Cobra Kai, Daniel LaRusso’s Stunted Development

If you’re one of many who subscribe to Netflix’s streaming service, you may have caught the recently released fourth season of Cobra Kai (originally on YouTube for the first two seasons, then picked up by Netflix shortly after), the sequel to The Karate Kid film series (excluding the remake film that starred Jackie Chan), on New Year’s Eve 2021.

For those who haven’t watched The Karate Kid series, including The Next Karate Kid (starring Hillary Swank), it is IMPERATIVE that you do so BEFORE you watch Cobra Kai. If you don’t, many parts of Cobra Kai’s story won’t make sense to you.

Even though there aren’t any references to The Next Karate Kid, YET, there could be in the near future as Cobra Kai has been renewed for a fifth season.

For the uninitiated, Cobra Kai takes place roughly three decades and a half since the film with Daniel LaRusso (role reprised by Ralph Macchio) emerging victorious over Johnny Lawrence (role reprised by William Zabka) at the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament.

While I enjoyed watching Cobra Kai, especially its latest season, I couldn’t help but be disappointed in Daniel LaRusso as a person. I was definitely surprised, especially watching season four, that Daniel is unable to move on from the past.

Even though I know it is the intention of Cobra Kai’s creators that the old guard can’t move beyond the past, yet, I couldn’t withhold my scrutiny of Daniel in terms of growth and development. The man’s development has been stunted and clings onto the past like a crutch. To put it in a nutshell, Daniel’s life became stagnant.

Daniel’s stagnation reminded me of a core problem that I have with the older generation of non-Asian martial artists, ESPECIALLY with the masters and grandmasters, they think they have a good grasp of Asian culture and society. They believe they know what is “true” Asian culture and believe they have a mandate to whitesplain Asian culture & issues to the Asian community.

It’s like a non-Asian person who specializes in Judo/Jujutsu and/or Karate, then thinks they’re a f — king authority on Japanese culture & society.

Or a non-Asian person who specializes in Tae Kwon Do and/or another Korean martial art, then thinks they’re an authority figure on Korean culture & society.

I’m reminded of my brief time in the AMWF (typical acronym of Asian Male & White Female or Asian Male & “Western” Female) groups on Facebook. I have to say that it was an entertaining experience before the novelty wore off but I was shocked and disgusted at the members (the ones who identify as WF) believing they’re authorities on Asian culture (including the many sociopolitical issues) because they’re so into Korean pop (known as K-Pop) and having dated/f — ked so many Asian dudes.

The WF members in those groups, from what I have personally seen and what I have been told by others, believe they have the mandate to whitesplain Asian issues to the Asian community.

This is the same impression I get from many non-Asian martial artists, too, that they think they’re authorities on Asian culture. The truth is that they’re learning about one aspect of culture and society, not the whole of it.

There’s the romanticization of Asian culture, too, which is not good, because they only know about the figurative “sugar-coated topping.”

My observation from watching Cobra Kai is that Daniel believes he’s an expert and authority on Japanese culture solely from Mr. Miyagi’s teachings. I get the impression that he BELIEVES he knows what “true” Japanese culture is. It’s like believing that the Karate grandmasters are the representatives of “true” or “real” Japanese culture, believing that Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo grandmasters are the representatives of “true” or “real” Korean culture, and so on.

This is one reason I enjoy watching Kim’s Convenience.

I was saying “Japanophile” in my head many times during the first season of Cobra Kai, especially with the LaRusso Motors gimmick of offering buyers a complimentary bonsai plant with the purchase of a new vehicle.

In real life, would that gimmick even work?

I personally wouldn’t be swayed by that gimmick. I’d have to get a sweeter deal like a gift card with the loaded value of a few hundred dollars or something that’s worth as much as a flat-screen TV. I’ll definitely accept a Playstation 5 console, too.

Anyway, that was just the start of seeing how Daniel really stagnated since The Karate Kid series.

He had a very rigid and narrow-minded view of what it meant to Mr. Miyagi’s legacy, which is a major plot device in season four, which stunted his growth. I saw that his development has stagnated since defeating Mike Barnes at the All-Valley Tournament in The Karate Kid Part III.

Daniel used his 1984 All-Valley Karate victory as a crutch to promote his business. This was a tournament that took place almost 35 years ago. It’s like someone using their high school athletic accomplishments as some sort of crutch to market a product. As a martial arts athlete, I saw that he hasn’t grown beyond the yearly All-Valley Karate tournament scene.

Rhetorically asking, is the All-Valley Karate Tournament bigger than regional, state, national, or international tournaments?

Also rhetorically asking, is the All-Valley Karate Tournament that f — king prestigious?

Not to knock down on martial arts competitions let alone Karate tournaments, there are a lot more prestigious things in the San Fernando Valley than Karate. Is the prestige of Karate in the Valley the equivalent to scholastic football in Texas or scholastic wrestling in Pennsylvania?

The counter-argument would be that there’s MORE to martial arts, let alone Karate than competing and winning competitions. That is something I wholeheartedly agree with as I don’t care much for tournaments in the first place and know a couple of martial artists who are too concerned with winning them.

BUT that 1984 victory is literally the only accomplishment that Daniel is milking to promote his business.

I can see that Daniel’s horizons have become narrow-minded over the decades. One can give criticism to Johnny Lawrence, Daniel’s rival, but Johnny’s depression is understandable because of the toxic influences in his life (John Kreese and his late stepfather). Daniel’s mission to snuff Cobra Kai out for good adversely affects him to where he cannot keep his personal and professional lives separated.

It caused Daniel to neglect his business dealings to allow the beef between the two schools to hurt his business further.

At least Johnny is trying to learn, courtesy of The School of Hard Knocks, though he still needs to be corrected on the difference between Ecuadorian and Mexican culture (you’ll UNDERSTAND once you watch season four).

Daniel’s ignorance definitely shows midway through the show’s third season, where he travels to Japan in an attempt to keep a distributor, Doyona, from severing ties with LaRusso Motors. He takes a visit to Okinawa again, the first time he has returned since The Karate Kid Part II, and is shocked at how much Tomi Village has changed since Daniel had last seen it.

A lot can change between the 1980s era and now.

This serves as a crucial lesson, you need to constantly adapt in order to survive. Tomi Village had to do the very same (which Kumiko, reprised by Tamlyn Tomita, briefly explains) when the crops, its main source of livelihood, ultimately died out.

“White entitlement” is written all over Daniel, figuratively, when he visits Tomi Village. I got the impression that Daniel believed that Tomi Village was supposed to remain the same after all those years.

Daniel and his wife, Amanda, have done well for themselves with the LaRusso Auto Group, and I would assume they could have taken several couples or family vacations out of town. They could have easily booked a flight to Okinawan and vacationed in Tomi Village.

Chozen Toguchi (reprised by Yuji Okumoto), from The Karate Kid Part II, has demonstrated growth since losing to Daniel in that one fateful match. He learned from that experience and strived hard to become a better person and gave Daniel that shot in the @$$.

I’m reminded of when my second youngest uncle made an impulsive decision to visit Vietnam to see his online girlfriend, who he ended up marrying during his second trip to the country, back in 2015. He thought Vietnam was the same since he and the rest of the family, years before I was born since they left.

NOTE: My maternal grandmother was a liaison between the CIA and the South Vietnamese anti-Communist groups. The family was able to leave by helicopter days before The Fall of Saigon.

This is why my mom and the rest of our family aren’t the best people to rely on if seeking travel advice on Vietnam.

The Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, adapted from Ins Choi’s original stage play of the same name, starring Simu Liu (the titular star of Shang-Chi And The Legend of the Ten Rings), and the Marlo Poras’ documentary drama, which aired on PBS, titled Mai’s America, are good examples to look at when examining Daniel’s inability to move on and grow.

Kim’s Convenience centers on the titular Kim Family, naturalized (the parents) and born (the children) Korean-Canadian immigrants, and the family business. In the original play, Mr. Kim is worried for the future of Kim’s Convenience as the Regent Park, the story’s setting, experiences gentrification, and the family store is in danger of dying because there are plans of opening a Wal-Mart in the area.

In the TV series adaptation, where Jung is played by Simu Liu, there is an episode that showcases the difference between the mainland and diasporic Korean communities. You don’t have to be knowledgeable in Korean culture and society to know that Korean entertainment is a hot commodity across the globe via the Hallyu Wave.

The TV series introduces a bunch of new characters, such as the semi-recurring Nayoung, the cousin who visits from South Korea. Nayoung’s debut episode, which is in season one, makes Janet examine what it means to be “Korean.”

Compared to Cobra Kai, Daniel inadvertently exercises white entitlement in thinking about what it means to be “Japanese” or what is “real” Okinawan culture. Daniel thinks he has the mandate to whitesplain Japanese culture.

It’s somewhat comparable to Sarah Palin’s 2008 speech about she believes “real America” is or comparable to Mitch McConnell’s recent speech where he implied that Black Americans aren’t real Americans. Daniel thinks he knows what real Japanese culture is, Palin thinks she knows what “real America” is, and McConnell implies that he believes that Black Americans aren’t true Americans.

Mai’s America, which aired in 2002, follows the titular Mai, a teenager who lives in an urbanized area of Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital). Mai’s dad makes a very decent living as a hotel manager and that ensures she can live comfortably. She is one of many foreigners who only know about America through a TV set and receives a rude awakening when they actually visit the country.

That dynamic echoes the second season of MTV’s The Real World where Dominic Griffin, originally from Ireland, said he only knew America through TV until he got to visit the country.

Mai becomes an international exchange student and ends up in Mississippi, a part of the United States that contrasts to what she was expecting. The documentary follows Mai’s life throughout her senior year of high school and through a portion of college. It was an interesting experience for Mai, especially when she hung out with the South Vietnamese diasporic community during the Lunar New Year celebration.

Mai got to experience Vietnam during the “old times.”

Daniel’s stubborn inability to grow and develop rears its ugly head throughout season four, where he and Johnny (through his newly created Eagle Fang Karate) reluctantly join forces to take Cobra Kai out of the picture.

He takes his Japanophilia up a notch when having a lunch break with Johnny with the former eating a Japanese noodle soup and the latter keeping it simple with a ham & cheese sandwich. I personally think Mr. Miyagi would opt for the sandwich because it’s quicker to make and more filling to eat.

Though Daniel does admit he was TOO focused on preserving Mr. Miyagi’s legacy, he was TOO rigid in doing so and closed himself off. I felt that he warped Mr. Miyagi’s legacy in his attempts of preserving it through the decades and it felt cringe-worthy as a martial artist. He had to learn the HARD way that there is no concrete way to preserve the legacy as his daughter, Samantha, had to combine what she learned from Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai in order to advance through the tournament.

Robby Keene, Johnny’s son and Daniel’s former student, also had to give Daniel a hard awakening, there is no absolute right way to reach victory.

Daniel’s stagnation has also affected his son, Anthony, who joined up with a group of fellow middle-school kids, former Cobra Kai students, to bully newcomer Kenny Payne. That triggers a domino effect of consequences that leads to Kenny being fully indoctrinated in the toxic ideology of Cobra Kai.

I wrote a few martial arts-related pieces that explain the lack of parental accountability and the LaRussos are as culpable as any other negligent parent. The saying of “the truth hurts” applies in one episode of season four, where a family member, played by Ralph Macchio’s real-life daughter, has an impromptu client-patient meeting with the two.

The family member was right on the money with the root cause of Anthony’s behavior, the lack of accountability from Daniel and Amanda. It was triggering for them both, but they needed to hear it.

Even though the series focuses on the chain of events from Daniel and Johnny’s respective inabilities to move beyond the past, I can see why, besides the illegal crane kick in The Karate Kid, many consider Daniel the “real villain.”

It doesn’t take away from enjoying the series, I actually do enjoy binge-watching it, Daniel’s disposition is a shining example of why you need to move on from the past. Neither Daniel nor Johnny were able to move on from the past though Daniel allowed himself to really stagnate over the decades, which negatively affected everything and everyone around him.

Hopefully, he’ll open his mind up, even more, come season five. I’m looking forward to seeing Daniel working with Chozen and how the Miyagi-Do students will respond to training under the latter.

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Veteran citizen journalist who enjoys martial arts, indie & foreign film, anime, manga, gaming, music, and martial arts.

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Can Hoang Tran

Can Hoang Tran

Veteran citizen journalist who enjoys martial arts, indie & foreign film, anime, manga, gaming, music, and martial arts.

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