Monday, 15 February 2021

MORE THAN MIYAGI: THE PAT MORITA STORY review

Known to most for playing Mr Miyagi, one of cinema's greatest mentor figures, this new documentary goes into revealing detail about the actor behind the role, Pat Morita. Starting his show business career as a stand-up comedian before moving into comic acting in a whole host of American sitcoms, he was also a man burdened with a traumatic childhood and a devastating drink problem.


With the current interest in the Karate Kid franchise and all things Cobra Kai following the incredible (and let's face it, surprising) success of the reboot series on Netflix, you could be forgiven for expecting this film to spend the majority of its time focusing on Morita's role as the kindly janitor turned Daniel-san's unorthodox Karate teacher - but as the title suggests, there's a lot more to know about Pat Morita than his signature, Oscar nominated role as Mr Miyagi. Made with the involvement of Morita's widow, Evelyn Guerrero-Morita, and loosely structured around a radio interview she gives about Pat, writer, director and editor Kevin Derek's film follows a traditional bio-doc structure, starting way back at the start of Morita's life and moving forward. 

Born in San Francisco in 1932, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita was diagnosed with spinal TB at the age of two, forced to wear a restrictive cast for the majority of his childhood and told it was likely he would never walk. Then, just as he recovered from that trauma, he and his family found themselves at the outbreak of World War II and were whisked away to an Arizonan internment camp (or as they were told, a "relocation centre") for the duration of the war. Deciding at the age of 30 that he wanted to pursue his dream of a career in show business, he left his family's restaurant and went into comedy. Given the reductive moniker "The Hip Nip" by his manager - and mother of Lenny Bruce - Sally Marr, Morita's stand-up routines would involve self-effacing jokes about Pearl Harbour and a subversion of the audience's expectations when he opened his mouth and spoke with an American accent. From this he launched a career in television, often playing small bit parts as Asian characters of ill-defined origin in The Love Boat, MASH, Laverne and Shirley, Sanford and Sons, and most notably his breakout role as Arnold in Happy Days. One of the most interesting tidbits the documentary offers is the revelation that the network standards and practices office wanted him fired from the role for being an actor of Japanese heritage playing a Chinese character, until Morita himself was able to come up with a convoluted back story for his character that convinced Happy Days creator Garry Marshall and kept him on the show.

What's most surprising about Morita's story is how much there is to tell before you get to his iconic role in The Karate Kid. Given its fair dues with talking heads from Ralph Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Kove - all now reliving their Karate Kid roles in sequel series Cobra Kai - it's a credit to this documentary that it doesn't dominate his story, even if it did come to define his career. More Than Miyagi paints Morita as a lively joker, at odds with the composure his most famous character displayed, and an actor willing to adopt the American interpretation of Asian culture even if it was completely alien to him. When asked in an interview if he had any karate skills prior to making the film, his quick-witted response was "The only martial arts I was involved in were Garry Marshall, Penny Marshall and maybe (Chicago department store) Marshall Field's".

The doc casts a wider net when examining some of the shockingly racist casting decisions that blight Hollywood's history - from race-switching Marlon Brando and John Wayne to Mickey Rooney's ghastly caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's - but also the cultural stereotypes Morita was asked to play at the start of his career, and again towards the end when his Oscar nomination seemed like a distant memory. A success story who was also held back by racial prejudice and ignorance, despite him knowing that his casting didn't make sense he wasn't ever in a position to turn down paid work.

Director Kevin Derek must have a taste for martial arts and Karate Kid lore, having already completed two previous documentaries about "The Real Karate Kids" and a biography of Fumio Demura, Morita's stunt double for Miyagi. Here he's assembled a great selection of interviewees, from friends James Hong, Tommy Chong and Lance Burton, to the core Karate Kid cast and also a very willing array of Happy Days co-stars, all gushing over how much fun they had with Morita. One of the most powerful moments of this film falls to The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, who reveals what kind words he gave to Morita when his spiralling drink problem scuppered his involvement in a Happy Days casts reunion special.

Despite the notable non-involvement of his daughters, there's a tremendous amount of appreciation of Morita's life and career, revealing a sweet, funny, extremely troubled man who had the odds stacked against him from the start but worked hard to create a truly memorable character. A little rough around the edges in places (there's some glaring typos in the on-screen text), there might not be anything new in the by-the-numbers way Morita's story is presented, but More Than Miyagi uses its tried and tested formula well, delivering some fascinating insight into an entertainer who became an unlikely icon.

Verdict 4/5

More Than Miyagi is streaming now on all VOD platforms

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