Documentaries take on Pat Morita and the samurai


Two recent documentaries available over streaming services capture very opposite ends of the spectrum of Japanese and Japanese American culture.

The first is “More than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story,” which expands the limited image most people have of the actor. Mention Pat Morita, and almost everyone will say “Mr. Miyagi,” or perhaps, the iconic phrase the character said in the first movie in

“The Karate Kid” series, back in 1984, “wax on, wax off.” Anyone who recites the line will move their hand in a circle, as if buffing a car like Mr. Miyagi’s young protégé Daniel LaRusso had to do as part of his somewhat mysterious karate training.

Mr. Miyagi (his name is revealed as Hideo Miyagi on the dog tags in one important scene) is a handyman in the apartment building where LaRusso and his mother live when they drove from New Jersey to Los Angeles. When LaRusso gets bullied, Mr. Miyagi teaches him karate to defend himself.

Morita starred in three “Karate Kid” movies in the 1980s with Ralph Macchio as LaRusso, and then a fourth in 1994 starring Hilary Swank in her first film role as Miyagi-sensei’s new student. “The Karate Kid” franchise was so enduring that yet another film titled “The Karate Kid” was released in 2010 starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith as the mentor and mentee in a strange remake without Miyagi, or karate, since it took place in China and the film was about kung fu.

Most people have forgotten the last film and still remember Morita’s character. Some older fans also remember Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi, the owner of the diner Arnold’s in the 1970s television sitcom “Happy Days.” And trivia buffs may recall that Morita started his acting career as a standup comic in the 1960s, telling self-deprecating jokes.

The documentary tells the larger and more dramatic story of Morita’s real life. Few but the most ardent fans may know that, as a child, he had spinal tuberculosis and was bedridden for nine years until he was given surgery on his spine and he learned to walk at 11 years old — just in time to be sent to the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona to join his family. And while director Kevin Derek’s loving tribute covers Morita’s many acting credits, the last part of the documentary is a moving cautionary tale about Morita’s alcoholism, which killed him at age 73 in 2005.

The film is a fine tribute to a fine actor whose demons caught up with him, but who left behind a memorable and popular body of work, so much so that he’s a constant presence in flashbacks in the current hit TV series “Cobra Kai” on Netflix.

Netflix is also the streaming home for “Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan,” a six-episode docuseries that’s a mashup of old-school documentary interviews with historians and academics who recount the years when feudal Japan was ruled by an unruly bunch of local lords until they were conquered by the first shogun of all Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ushered in several hundred years of relative peace and cultural refinement from the warrior class that had only known fighting for centuries.

“Age of Samurai” is described as a “docuseries” because it mixes those history experts with dramatic portrayals of the castle intrigues, familial backstabbing (literally) and of course, the blood-spattering sword fighting battles and seppuku suicides by the losing clan leader. The segues from talking heads to fighting warriors is smoother and works better than you might think, and the academic perspective reminds viewers that all the battles really did happen as shown, and that the end result is the Japan that the world admires today.

It’s an impressively entertaining documentary that leaves viewers wondering what era the next season might cover, and there hopefully will be more on the way, since this season hit the top of Netflix’s charts upon it release earlier this year.

“More than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story” is available for rent on Amazon Prime ($4.99) and “Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan,” is available for streaming on Netflix.

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