Daniel, when I first saw you
I knew that you had a flame in your heart
And under wild blue skies
Marble movie skies
I found a home in your eyes
We’ll never be apart
Daniel – Bat for Lashes
In 1984 I saw The Karate Kid. I watched it again yesterday for the first time since then. As I sat in my living room on the edge of the couch, with a semi-tolerant, semi-bemused Cathy across from me in the armchair, and we came to the gripping conclusion featuring the move, in which the horrible karate Simon Le Bon is to be vanquished by the lovely Daniel, I found myself having to resist the urge to leap up, punch the air and whoop with delight. Which is the exact same feeling I had in 1984 when I was 11. I say exact because I saw the movie with my mother in 1984 and also had to resist the urge to leap out of my seat, although I do remember other people in the theatre not resisting this urge. Man, that final scene is electric. Well, if you’re 11… or 39.
So electric in fact that I made my mother sign me up karate classes. I’m sure that dojo across the western world saw quite a spike in enrolments thanks to this movie. I was a part of that spike. My mother got me the gear (sorry, Mum), and took me to the training (again, I apologise). The dojo was in Newtown. If we ever bump into each other in Newtown and you ask, as you might, “hey, where was that dojo you used to go to?” then I could show you the place. I think it’s still there, and still a dojo.
I must have gone there quite a few times because I can actually remember some of the techniques, although overall it was quite a confusing experience. All that counting in Japanese (“itchy knee, son?”), all that bowing, and shouting, and belts. Of course I dropped out.
Miyagi-san would not have been impressed with me. I was a light weight with karate as I was with almost everything else I tried as a hobby as a kid. Never settling on anything for long; picking up first one thing for a time, and then another, time after time. When Daniel asks if Miyagi-san will be his teacher, Miyagi-san wants to know why Daniel wants to learn. He knows that motivation is the key. Funnily enough Daniel says he wants revenge and Miyagi-san gives us this quote from Confucius “Before beginning a journey of revenge first dig two graves”. I used to have this exact quote pinned to the wall in my Dean’s office in my last school. It is very, very good advice. That same conversation featuring Miyagi-san and John-Paul would have gone like this:
JP: “Would you teach someone karate?”
JP: “On what?”
Miyagi-san: “On reason for wanting to do karate.”
JP: “I saw it in a movie.”
Not quite as cool. And so he wouldn’t have taken me as a pupil, and my mother wouldn’t have had to have fork out for a karate uniform.
The Karate Kid is a really terrific movie. Ralph and Pat are perfect, and the baddies are perfectly, get under your skin, high-school bad. They hang out in a pack like they’re a failed boy band looking for a photo shoot. The lead bad guy has a sidekick who seems to be teetering on the brink of psychopathic hysteria every time he sights Daniel. I think the actor’s direction must have been to act like a rabid dog straining on a leash.
Most of the movie is really about Pat and Ralph, and that relationship is just so sweet. When Daniel tells Miyagi-san that he’s his best friend it’s quite a beautiful thing. Almost as poignantly beautiful as when Daniel fully kicks the shit out of the bad guy’s head.
Which is what, I suppose, I thought I would be doing when I joined a dojo. In my eleven year old head I must have been pretty confident that I too would enter some kind of competition where children were allowed to do full contact karate including kicks to the head, and I too would overcome tremendous odds to defeat some loosely sketched in bad guy. There were a whole lot of problems with this scenario. Firstly, I’m more of a lover than a fighter. Actually, I’m more of a sit-on-the-couch-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-watch-Graham-Nortoner than a lover or a fighter. Secondly, the idea of pretending to beat other people up in a set of stylised movements, in a foreign language, and a costume now seems quite strange. Thirdly, when I was 11 I didn’t have any natural predators. Unlike Daniel I had no pack of boy band rejects hunting me down and getting between me and my love interest. In fact, at primary school I hit puberty freakishly early for a boy and was able to lord it over my peers thanks to having a light, peach fluff on my upper lip.
Actually, what gave even greater power over my peers was the act of shaving the peach fluff off. Like Daniel, I didn’t have a father around to guide me in this sacred rite of manhood, so I found myself one weekend standing in the bathroom, staring into the mirror, holding one of my mother’s pink Ladyshavers. What happened next was a scratchy, tearing kind of experience unaided by any shaving creams, soaps or even water (no told me about this stuff, and I wasn’t about to ask my mother). At some point, a bit later on, my mother must have dug out my father’s old electric razor – quite a boxy little number that hadn’t been used for about six years at that point – and I gave that a go. That little boxy number had a terrible life of its own and seemed to bolt about in my hand like a frisky colt: a frisky colt mounted with whirring razor blades bouncing about the pastures of my milky white neck. I abandoned the electric razor at that point (for life as it turned out) and returned to the Ladyshaver.
The sight of my naked upper lip the following Monday at school excited considerable interest. That’s right, my hairless upper lip in a school of hairless upper lips (it was a boys’ school) was the talk of Form Two. It wasn’t that my upper lip was hairless – of course – it was the fact that I had made it that way. That coursing beneath the skin of my upper lip were the hairy little molecules that made facial hairiness possible. It was a brief and strange moment of celebrity that was, frankly, a little disconcerting, in the way that I suppose Dolly Parton must have initially found it odd that no man would look at her face when she hit puberty. Thankfully my fame was brief. By lunchtime somebody had probably pulled a snot that looked like Han Solo out of their nose, or got a stiffy in their speedos when they had swimming, and my brush with fame was over.
And so I never became a real karate kid. Just a wannabe. Worse than that, I brought shame on my honour. I allowed friends who knew that I did karate to talk me up on the playground to other boys and I didn’t stop them. Over time my white belt had been talked up to a brown belt, and my skill at the way of the open hand was becoming uncomfortably high in the eyes of some of our playground thugs. Ironically. It was surprising how confident some of my friends were in my ability based purely on having seen my karate outfit once. As soon as it seemed like I was about to be entered into some kind of informal, behind the gym contest with some hooligan who claimed he too had a brown belt (but let’s face it, probably didn’t) I declared that I had quit karate (something I had actually done months earlier still as a bewildered white belt), and would be retiring my fists of steel forever.
29 years later I suddenly find myself wondering if that dojo in Newtown is still enrolling.