The ghost of The Karate Kid‘s superior sensei, Mr. Miyagi, loomed larger than ever in the newest Cobra Kai season, which included a better-than-it-should-be scene of Daniel-san gaining access to his in mentor’s letters. Anyone who watched this season felt the hard-hitting significance of that scene, which really drove home how special those original movies were, and how wonderfully they rendered an underdog story while managing to be invigorating and forgivably embracing the power of underdog clichés. Well, those The Karate Kid films would never have translated with a lesser Miyagi actor than Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. He was Oscar-nominated for the first film, and as Ralph Macchio reveals in More Than Miyagi (a new Love Project Films documentary), his one Morita-centered regret is not being able to walk the awards red carpet with his friend. In turn, the film shows us how one would be hard-pressed to find a stronger Hollywood underdog story than that of Pat Morita. In other words, settle down, Daniel LaRusso, because the man who played your mentor came by the role more than honestly.
More Than Miyagi comes full circle like that, while being chock full of revelations like Macchio’s admission, without delving into sensationalism, and there’s something very refreshing about the documentary’s straightforward format. Viewers receive exactly what the title promises, and there’s no flashy filmmaking to be found. Instead, there’s an impressive assembling of Morita’s well-known co-stars, all of whom express nothing but love and respect for an icon. We get the traditional splicing of old interviews and home footage and a huge focus on the path that led to Miyagi. Obviously, things are weighted to give a lot of facetime to the Karate Kid crowd (Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, and uh, Hilary Swank), but one receives a hefty revisiting of Morita’s breakthrough role on Happy Days when Henry Winkler comes to town, and other familiar faces guide us through Morita’s other TV roles. And one surely can’t neglect presences like Tommy Chong, who relates memories from the legend’s stand-up days.
That’s the point where the audience shall begin to realize that Morita’s early life filled itself with sadness, and he turned to comedy while resolving to bring people happiness during his career. Shades of Robin Williams and Dana Carvey appear when it becomes apparent that the “Tears Of A Clown” pitfall is all too true here. Morita’s often-comical, early-to-mid professional exterior fueled itself through extreme self-deprecation, which helped to mask the challenges he faced. Those tough times include recovering from a debilitating, years-long struggle with spinal tuberculosis and being shipped off (as a Japanese American) to Internment camps during World War II. He then did what he had to do to make it in Hollywood, even though that meant working with a prescribed toolbox of Asian stereotypes. Watching this happen in retrospect is sobering, for Morita pushed through an industry where Asian roles including Genghis Khan and Fu Manchu went to John Wayne, Christopher Lee, and Boris Karloff.
I’d like to say that times have changed on that last note, but it’s only been a few years since Scarlett Johansson starred in Ghost in the Shell. (At least the MCU’s making strides by authentically casting movies like Shang-Chi, but that move comes after a relevant Doctor Strange whitewashing controversy.) In the case of Morita’s career, he began on the stand-up circuit, where he once found himself stunned to gaze into an audience of Pearl Harbor survivors in Hawaii. He quietly endured barriers of institutional and casual racism, even while bringing his beloved Happy Days cook to life. He guest-starred on countless TV shows and eventually became the first Asian-American leading man on television. That endeavor didn’t last long, but he was a trailblazer in that way. Eventually, he fought his way into the Miyagi role (amazingly, producers resisted casting him because he was too funny on TV) and graduated to legend status.
More Than Miyagi doesn’t have to work too hard to elevate Morita. His words during old interviews, and in-depth anecdotes from his co-stars, do all the legwork. There are, thankfully, no surprises there. No one comes forward to share any accounts of Morita-as-monster, although we only hear from his third wife, Evelyn Guerrero, who doesn’t shy away from sharing how Morita buried himself in alcohol, perhaps literally. Nothing is made explicit about Morita’s early-to-mid Hollywood experiences contributing to his profound sadness, but there’s a lot of suggestion here. And clearly, demons from Morita’s childhood and time in Internment camps plagued him enough throughout his life, even while he exuded warmth and sweetness to those around him. Morita’s kindness and generosity shines through even when he’s drunk as a skunk, and I’m reminded of that saying about alcohol magnifying one’s true personality. An inebriated Morita is just as lovable as the most sober moments when we see him during home footage and interviews, but he turned against himself with decades of hard drinking until his death at age 73. It’s a heartbreaking end to his multi-faceted underdog success story.
Still, More Than Miyagi emerges as an uplifting story despite soaking itself in sadness at times. And obviously, the timing couldn’t be more right for this documentary to arrive, so Cobra Kai fans can tuck into an extra dose of his spirit. In less than 90 minutes, the film glides through a crash course of Morita’s pre-and-post Miyagi life events. This should be informative, since it’s safe to assume that multiple generations of Cobra Kai fans don’t realize that Morita led a very full and varied career before getting dramatic as a sensei. Yet comedy was integral to Miyagi, too. I mean, c’mon, it takes considerable talent to pull off the “honk” with a deadpan touch. And here’s an inarguable truth: the dude was funnier than most of us combined. Pat Morita deserves respect for that honk-scene and so much more, and this documentary knows exactly how to give that respect to him.
Directed by ‘The Karate Kid’ enthusiast Kevin Derek, ‘More Than Miyagi’ will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and more on February 5.