One of the things I love about the hit Netflix series “Cobra Kai” is how Mr. Miyagi’s presence looms large in the life of the grown-up Daniel LaRusso, even though he has long since passed away. Daniel quotes and references Mr. Miyagi, he visits his grave, and we see the great man in flashback sequences culled from the “Karate Kid” movies.
Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, the man who brought Mr. Miyagi to life in four “Karate Kid” films in the 1980s and 1990s and was nominated for best supporting actor for the first in the series, died in 2005, but his legacy lives on through those movies and in the Netflix series, which has introduced the wise and strong and funny and wonderful Miyagi to a whole new generation of fans.
But there was much more to Morita than his most memorable role, as evidenced in the title of the documentary “More Than Miyagi,” a lovingly compiled tribute to a groundbreaking comedian and actor who was adored by his colleagues and loved by the fans — but wrestled with alcoholism for decades, eventually succumbing to symptoms brought on by the disease. Morita was the life of any party, a ray of sunshine in any room he entered, but sadly suffered from a debilitating disease that sidelined his career and surely caused much personal strife.
Director Kevin Derek does a solid, straightforward job of mixing archival clips of Morita during his nascent years as a stand-up comedian and guest star on sitcoms; footage of Morita as Arnold on “Happy Days” and the lead on the short-lived series “Mr. T and Tina,” and interviews with “Karate Kid” co-stars Ralph Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Kove and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, “Happy Days” colleagues Marion Ross, Henry Winkler, Anson Williams and Don Most, as well as Morita’s third wife, Evelyn, who shares home video footage and speaks with great love about Morita and with admirable candidness about his battles with addiction.
The film reminds us of how rare it was to see an Asian actor on television or in the movies in the 1960s and 1970s, after decades of white actors doing “yellow face” caricatures, e.g., John Wayne in “The Conqueror,” Marlon Brando in “The Teahouse of the August Moon” and Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (a true horror show). Morita’s television work and especially his portrayal of Miyagi helped to break boundaries and dispel old stereotypes. (Somewhat ironically given Morita’s alcoholism, the most resonant scene in “The Karate Kid” in terms of giving a three-dimensional backstory to Miyagi is when he gets drunk and tells Daniel about the loss of his wife and son.)
We’re told “Karate Kid” producer Jerry Weintraub was adamantly opposed to hiring Arnold from “Happy Days” to play Miyagi, and only reluctantly agreed after Morita’s fifth audition. Weintraub later said he almost made the biggest mistake of his career by overlooking Morita. It’s to our great benefit he finally saw the light, and Morita created one of the most memorable characters of the last 40 years. He was indeed more than Miyagi, but that alone would have earned him a special place in Hollywood history.