INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘Cobra Kai’ — Coming to a Dojo Near You

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

I was as surprised as anyone by last Friday’s announcement from the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour that Ralph Macchio and William Zabka would reprise their roles as rivals Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence from the beloved 1984 movie “The Karate Kid.” (See http://tinyurl.com/ybzxb8on)

Titled “Cobra Kai,” this 10-episode series will in 2018 appear exclusively on YouTube Red, which is YouTube’s paid subscription version of the video streaming service. Since it’s not as well-known as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Hulu, this news helps lift the profile of the Alphabet-owned property. (Alphabet is also the parent company of Web search and advertising behemoth Google.) Whether it will drive subscriptions to YouTube Red is another question altogether.

It’s right out of the playbook for another upstart streaming service, CBS All Access, which will exclusively offer “Star Trek: Discovery” beginning Sept. 24. Just like with “Cobra Kai” and YouTube Red, if you’re interested in watching this new “Star Trek” show, there will be no other way to do so except by paying for a subscription, which will of course get you all sorts of other CBS programming.

Speaking of Google, as I searched to see what sort of news and commentary there was out there on the Web, one headline from Endgadget made me chuckle: “‘Karate Kid’ reboot no one asked for debuts on YouTube Red in 2018.”

Yes, unlike the massive fan base that revived “Star Trek” with letter-writing campaigns and conventions many years ago and continues today with this latest, aforementioned “Star Trek” series, I was never aware of any grassroots groundswell to bring back Daniel-san and company, beloved as the original movie franchise was. Why it was and is still beloved is because of one Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who played the unforgettable role of Mr. Miyagi.

But Pat Morita died in 2005, sadly, and since then, the original producer Jerry Weintraub died in 2015, with director John Avildsen having died in June. (Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the original’s script and created Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san, is fortunately still with us.)

But there always has been some interest in “Karate Kid,” nevertheless. In 2014, for the 30th anniversary of the release of the original “Karate Kid,” the Japanese American National Museum brought together several of its cast members, plus Avildsen and Aly Morita, a daughter of Pat Morita. (See The Rafu Shimpo’s coverage of that event at http://tinyurl.com/yaaffycw and to see the recording of the event on YouTube, see http://tinyurl.com/y7sm68l3)

There was also a great article in L.A. Weekly in 2014 (see http://tinyurl.com/y8c5knrx) by Jared Cowen that may have inspired that panel, titled “How a Movie Shot in the San Fernando Valley Made Us All The Karate Kid.”

Ralph Macchio as Daniel and Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi in a scene from “The Karate Kid.”

There was also the 2010 remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith (movie superstar Will Smith’s son), which was essentially the same exact movie with different stars, in a different location, kung fu instead of karate, with more stunning fight scenes but minus the soul, heart and chemistry of the first and best* of all the different iterations.

And why was it the best? Pat Morita — and it was he who was in all four of the original installments. Not Macchio and definitely not Zabka. Morita was not only the special sauce to the franchise, he was the heart and the soul that made it all work.

Why? Because Pat Morita was special. We have to remember that until “The Karate Kid,” Pat’s biggest success was Arnold in “Happy Days” and a very short-lived “Mr. T and Tina,” predating “All American Girl,” “Dr. Ken” and “Fresh Off the Boat” as sitcoms starring Asian Americans.

Not even Weintraub thought Morita was right for the role of Mr. Miyagi, but Morita’s audition footage (and Avildsen’s insistence) changed his mind and Pat didn’t let him down. He was like the Jeremy Lin of movies way before Linsanity.

The reason we remember “The Karate Kid” at all isn’t because of karate — like Kobe Bryant saying “basketball isn’t about basketball,” “Karate Kid” is not about karate. It’s about a man who lost his chance to have a son and a boy who didn’t have a father to help him become a young man finding each other. That was what “Karate Kid” was all about, summed up by Daniel-san telling Miyagi: “You’re the best friend I ever had.”

It wasn’t really about the teenage rivalry between Daniel and Johnny and it certainly isn’t about their relationship three decades later. But maybe it can be. I hope it’s good and I hope it honors the memory of Pat.

I asked Aly Morita about this development, and like me, it was a surprise to her, too. “It was news to me, but very good news. I’m happy for Ralph and Billy,” she wrote in a text message. “They’ve always had an amazing rapport, which was evident when we all did the JANM panel for ‘KK’s’ 30th anniversary, and it makes sense that they should continue to have fun with these beloved characters.

“Supposedly, it’s a comedy, so they should bring in Tamlyn, too, and introduce her and Daniel’s secret love child! I’m excited for them!”

One interesting factoid is that among the behind-the-scenes entities, who include writer Josh Heald (“Hot Tub Time Machine”) and writing team Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (“Harold and Kumar”), there is also the involvement of Overbrook Entertainment, which is Will Smith’s production company that was behind the 2010 reboot. Looks like even they are going back to the original well!

I do have questions, though. Will screenwriter Kamen be involved? (I doubt it but he should be getting a paycheck anyway.) What about Randee Heller, who played Daniel’s mother in the original but was written out of the series? Elisabeth Shue, who was the girl Daniel and Johnny wanted? What about psychopathic Sensei Kreese (Marty Kove)? We’ll all have to wait and see.

In the end, I think I’d like to see “Cobra Kai,” reservations aside. That’ll mean subscribing to YouTube Red, of course. I already know my kids would like that!

* I know some might take issue with that and say “The Karate Kid Part II,” like “The Empire Strikes Back” compared with “Star Wars,” was a better movie. But as standalone stories, the first ones are better and the second ones couldn’t have existed without the first ones. The best things about “Karate Kid II” were the introduction of Tamlyn Tomita and Yuji Okumoto. Apologies to the late Nobu McCarthy, but the most egregious aspect of the sequel was the convenient removal of what made the first one so great: Miyagi had a wife and child who died in Manzanar! He actually had a previous girlfriend whom he liked better?! Feh.)

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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