Cartoon Spinoffs – The Karate Kid

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoksChuck Norris Karate Kommandos RamboMister T]

I cannot stress strongly enough how much I love The Karate Kid. Along with Ghostbusters, it’s my all-time favourite film, and I was flooded with excitement and terror when Youtube announced the original (surviving) lead cast would be returning for a sequel series. Thankfully, Cobra Kai is incredible, as a legitimate continuation of the world, and with enough fan-pleasing references for obsessives like me. But thirty years ago, there was another spin-off, which ran for 13 episodes in the vaunted Saturday Morning cartoon slot, and is all but forgotten. Though, timeline wise, it came right after Karate Kid III, you’ll find no cameos from well-loved characters, no callbacks to a now-disbanded Cobra Kai Dojo, and few connections to the in-movie universe. In their place, there’s enough foreign stereotypes and funny accents to get a modern show sent to cancellation-outrage Hell a thousand times over.

I’ll admit, the films weren’t without their silly moments, particularly in the sequels. I never really count IV, the Hilary Swank one; not because I’m an incel, but because it doesn’t feel like a Karate Kid movie, with a single recurring character in Miyagi, a new, decidedly non-KK setting, and a subplot about a bird with a bad wing. While the original is the great underdog movie, with a fairly realistic dramatic tone, by part three, there’s a rich-prick baddie who literally makes his money illegally dumping toxic waste into rivers. Plus, a twenty minute section involving Daniel abseiling down a cliff to retrieve a special bonsai tree, with a dramatic musical score when the other bad guy snaps it in half, as Daniel and his oddly-platonic friend Robin rush it back to Miyagi to be mended, cradling the tree with all the pained emotional urgency one would use on a toddler who’s bleeding out from an accidental gunshot wound. But this is Tolstoy in comparison to the cartoon, which went down the absolute weirdest route possible.

01

The Karate Kid cartoon has a much smaller cast than the Mr. T, Chuck Norris, or Rambo shows, presumably as it wasn’t serving as a backdoor launch for a toyline, with a core crew of Daniel-san, Mr. Miyagi, and new character, Taki Tamurai; though as she’s a girl, Taki doesn’t get much to do. So, are the characters like their movie counterparts? Daniel, is at least the hot-headed, chip-on-his shoulder braggart of the films, which is part of their beauty, selling you on an underdog that’s still a bit of a wanker. But this is a Saturday Morning cartoon, so he also gets the C-3PO Droids role, constantly falling into fountains or off piers, and accidentally tucking the tablecloth into his collar, so he pulls everyone’s food over himself when he stands up. Chairs collapse beneath him to a comedy slide-whistle, and he falls down an open manhole, although the cast spend half the time wading around in sewers anyway.

Miyagi’s film version was deep and nuanced, where he was a old wise master, but he still a fallible human. He got grumpy. He got drunk. Cartoon Miyagi is essentially the Buddha; a flawless wellspring of Eastern wisdom, who’s never wrong, never angered, and for an elderly gent who’s scornfully called “grandpa” or “old man” by everyone he meets, is constantly back-flipping and somersaulting in and out of scene. It’s hard to do a Mr. Miyagi voice without sounding racist, and even though the voice actor actually is Japanese, you still get the sense he’s pushing up the corners of his eyes with his fingers. Every L is an R, and his vocabulary is so sparse, it seems like he’s suffered a debilitating brain injury. Miyagi never once uses a “to” or “the,” so instead of saying “where’s the boy?” it’s “where boy?!

02

The show’s concept is that the trio are searching the world for a stolen shrine, pinched from Taki’s village in Okinawa. This shrine, a miniature Japanese temple, endows whoever’s touching it with an endless variety of random powers; a magical MacGuffin that’s basically the Infinity Stones mashed into the sort of ornament your nan might bring back from a daytrip to Blackpool. The shrine is capable of reshaping reality to the whims of its master, but Miyagi’s sole goal in retrieving it is to return it to the village rather than, say, ending world hunger, or making his dick really big.

Now I’m a ways into my animated spin-offs series, I’m noticing the rote construction of these shows, each using the same small array of settings; jungle, voodoo island, London, a movie set; and padded with chase scenes through foreign cities comprised of empty streets. But no amount of familiarity could have quite prepared me for what was coming my way. Through the course of my work, I’ve sat through Russ Abbot’s C.U. Jimmy, Jim Davidson’s rude panto Rabbi, and the truly abominable Curry & Chips, and yet, find myself in awe of the Karate Kid cartoon using its world-travelling setting to rack up the lazy racial stereotypes at a rate which is genuinely astonishing.

03

The opening titles depict the shrine being stolen and the gang running across a backdrop of global monuments, under 80s music infused with a plinky-plonky Chinaman soundtrack and a chant of “Karate Kid!” There’s a bit where Miyagi honks someone’s nose before winking at the camera, in that classic spin-off move of making a throwaway bit that happened once in the original a primary aspect of their character.

Episode one, My Brother’s Keeper, opens with the gang boating along the Amazon, investigating rumours of animals acting weird, and figuring the shrine’s to blame. Cut to Amazonian tribesmen, all bowl cuts n’ loin cloths, chasing a boy who uses the shrine to call down jungle birds in attack. Daniel gets stuck in quicksand, and Miyagi swings in on a vine, before letting himself be kidnapped. Meanwhile, Kala, the shrine thief, invites Taki and Daniel to “come to my house and change clothes.” Bit weird. Every time I’ve opened with this, the police were called. Daniel’s soon out of those karate PJs and into a loin cloth, and he’s fuckin’ jacked.

04

The rest of the episode’s a power struggle between Kala and the tribal chief; a ripped guy with a jaguar pelt on his head. His henchman is unmistakably voiced by Uncle Phil, a constant present in the spin-offs series; as is the trope of someone wrestling an alligator, which Miyagi also does. As Daniel trains Kala, it’s clear they wanted to do their own take on the muscle memory waxing/fence painting, with Daniel wackily helping Kala improve his coordination by playing keepy-uppy with a pumpkin. Though that’s still not as dumb as the shit remake, where Jackie Chan teaches Will Smith’s loser kid karate by having him take his jacket on and off.

Anyway, the chief steals the shrine, using it to morph into an actual talking jaguar, and they fight on a log above a lava pit, where Kala uses his pumpkin training to defeat him. As they leave, the shrine accidentally falls in the Amazon and gets swept away, so the chase must continue! Just one episode in, they’re showcasing some of the shoddiest animation yet. One scene loops a close-up of Daniel moving through the jungle, lips still flapping though he’s not talking the second time round, and characters who’re walking often jerk backwards a few frames, like whoever was photographing the cell sneezed. The artwork’s wildly inconsistent, switching from “yes, this is an actual cartoon” to moments that seem like some animator’s kid was let loose on bring your child to work day, where Daniel’s suddenly twelve feet tall with limbs like cocktail sticks.

05

The Greatest Victory, episode 2, takes us to Hong Kong, which is under the control of a mafia-type imaginatively called the Dragon, running protection rackets on all the vase shops. With an Asian supporting cast, everyone talks rike– sorry, talks like Benny Hill’s Mr. Chow Mein, giving an uncomfortable Charlottesville vibe to Daniel “the only white guy” LaRusso’s leading of an anti-Dragon protest march, waving signs and chanting “Dragon go home!” (to where?!) I was half expecting Tommy Robinson to come out and give a speech before chopping through matchsticks with his little hands.

The gang track down an old mate of Miyagi’s by traipsing through the sewers, casually wading through a waist-deep river of Hong Kong’s piss and shit in their clothes, and celebrating with wonton soup, which was presumably on the writer’s room whiteboard of ‘Asian things’, along with gongs, big whicker hats, and “Ah, so!” The Dragon ends up with the shrine, which this time, turns its owner into a giant electric ninja, and Miyagi throws one of the Dragon’s goons so hard, his trousers come off. Daniel defeats the Dragon with an example of the show’s terrible attempts at creating Eastern pacifist philosophy, having him recall an earlier use of riddles to “think, not fight,” while trapped under a bookcase. “A book about bonsai trees… trees… water… pool… that’s it!” He spies a pool table and tips the balls over the floor, for the Dragon to comically trip over.

06

With the shrine getting sucked down another fucking drain, episode 3, The Homecoming, takes the crew to New York, where the Statue of Liberty stands right next to the Twin Towers. Finally, the chance for some sweet Karate Kid lore, as they head to New Jersey; Daniel’s old stomping ground, seen in the opening scenes of the movie. I hope we get to meet his ex-girlfriend, Judy, who he references with his mom after meeting Ali, though confusingly, when movie-Daniel is saying farewell to a group of neighbourhood kids at the beginning, the girl he yells “Bye, Judy!” at is clearly eleven years old. Let’s hope it was a common name in 80’s Newark, and he’s not the Karate Paed.

However, Daniel does run into an ex, pulling off her balaclava when foiling a subway bag snatching, in a portrayal of the freaky NY subway which has punks with ghetto blasters, but nobody masturbating through their dirty jeans. The gang are put up by Daniel’s friend, Papa Tony, and see if you can guess his racial heritage through his introductory dialogue:

Stupid-a truck, I’d be betta off with-a jersey cow! I gotta pizza to deliver!

07

Mama mia, his delivery boy “he’s-a late again!” Meanwhile, Daniel’s ex, Tina, is shacked up with a biker called Brick; the same bad lad who interrupted their date at the carnival back in the day. With Tina’s help, Brick finds the shrine, which briefly transforms him into a giant spider, leading to a showdown at the old carnival. But before that, there’s nonsense with Daniel and Miyagi crashing a pizza van filled with Papa Tony’s bees, which Miyagi uses as a teaching moment in being calm, plus another riddle where Daniel needs to find Papa Tony’s secret savings for gas money. “Where would that be? Be? BEE?!” Yes, it’s in the bee hives. Hardly fucking 3-2-1 is it?

Brick, in classic 80’s baddie leather jacket and mullet combo, calls Daniel “wimp” and “short stuff,” still some-ways short of the movie’s best-worst insult of “must be take a worm for a walk week!” At the carnival, Brick uses the shrine to triplicate himself, and there’s a scuffle atop a rollercoaster, but the shrine gets tangled in some balloons, and inexplicably floats away into the sky for next week. All the while, I’m constantly having to remind myself this is a Karate Kid cartoon. That bit in the first movie where Miyagi chops the drunks’ beer bottles in half always seemed a bit far-fetched, but here we’ve got giant spider-people, and Miyagi using a luggage trolley as a skateboard to ride up the side of buildings. And who’s funding all this globe-trotting? Is Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees still in business? Yeah, the kind of ‘trees’ that college kids and white men with dreadlocks love, I bet.

Episode 4’s The Tomorrow Man takes us to another place rich in possibilities for egregious racial stereotypes, in Paris. This week, they’re following a smuggler named Whiskers who’s ‘thing’ is a fondness for the dessert ‘parfait a chocolate,’ which Miyagi uses to track him to a restaurant. Like all the French characters, Whiskers speaks English with an accent, like ‘Allo ‘Allo, and they get into a speedboat chase where Daniel waterskis in his karate slippers.

08

Daniel enlists the help of a psychic called The Amazing Roland, who’s cheating with the old Peter Popoff earpiece trick, and eventually steals the shrine for himself, giving Daniel a magic premonition of Mr. Miyagi holding the shine while he’s mown down by a red truck (or blue, when they fuck up the continuity). It’s that old ‘every time Daniel tries to alter the future, he helps it along’ deal, cursed by visions of Miyagi’s death, while Miyagi’s all philosophical and “if dis fate, so be it!” Eventually, Whiskers hijacks the truck — a baguette truck, of course — and it barrels towards a downed Miyagi (though he’s got time to reel off three lines of Okinawan wisdom as he’s laying there). But at the last second, Daniel karate kicks his way into the vehicle and steers it clear, accidentally hitting the shrine and sending it… down another drain. Christ, that thing must smell like an anus by now. There should’ve been a TMNT crossover where Michaelangelo finds it and magicks up a sentient RealDoll of April made entirely out of pizza dough.

The search resumes in All the World His Stage, taking us off to London, where Daniel immediately rescues a window cleaner by swinging from a Union Jack, guvnah! The shrine’s been sold as a prop to a movie studio, where teen heartthrob type, Kevin Woods, is shooting a King Arthur flick. Portrayed by a voice actor who saw Spinal Tap once, Kevin becomes obsessed with Taki, getting her a part as a chambermaid, as a jealous Daniel, described by Taki as “like my big brother,” gives furious skunk-eye. Karate Cuck, more like.

09

The shrine touches a prop sword, endowing it with all its power, and turning Kevin mad, thinking he’s really the Black Knight, and Daniel — on-set as newly hired stunt coach — is his mortal enemy, King Arthur. There’s a horseback duel for “fair maiden” Taki on Tower Bridge at noon, though it’s dark out, and swamped in Victorian pea-soup fog. Taki gets knocked off the edge, hanging on by her fingertips, as Kevin gives a lone, likely unintentional Cobra Kai easter egg, “I give no mercy to traitors!” Daniel wins, and the shrine falls in the Thames and floats away. Incredibly, this piece of shit 23 minutes has four writers, rather than just a chicken who was pushing down the typewriter keys by pooing on them.

Such is my grim fascination with seeing my favourite movie be wildly perverted, I sat through six full episodes of this trash, with the final being The Paper Hero. Set in Mexico, it’s clear the writers did a tremendous amount of research, namely, watching The Three Amigos. Though it’s 1989, this is Mexico as seen in Westerns set a century before, where droopy-tashed banditos ride through dusty streets on horseback, with Eddie Guerrero voices and oversized sombreros that would have been too big for an episode of The Goodies. These no-goodniks have stolen the shrine, which gives them various X-Men like superpowers, from Cyclops’ eyebeams to Superman’s breath.

10

But the best part of the episode concerns their attitudes to a homeless man with an eyepatch who appears in Miyagi’s window (while the gang are working at an enchilada restaurant for some reason?). With his back to the window, Miyagi nails him in the face with an onion, before giving him some money. How did he know he was there? “Beggar smell like dirty gym socks,” he says, waving the stink away with a hand. Later, when being rounded on by Mexicans with bull-whips and clubs, the tramp rescues Daniel and co by tossing in a smoke bomb so they can escape. “That was pretty clever,” says Daniel, adding — right to the homeless man’s face — “I bet he if put his mind to it, he could be more than a poor beggar!” Bloody hell, alright, Norman Tebbit.

Not that this excuses their harping on about how smelly and disgusting he is, but when Miyagi realises “dirty beggar have clean fingernails,” he rips off the beard, revealing Daniel’s Uncle Jack, who’s a secret agent on a mission. Though, as it later transpires, he’s really just a file clerk at the FBI, there to steal the shrine for himself. It’s interesting to meet a new member of the LaRussos, and they sorta follow the Karate Kid 3 line of having Daniel go against Miyagi by siding with a cooler mentor with a hidden agenda, tagging along with Uncle Jack against Miyagi’s wishes. The plot takes in a Catholic Padre with a hidden key, a booby-trapped Mayan temple, and “the world’s most notorious smuggler,” The Bear; a guy with a metal claw-hand. We close on the shrine falling into a horse’s pack, as the horse bolts away into the distance.

11

The Karate Kid cartoon ran for a further seven episodes, including trips to the Himalayas, Australia, where they meet an Aborigine (I dread to fucking think), Russia, and a Norwegian whaling vessel, on which they’re working. Presumably it was cancelled when they ran out of minority groups to offend. That said, I wish I could track down episode 12, The Grey Ghosts, set in a San Francisco community of elderly ladies. Check out the synopsis.

They learn the shrine may be in possession of a reclusive tycoon named Frump. Daniel has to work with one of the Gray Ghosts, who is very different from the stereotypes Daniel has of old ladies.

12

A tycoon called Frump, eh? Look, this is a decidedly terrible show; a warped incarnation of beloved characters who carry great meaning for me. Even though nothing that happened is now considered part of canon, at the time, this was meant as an extension of the Karate Kid universe, so for a while, Miyagi and Daniel, ‘Karate’s Bad Boy’ Mike Barnes and Chozen, Ali Mills and John Kreese’s teenage skeleton-bullies; they all sat alongside the evil magicians, talking jaguars, and mulleted spider-boys as part of the same world. Now we’ve seen what a true great follow-up can be, in Youtube’s fantastic Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid cartoon is effectively lost; consigned to the sewers of pop culture history, like so many drain-bound shrines. I guess if Cobra Kai gets stuck for material, at least they’ve got plenty to draw from here. I’ll leave you with part of the synopsis from the animated show’s final episode:

Somewhere in the South, the shrine has come under possession of a shy black boy named Walter, who uses the power of the shrine to shrink actual items such as railroad cars and add them to his model collection. In doing so, Walter accidentally uses the shrine to shrink the trio

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~ by Stuart on September 15, 2019.

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