The key to a successful sequel (as I’ve written elsewhere) is a focus on character rather than action; by this criteria, The Karate Kid Part II is an exceptional sequel. Consider, for a moment, that the heart of the original movie was not karate—it was the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. We fell in love with The Karate Kid because Ralph Macchio was so endearing, earnest and fresh as the heartfelt but lost soul in a new city, and because Pat Morita was so compelling as the aphoristic and wise instructor whose lessons have far more to do with life than martial arts. Karate was merely an excuse—the playing field of Daniel-san’s right-of-passage—which allowed us to spend time with these interesting characters. The effect of their relationship left the viewer wishing for a Miyagi of his or her own, to guide and channel the energy of youth toward positive ends. In these ways, all the energy, power, and momentum of the original film are worked into what becomes a powerful story of forgiveness in the second.
In the sequel, then, this relationship is rightly preserved as the soul and starting point of this film, and once again karate is the excuse and playing field of their story. In Karate Kid II Daniel and Miyagi must together face a major life problem—in this case the blinding rage of Miyagi’s former best friend, Sato. The brilliant effectiveness of this plot is worth some comment. Consider, for a moment, how a poorer script would have chosen to place some sort of block between Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi, making the arc of the story their reconciliation. Daniel, the adolescent, would have been disobedient to Miyagi and then we would have needed to reconcile their relationship together. (This, if I remember rightly, was actually the plot of the third film.) The problem is that such a plot nullifies very the teacher-student relationship which is the central strength of the franchise (hence, in my estimation, the general failure of the third movie).
Why should this be the case? I believe that watching characters we love struggle with one another creates anxiety in the viewer; we want our friends to get along and take no pleasure when they are at odds. However, watching those same friends face issues together and become stronger in the process creates hope. And as far as I can tell, most people prefer hope to anxiety. The result is that Karate Kid II, by preserving the Daniel and Mr. Miyagi relationship so that we never have to worry about them, gives the audience permission to enter fully into the conflict between Sato and Miyagi.
It is the portrayal of this broken relationship and its reconciliation that makes Karate Kid II truly shine. The opening scene sets the tone for the story. In it we step back into the last frames of the previous film; there Daniel beats the Cobra Kai student with his crane kick, everyone cheers, and after the fight we shift to a new scene where Daniel and Miyagi are outside the arena discussing the match. Nearby, the enraged and misguided teacher of the Cobra Kais begins to strangle the student who lost the fight. Miyagi steps in to save the student, and the evil teacher smashes both his hands into car windows as Miyagi dodges his punches. Miyagi then takes the teacher in hand, cocks his arm back for a killing blow, and then, instead of striking him, comically honks the teacher’s nose. This leaves him in humiliation on the ground. Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi, “You could have killed him, right?” And Miyagi agrees that he could have. Daniel asks why he didn’t, and Miyagi’s response tunes our ears to the heart of the movie, “Because Daniel, for man with no forgiveness in heart, life worse punishment than death.” We now know that this is a movie about forgiveness, and the viewer is left to ponder this truth as the film unfolds.
In the movie, Miyagi must return to his home in Okinawa to visit his dying father. We learn that 30 years previously Miyagi had left in unpleasant circumstances. When a relationship breaks down, it is always because some issue comes between the parties of the relationship, swelling to the degree that it eclipses the other person. We come to ‘see’ the problem and no longer the person. In Miyagi’s case, he had fallen in love with a girl in his village, but that girl ended up betrothed to his best friend, Sato. In passion, Miyagi declared his intention to marry the girl no matter what. Sato, insulted, challenged Miyagi to a fight to the death. But rather than fight his best friend, Miyagi left town forever. We learn that while Miyagi had left the past and mellowed over time, Sato’s rage at the ‘thing’ between them had only grown.
Miyagi would happily reconcile with Sato—he would rather have his friend than the block between them—but Sato has come to believe, blinded by his rage, that the only acceptable resolution is a fight to the death. The tension between them ratchets throughout the film, and Sato finally succeeds in pressuring Miyagi to fight by threatening the village. But on the night of their scheduled fight a sudden and fierce storm sweeps upon the village (symbolic of the tension? probably). Sato, inside a prayer chapel, is trapped under a giant beam when it collapses. Miyagi rushes in with Daniel to save him, and even as Miyagi’s hand is raised above the beam to strike it, Sato believes that Miyagi is going to kill him. Instead, Miyagi breaks the beam (notably, a task Sato is unable to perform), and in breaking it symbolically breaks the beam that had hardened Sato’s heart. It is this act of merciful force that finally opens Sato’s eyes to see that their friendship is of more value to him than his rage.
Sato is transformed. In the place of his grudge, he once again chooses his friend. They are reconciled, fully, and not only Miyagi and Sato, but Sato and the village are reconciled as well. The whole landscape is transformed because of Miyagi’s mercy. This is the power of reconciliation on display.
Does The Karate Kid II have great cinematography? No. Are moments in the film, for example some of the acting and situations, cheesy? Yes. Is the fight choreography top-of-the-line? Far from it. But those aren’t really the criteria we use for judging a Karate Kid film. In the end, these movies are enjoyable because, for the two hours we watch them, we get to be Daniel, learning lessons from Mr. Miyagi. We expect these movies to teach us something—a valuable life lesson is what we expect from this movie. And the lesson at the heart of this film is that reconciliation is better—infinitely better—than revenge. A scene near the climax of the film clearly expresses this point. Miyagi is preparing his last will and testament in the event that he dies in the fight against Sato. Bringing the will to Daniel he announces that Daniel will get the house and truck back in California. Daniel’s immediate response is telling: “I don’t want that stuff,” he cries, “I want you!” My relationship with you, Daniel claims, is of far more value to me than any other thing. I would rather have you than any thing in this life. Daniel, the good student, our example, learns his lesson well. Sato will learn his lesson by the end of the film. And we are challenged to do the same.