. Both are signed on for Season 3.
Many martial artists began their martial journey because they were inspired by The Karate Kid. For them, that movie was life changing. These devotees are eager to see if Curfman and Koda can sustain that high level of fight choreography for Cobra Kai Season 3. And if the writers can continue to follow through on the authenticity of the martial arts backstories, that will be even better.
As Mr. Miyagi would say, “Banzai!”
Season 1 and 2 of Cobra Kai are now available on Netflix. Cobra Kai Season 3 premieres on Netflix in 2021.