Pulling from experiences from his personal life, screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen penned what is regarded as one of the greatest martial arts movies, The Karate Kid. He had learned that some sensei teach only the violent side of martial arts. Meanwhile, his mentor in Okinawan Goju-Ryu gave him the traditional view with an emphasis on self-defense. Thus, he wanted to share his experiences with the general public.
He created Daniel LaRusso and his elderly mentor, Mr. Miyagi, to tell a fictionalized version of his story. Daniel LaRusso faced an uphill fight against bullies after he and his mother moved to Reseda, California from New Jersey. When he sought to hone his martial arts skills, he discovered that the bullies that were tormenting him filled the ranks at the largest dojo in town. His luck turned around when his apartment’s superintendent saved him with Okinawan karate. After proving his pure intentions, he became Mr. Miyagi’s student.
Even though LaRusso improved his karate skills under Mr. Miyagi, he still needed to stand up to his bullies. His chance came when Mr. Miyagi agreed to settle things in the All Valley Under 18 Tournament. Despite dirty tricks from the Cobra Kai students, who purposely injured LaRusso’s knee, the boy became the victor after successfully pulling off the Crane Kick.
While the Karate Kid appeared in theaters in 1984, no toys for the movie came out at that time. Instead, fans had to wait two years for Remco to produce the first Karate Kid toy line. This toy line luckily coincided with the release of Part II. So, it did not languish like many belated tie-in toy lines for movies. Moreover, Remco was able to expand the roster with characters from the second film.
The Karate Kid Part II picked up moments after the tournament from the first film concluded. This time, the pair had to deal with trauma from Mr. Miyagi’s past as they traveled to Okinawa. Having run away from a challenge to the death with a former friend, Mr. Miyagi felt grave shame over returning to the island. However, he knew that his hometown was in danger and needed his support.
Meanwhile, Daniel unintentionally found himself at odds with Chozen, who had run a corrupt grocery business. As Chozen’s father, Sato, was the man who was slighted by Mr. Miyagi, his bitterness easily mounted. The pair eventually fought to the death during the O-bon festival. When Daniel triumphed, he decided to spare Chozen’s life.
When Remco brought out their Karate Kid toy line, they featured characters from both Part I and Part II. These action figures included action gimmicks that allowed them to perform karate feats like breaking boards. They also wore cloth garments, which were becoming a rarity by the late 1980s. There were several characters available to collect, including Chozen, Daniel-San, Johnny, Kreese, Miyagi, and Sato. Many of these characters, like Daniel LaRusso, had multiple variants with different colored outfits.
Aside from the action figures, Remco also created three playsets for the toy line. There was the Attack Alley & Training Center, the Competition Center, and Sato’s Cannery. The Competition Center was noteworthy for including a new action figure, a Karate Referee.
The excitement for Karate Kid carried the franchise into a third direct sequel in 1989. This story returned to Reseda, California as the conflict in Okinawa had resolved in Part II. Cobra Kai returned with vengeance with a new sensei, Terry Silver, plotting to manipulate and corrupt Daniel. This new foe placed Mr. Miyagi’s and Daniel’s relationship at risk. After the pair made amends, Daniel once again defeated Cobra Kai to become the victor at the All-Valley tournament once more.
Around the same time that Daniel LaRusso was ending his trilogy, NBC launched an animated Karate Kid television series. Throughout its 13-episode run, the series sent Daniel and Mr. Miyagi on various adventures and quests. They traveled the world in search of a miniature, magical shrine.
When The Karate Kid franchise returned in 1994, the story shifted to a completely different character, Julie Pierce. The Next Karate Kid was the granddaughter of one of Mr. Miyagi’s friends from when he fought in World War II. Having lost her parents, Julie struggled to contain her rage and find inner peace. He also had to deal with the militaristic school security gang, the Alpha Elite. Mr. Miyagi helped her both find her inner focus and hone her karate skills so that she could stand up against the Alpha Elite.
The Karate Kid returned in 2010 with a reboot and a new focus on Kung Fu over karate. As the actor of Mr. Miyagi, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, had passed away in 2005, there was no chance of him returning to teach a new pupil. So, another notable martial artist, Jackie Chan, was chosen to play the new mentor, Mr. Han. He helped Dre Parker, played by Jaden Smith, master his King Fu skills.
Years after the reboot left theaters, Mattel’s Hot Wheels featured the Karate Kid in their line-up. In 2014, their designers created a scale model of Mr. Miyagi’s ’48 Ford Super De Luxe. This car was the vehicle that Daniel LaRusso cleaned up before Mr. Miyagi gifted it to him. It has been re-released several times, with the latest release occurring in 2023.
Despite the poorly received reboot series, The Karate Kid managed to return in 2018 with a vengeance as YouTube Red brought back many of the original actors, including Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) and William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) in a direct continuation of the original trilogy, Cobra Kai. Despite his best intentions, Johnny Lawrence attempted to revive the Cobra Kai dojo and help youths learn to stand up for themselves. However, he repeated the mistakes of the past and even helped John Kreese and Terry Silver revive their influence over the valley’s youths.
Also in 2018, NECA began producing toys based on the 1984 Karate Kid movie. These clothed action figures depicted characters as they were seen in the film. They included characters like Mr. Miyagi, Johnny Lawrence, and Daniel LaRusso. They even produced versions of Daniel and Johnny as they appeared during the climatic All-Valley Tournament.
As Cobra Kai grew in popularity, more toy companies began to produce Karate Kid action figures. For instance, Diamond Select Toys featured a Cobra Kai tournament set in their 2021 line-up. They have continued to produce collector-grade action figures for the hit streaming series. Meanwhile, Playmates also featured Cobra Kai in their 2021 TMNT vs. Cobra Kai toy line.
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