By William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com
As I watched More Than Miyagi, Kevin Derek’s heartfelt and earnest documentary about the life of acclaimed actor Pat Morita, I found myself coming back to the film’s title on more than one occasion. How was this movie showing Morita as more than just this one iconic character? As Willam Zabka notes in one of the many inspired interviews, The Karate Kid movies, and Mr. Miyagi as a character, helped usher martial arts into the American mainstream. Millions of kids growing up from the 1980s onward saw a version of Daniel LaRusso in themselves, and looked for a mentor figure in the form of his sensei.
Such a legacy would seem to reinforce the idea that Morita was just Mr. Miyagi, not that he was more than the role that earned him an Oscar nomination. But as Derek’s narrative unfolded, it made more sense. Morita wasn’t something above his most famous character. In fact at times he openly embraced the typecasting that resulted from it. Mr. Miyagi was the culmination of a brilliant career and a fascinating life, a part that allowed Morita to embody himself in fictional form. Everything about Pat Morita’s life led him to become Mr. Miyagi, a result that was more than the sum of its underlying parts.
That’s the crux of the film. In many ways Morita’s career was quite normal. He had similar ups and downs to a lot of his contemporaries. His successes, as well as his tragedies, are parts of stories we’ve all heard before. But his ability to bring all of himself to his work, and thus turn his work into an extension of his own life story, is what made him extraordinary. That’s where Derek is able to separate Morita’s journey from the standard fare of any other troubled celebrity.
When Pat Morita died in 2005, he left behind a manuscript of an unfinished autobiography, with the wish that his widow, Evelyn Guerrero, would eventually complete the work and publish it. Through those pages, a slew of interviews from actors and friends, and archive footage and narration from Morita himself, Kevin Derek is able to give us as complete a picture of his life as possible, fulfilling that final request.
Each glimpse we get into Morita’s career helps to inform the character that Mr. Miyagi would eventually become. Morita himself knew almost no martial arts beforehand (apart from some judo he got to choreograph on a memorable episode of Happy Days to hilarious effect), but he knew how to adapt and make use of his body through unorthodox means, as evidenced by the fact that he was immobile for most of his childhood due to a form of tuberculosis. That alone grants a deeper subtext to Miyagi’s ability to teach Daniel karate via zen chores. Despite never living in Japan and knowing almost no Japanese, he was still sent to an internment camp with his family during World War II. That, combined with a lifelong alcohol addiction, gives the scene of him drunkenly damning the loss of his family while he was off fighting for America even more dramatic weight than it had when the film first premiered. His years in the comedy world allowed him to deliver intimidating lines with a straight face while also being goofy enough to zonk someone on the nose in the middle of a fight. His desire to be a better father than his own gave him the nurturing instincts along with the discipline the role demanded. All of this came together for one of the most beloved character turns in modern film history, paid off in this movie with a cleverly prescient clip from Siskel & Ebert, where Roger gets one over on Gene, betting his counterpart that Morita would get an Oscar nomination, something Gene didn’t consider possible.
But as Derek shows us, Morita is ultimately a tragic character in his own story, often saddled with debt and a debilitating alcoholism. This is why, structurally at least, it’s appropriate that we see Morita as Miyagi at the midway point of the story. There’s a very Shakespearean formatting to the whole thing, as typically in these plays, the comic relief is killed off at the climax before the falling action and eventual catastrophe ends the main character. In this respect, the comedian Pat Morita, held in the same regard as the likes of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, breakout star of one of America’s greatest sitcoms, and one of the few Asian-American actors to be taken seriously in Hollywood, ceased to exist.
For the rest of his life, good and bad, Pat Morita and Mr. Miyagi were one and the same. It was a shadow he not only couldn’t escape, but at points wouldn’t even try. Two of the saddest anecdotes of the film note how in one instance, his drinking had gotten so bad that he embarrassed himself at the Happy Days reunion, to the point that he wrote a deeply apologetic letter to Henry Winkler; and in another, he approached Robert Kamen, the writer of the original Karate Kid trilogy, about doing a send-off film for the Miyagi character, giving him a dignified death that even Kamen admitted smacked of desperation. He had sunk so far into his own demons that he couldn’t let go of the character, but also couldn’t even go back to being Arnold.
But despite all that, More Than Miyagi shows that he was such a good actor, and such a loving presence, that he could hide the worst of himself for the longest time. All his life he was playing a part, and that’s what this film gets across so beautifully. Do not think of it as a rejection of the idea that Pat Morita should be associated with Mr. Miyagi. Think of it more as Mr. Miyagi being a love letter to the world, a deeply honest projection of all the parts Morita had to play throughout his life, before and after. He wasn’t more (or less) than the role. He made the role more than it ever could have been in other hands, and Kevin Derek goes to admirable lengths to show us just how capable those hands were.