It’s hard to resist past glories, especially if you don’t do so well in the present. And when you have such a rich and storied history that has proven itself many times over, a simple solution is to bring elements back and repeat. However, this carries the risk of making it feel hollow. You don’t bring anything new to the table, you just remind people that you were great once. How long is it going to take?
Cobra Kai it’s about not doing that. The series could have been a simple and easy iteration of the rivalry shown in the original Karate kid Films that starred Ralph Macchio As a bullied teenager, he became a martial arts student. Instead, Cobra Kai spins a hundred and eighty degrees and focuses on the villain of the first film, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Instead of using the franchise’s past as something to be used for quick wins, the series expands and even enriches the story.
If we meet Johnny in the first season of Cobra Kai, he’s a loser. He lives on the poor side of town – incidentally, where Daniel lived in the cinema – he drinks a lot and he has a son whom he never sees from a failed relationship. It’s the kind of situation we want to see him in after being such an idiot in the 80s. We’re glad he’s down and out. It’s what he deserves, right? But as we learn more about his life, in the present and like in 1984, we see that he was abused by a wealthy stepfather (Ed Asner) who gave him expensive things instead of love, and his anger was built and focused by a new father figure: Cobra Kai Dojo owner John Kreese (Martin Kove).
Daniel is doing pretty well now. He has a supportive wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) and two children, and he runs a successful car dealership. However, he promotes his business by making lame commercials that exploit his fame as a karate champion, under the motto “We’re up against the competition” and giving away a bonsai tree with every car sold.
The rivalry remains. Johnny still thinks Daniel is a lucky boy who got away with an illegal kick, and Daniel still thinks Johnny is a tyrant. But there is a moment in season one that draws on it in such fantastically surprising ways. Johnny goes to Daniel’s house to settle in his back yard after his car is set on fire by Daniel’s cousin. A smaller show would give way and this would be a big event, rematch of the century. Instead, Amanda’s situation becomes diffuse and the two of them have breakfast together, leading to Daniel giving Johnny a new car.
Johnny doesn’t trust Daniel an inch, so they take a test drive and stop in Daniel’s old block of flats. This is where the show works so well by including small excerpts from the original films that are now cut between Daniel and Johnny and clips from The Karate Kid of Daniel and his mother (Randee Heller) arrive at their new location in Reseda. But it is never elaborated, just a brief reminder of how things were. Then when Johnny and Daniel are drinking together in a bar and Johnny tells that Kreese is a father figure to him when his stepfather bullies him and Daniel tells that Mr. Miyagi is a father figure to him after his real father dies, begin to see how similar they were.
Season two of the series brings Johnny back together with old friends, though it’s not for the happiest reasons. Tommy (Rob Garrison), the guy best remembered from the first movie who cheerfully shouts the famous line “Get him a body bag” is terminally ill. So, the old gang – Johnny, Tommy, Jimmy (Tony O’Dell) who is now a family man, and Bobby (Ron Thomas), who is now a pastor – meet for one final road trip to relive the good times of their youth. As they set off on motorbikes, the sequence is interrupted with footage from the original film of them as teenagers on dirt bikes, complete with the same music: “The Ride” of matches.
But things get more serious when Johnny reveals that he recently brought back Cobra Kai as well. The news raises unhappy memories for the other three, all horrified that Johnny has dredged it all, especially when Kreese is back in the picture. They have grown up, matured, moved on. But it’s also clear that Johnny’s friends still look up to him, and Tommy shows him that unlike himself, Johnny has the time to change and not relive the mistakes of the past.
In the third season of Cobra Kai, Daniel visits Okinawa again and meets Chozen (Yuji Okumoto), his opponent out The karate child part II. The series sets the stage by repeating the climate scene of this film with a fight to the death that Daniel wins but does not pursue. Then, in this day and age, we see Chozen acting quietly and angrily towards Daniel, so let’s assume he wants a repayment, especially when he scoffs when Daniel tells him that Miyagi-san taught him everything he knew .
Chozen takes Daniel to a Miyagi-do dojo, which houses all of the Miyagi family artifacts. Daniel argues when he is told that he cannot see a particular scroll. It’s “not for you,” says Chozen, a “foreigner”. The scene escalates to the rematch that we expected. Both men furiously compete against each other until Chozen reaches the next level and Daniel’s arm goes completely numb so that he cannot defend himself. As he pulls Daniel’s head back, the show flashes back to shots of the two in inverted position from the climax of the Karate Kid Part II. Chozen asks Daniel, “Live or die, man?” And when the music swells up and we think Daniel is doomed, Chozen throws his fist at Daniel’s face … and honks his nose like Daniel did him decades ago. And then he bursts out laughing.
What is then revealed is that Chozen used a secret “Miyagi pressure point” technique to disarm enemies, and he shares this with Daniel. Chozen explains that he was ashamed of his original defeat, but has learned to leave it behind – something Johnny and Daniel do too. Later in the season, the two fight against Kreese, who is shocked when Daniel uses the pressure point technique on him. Then they finish the third season together to teach together at Miyagi-do. And so the lesson ends.
It’s the present, it’s the now that matters most, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget the past. Learning from it is the only way to live your life in the present, and that’s what Mr. Miyagi always meant: “Lesson not just karate. Lesson for whole life. All life has a balance. Everything will be better. Understand?”