Wax On, Wax Off

Soundtrack Collector

The 1984 Karate Kid is one of my absolute favorite back-to-school movies, well, it and the Harry Potter series. Every year we watch these at my house sometime around the first weeks of the new school year.

While Kid is a classic anyway, anyone who lived through the nineteen eighties will remember how much Gen-Xers would quote it to each other. Alllllll the time. Everyone I knew, myself included, said stuff like, “Concentrate, Daniel-san,” or “Wax on, wax off.” These phrases were heard almost as much as lines from William Goldman’s immortal Princess Bride.

For those who haven’t seen it, here’s a bit of what happens. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his widowed mom, Lucille (Randee Heller) move from Newark, New Jersey, to Reseda, California. Life comes at them fast. The movie shows Daniel and Lucille leaving their home in Newark, and then all of a sudden they seem to be in the Midwest and Arizona. Quickest cross-country trip evah.

Daniel and his mom are both underdogs and used to having to make do with what they have; their station wagon transmission is a bit shaky and sometimes they have to start it by pushing the car while it’s in second gear. Lucille is sure California is going to be great for them, and at first it is.

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They arrive two days before school starts, and Daniel is invited to a party (Sorta Adios To Summer, of course) by new neighbor, Freddy (Israel Juarbe), and while kicking a soccer ball around the beach, Daniel sees Ally (Elisabeth Shue) for the first time. The other guys try to warn him off because Ally is rich, but Daniel can’t stop staring at her.

Problem is, Ally’s ex-boyfriend, Johnny (William Zabka) shows up with his bunch of Cobra Kai friends. He’s not too happy to see Ally hanging out with Daniel, and long story short, Daniel gets his tail kicked. On a level Daniel sort of deserves it because he lied to Freddy about his karate abilities, and he’s too inexperienced to know when he’s outmatched, but still, this incident is no fun.

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On his first day of school Daniel sports a huge black eye, which he passes off to his mom as an injury from a bike accident. He’s ostracized by Freddy and the group from the party, and while he strikes up a friendship with Ally, he’s a bit ashamed to face her too often because Johnny and the Cobra Kais beat him up every time they see him. Ally’s not completely out of the picture, though.

Help comes from an unlikely source. Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the handyman at the apartment complex, befriends Daniel, and they bond over clipping bonzai trees. On the night of the Halloween dance, Daniel douses Johnny with water while he’s in the bathroom rolling joints, and the Cobra Kais tail Daniel almost to his front door.

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While Daniel is writhing in pain on the ground, Mr. Miyagi hops over the fence and creams the Cobra Kais. He and Daniel go to the Cobra Kai dojo the next day, where Mr. Miyagi makes a deal with the commandant, er, sensei, Kreese (Martin Kove) that his students will lay off of Daniel until the All Valley Tournament in December. Until then, obviously, Daniel is going to learn karate.

Since time is not on their side, Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel back to his house, where he does go on occasion…and hands him a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. Daniel is to wash every car in Mr. Miyagi’s yard, and when he lays down the wax, he’s to make circular movements only. Hrm. Wax on, wax off. It’s one of a series of chores Mr. Miyagi puts Daniel through, and eventually Daniel rebels because he thinks he should be learning karate. Well, there’s more to these chores than meets the eye. It all leads up to the tournament, when everything Daniel’s learned comes to fruition.

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Director John Avildsen, who not only had an extensive background in karate but also had a certain famous boxing movie under his belt in 1984 (ahem, Rocky), was going for realism in The Karate Kid in every way. He wanted real locations, a lot of which still exist today, by the way, and nothing slicked up. There’s not a lot of Hollywood glam in the film; the teenagers look like teenagers and the grownups look like normal people. It all seems lived-in. It adds some natural grit to the story because we are able to connect with these places and these people.

I also love the soundtrack, which is so firmly in the eighties that it’s a nostalgia trip all the way through. The funny thing is I don’t remember hearing most of the music outside of the film. Well, except for one–the awesome “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. The rest is firmly lodged in the KK universe.

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Another part of the film that’s really effective is Daniel’s character arc. The bottom line is that he’s a kid. He doesn’t know how to pick his battles. He’s not always a victim; sometimes he gets cocky and provokes his opponents, which is the completely natural, human thing to do, albeit unwise. Daniel doesn’t know at first why he’s training beyond giving Johnny and the Cobra Kais a taste of their own medicine, but over the course of the story he matures quite a bit. He goes from wanting revenge on Johnny to wanting to feel like his job has been done well.

Mr. Miyagi is human and hurting too, of course, even though he might seem unflappable. He grieves for his wife, who died in childbirth in Manzanar, and drains a bottle of whisky every year on his wedding anniversary. He doesn’t say much to Daniel, but when he passes out from the liquor Daniel tucks him into bed and soberly looks through Mr. Miyagi’s box of mementos, holding them up and studying them slowly. As he leaves, Daniel silently bows to Mr. Miyagi’s sleeping form and from that point on he’s not flippant or impatient about what he’s trying to accomplish.

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There’s also a remarkable innocence to the movie, which, unlike plenty of teen movies from that era, is not raunchy in the slightest. Daniel’s relationship with Ally is combative in a fun way, as well as sweet. They hang out at Golf N’ Stuff playing arcade hockey and taking photos in the photo booth. I used to think Daniel looked too young for Ally, but almost forty years later this is not the case. Sigh. 🙂

What has all of this Karate Kid stuff got to do with going back to school? Well, a new school year is obviously about new beginnings and learning about oneself, about finding one’s niche in an initially foreign environment. It’s also about finding that mentor who sees what we need to learn and plays to that, and a mentor like Mr. Miyagi is rare, indeed. In one way or another we’ve all been in Daniel’s place, and it’s always bracing to see him succeeding despite the proverbial unfavorable odds.

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That wraps up our Sorta Adios To Summer posts. I hope you all have enjoyed this past week–I know I sure have. We may need to do this again next year, possibly as a blogathon. What do you all think?

All right, a new “During World War Two” post is coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, everyone and I hope to see you then…


The Karate Kid is available to own on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.

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If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

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