More than three decades after the release of the original Karate Kid, YouTube Originals miniseries Cobra Kai seizes on nostalgic enthusiasm for the film, centring on the story of former antagonist, Johnny Lawrence. Presented as an “ace degenerate”, the out-of-work, alcoholic failed father seeks to resurrect the infamous Cobra Kai dojo, in a bid to salvage his self respect and rebuild his life.
Haunted by the success of his childhood nemesis – the original film’s protagonist, Daniel Larusso – Lawrence’s efforts draw both men back into a personal rivalry, characterised by conflicting philosophies of karate. Despite the faithful coherence with the original movie – including poignant flashbacks, references to iconic training methods (“wax on, wax off”) and a soundtrack straight from the 1980s – the series is more than simple, nostalgic melodrama.
Cobra Kai offers insightful commentary on a divided US society, tackling issues such as gender politics, cyber-bullying, intergenerational learning and family relations. Through Lawrence and Larusso’s radically different teaching methods, karate is shown to offer a variety of skills, values and pathways to help young people fight back or find balance within this challenging world.
A modern parable
The narrative is built around Lawrence’s attempts to update and rehabilitate the Cobra Kai mantra of “strike first, strike hard, no mercy”. In the original film, this is portrayed as an irredeemably negative vision of karate. But in the series, it becomes a source of strength and pride for those struggling in a world that has rejected them.
Lawrence is portrayed as one of contemporary America’s “left behind” men. He works demeaning manual jobs and holds problematic views towards women and immigrants. But rather than write Lawrence off as a deplorable failure, deserving of all his misfortune, the series invites viewers to empathise with him as he struggles to assert the only strength he has, in a world he barely understands.
Lawrence’s quest for redemption is tied to the bunch of misfit pupils who join his Cobra Kai dojo, starting with Miguel, a Latino-American boy who gets bullied at school. The students gradually learn karate as a way to take control over their own lives; to “flip the script” and reinvent themselves from cowering “losers” to “bad-ass” cobras. In the process, they question, challenge and eventually come to accept Lawrence’s politically incorrect language, conservative gender values and harsh teaching style.
Although Lawrence himself is shown to soften towards the end of the series, his students come to use the Cobra Kai philosophy, as their teacher does, as a source of personal strength. The story addresses contemporary political concerns about left wing intolerance towards right wing “Trumpian” politics, by avoiding the wholesale rejection of conservative worldviews (and the people holding them), while advocating balance, dialogue and understanding between the generations.
Meanwhile, as cracks begin to appear in his own seemingly perfect life, Larusso also turns to karate for inspiration, recalling his sensei, Mr Miyagi, praising the virtue of balance in all things. Seeking a training partner, he starts to mentor the wayward teenager Robby, who – unknown to him – is actually Lawrence’s estranged son.
Larusso passes on the reflective and serene Miyagi-Do philosophy to Robby, using metaphoric activities such as pruning Bonsai trees and listening to the quiet countryside to help the teenager master his chaotic life. While Cobra Kai karate empowers the weak, Miyagi-Do tempers the unruly.
By framing karate practice as a search for balance in a difficult and changing world, the series illuminates many of the issues and concerns emerging in real-world martial arts classes. For example, tensions around integrating girls into the Cobra Kai dojo echo debates about the inclusion of more and more women into the historically male dominated Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The series also provides a light-hearted take on the gendered problems involved with integrating men and women in martial arts, such as the negotiation of painful and intimate touch in mixed-sex practice.
And as Lawrence consistently frames his tutelage of Miguel in terms of masculinity, their evolving relationship plays out many of the tensions and contradictions embedded in the ways Western men understand their practice of Asian martial arts. This includes contrasting the humble, restrained civility of the ideal martial artist with the aggressive, dominating competitiveness typically required for combat sports.
Meanwhile, Larusso’s use of metaphorical teaching activities mirror research findings that document the power of “journey” and “family” – related metaphors that help practitioners cultivate a sense of belonging and solidarity within Kung Fu communities.
By addressing these issues, the series suggests that karate can act as a mechanism for young people to find their own balance, in what is often a hyper-competitive, politically divisive and unforgiving society.
Both schools and teachers are finding their own way of addressing these issues: balance between the interests of different generations, between Eastern and Western ideologies, between traditional and modern approaches to learning and between liberal and conservative values. And, as the unfolding narrative of the series eventually suggests, learning valuable life lessons through both approaches may hold the answers that today’s young people need.
Craig Owen, Lecturer in Psychology, St Mary’s University, Twickenham; Alex Channon, Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Sport Studies, University of Brighton, and George Jennings, Lecturer in Sport Sociology/Physical Culture, Cardiff Metropolitan University