Aly Morita is a writer, Asian American activist and daughter of the late Pat Morita. She is currently at work on her first novel at Sassafras Liberty, an artists collective in Tennessee.
In 1984, I was in the throes of becoming a nightmare teenager, having discovered boys, Aqua Net for my spiked hair and the telephone. My younger sister was an awkward nine-year old, looking more like a boy than a girl with her short hair and cherubic face. My mother was in the midst of putting the finishing touches on the house she had rebuilt tooth and nail, the one we had just moved back into—the home destroyed by a mudslide four years prior. My father had only recently rejoined my family after spending a few years in Hawai’i, nursing the wounds he had suffered after the cancellation of his series, Mr. T & Tina, the first network sitcom starring an Asian American. The home we moved back into, my parents’ marriage and my family were barely intact, but the summer of 1984 seemed full of promise.
My father had spent the last year involved with this new movie, called The Karate Kid. He endured endless jokes from my sister and I—the title was so uncool. I was a little embarrassed, knowing my father was going to star in a film about karate—my unformed identity politics just cognizant enough to discern a problem, but our taunting was quieted by the tremendous amount of satisfaction and happiness my father experienced throughout the making of the movie. He was nothing, in his eyes, if he wasn’t working.
The Karate Kid was sort of a maverick film at the time. It had an indie film quality to it (this was back in the 80s, mind you… before Pulp Fiction or any low-budget, independent films had a name). It was financed by Columbia Pictures or Guy McElwaine, a man who my father always referred to when speaking about the birth of Karate Kid. Mr. McElwaine was a sensitive visionary—the head of Columbia at the time, but someone who had an inherent understanding of films that resonate with people. Maybe this studio head knew that there was something special about this project and he was willing to allow the director and writer to go with their gut. No one wanted to see a karate flick in the 1980s and yet, this man, this studio head, said, yeah, let’s go with this and see what happens. It feels good.
There was nothing glamorous about the original Karate Kid shoot. They filmed the movie in 40 days and cut corners wherever they could to stay under budget. The crew found locations in the hinterlands of the San Fernando Valley, refashioned and outfitted Miyagi’s house from a dusty rental, built its resplendent Japanese garden and impressive deck, created the façade of wealth for Elisabeth Shue’s character in Lake Encino and, basically, made something from nothing. It was a group effort. My father always spoke about that. It was each and every individual from the top down and bottom up contributing something meaningful and worthy to make this film. There were no Hollywood egos to contend with or cater to. Each person had something to prove. Each person had something they needed to do to make this little film worthwhile.
There was a maverick, low-budget spirit to the original movie that translated to the screen. There was the raw script of Robert Mark Kamen writing a story that resonated—the wise master and his protégé overcoming odds. There was the deft eye and hand of director John Avildsen bringing quiet beauty to a raw script. There were studio executives who believed in the project, regardless of its financial or marketing potential. There were no expensive A-List actors starring in the film. Ralph Macchio, who had a following of teenage girls after the success of The Outsiders, was the big draw. Some of my girlfriends were crazy for him. I had the poster on my bedroom wall and, although I favored Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe, I would look up at the poster and think how weird it was that Johnny and my dad were becoming friends.
And there was my father who had just spent the last six years licking the wounds from the brief taste of success he got from his season on Happy Days and the even more abbreviated moment having his own series, still trying to prove what he was made of and delved into the role of Miyagi, heart and soul, because, really, that was all he had. I don’t know what happened during that audition when my dad tried to strut his best stuff. I don’t know what producer Jerry Weintraub or Mr. So-and So or John Avildsen saw in my father. All I know is that after years upon years of trying to strut his best stuff my father was finally seen.
When I was still in college, before my father passed, I took a class loosely based on performance art. For our final project, the instructor asked us to reveal a secret about ourselves and to create an interactive piece around it. No one in the class knew who my father was, so I decided to try and go with that. First, I asked my classmates whether they would choose money or fame. For those who responded “Money,” I told them they could play the role of paparazzi or fan. For those who chose fame I asked them to tell me a secret about themselves and told them they would be a famous person of some kind. I then constructed a makeshift red carpet on my front walkway out of red butcher paper and bright, glaring lights I bought at Home Depot.
The night of my final project I revealed the secret that each of the “famous” people told me to the paparazzi and told them to be relentless in probing the famous people when they arrived. The fans simply had to act like fans and vie for an autograph or picture. It was a fun exercise as the famous people arrived, each person going straight into character and having a great time with their roles.
After all my classmates were present, I had everyone sit in my living room, which I tried to create into a home theater. I then took my place in front of them on a stool and began a monologue as slides of my father played onto a bare, white wall. I did the big “reveal” with a slide of The Karate Kid poster on the wall and then proceeded to recount a brief history of my experience growing up as his daughter. My teens and twenties were difficult, if mostly because of the rollercoaster ride through the Land of Celebrity that my family went on.
We had already endured the struggle of living at the bottom—moving into my beloved grandmother’s apartment after she died the same year the mudslide destroyed our home, my father struggling once-again as an out-of-work-actor, my parents marriage crumbling, but then my parents fought their way back to rise above our circumstances. The Karate Kid hit and it hit big. Overnight, my father became famous—on an international level. The brief success or recognition he received from his time on Happy Days or any of the bit parts he had on other shows could not compare to how, suddenly, the public responded to him after The Karate Kid. The slew of sequels were made and incrementally throughout the 80s and 90s, the craziness of celebrity overtook him. My sister and I rode the Concorde from London to New York with him and stayed in the best hotels. People catered to him left and right; he always had a town car or limo at his disposal. He was everywhere: as the Colgate Wisdom Tooth, as Ohara—yet another short-lived series on television that he was given–and in the Karate Kid films. I could not get away from his fame or celebrity even if I tried. I was always “Pat Morita’s daughter.”
In my final project for this class, I demonstrated this by sharing a slide of an envelope I received in the mail. One summer I stayed at my father’s condo in Hawai’i, pretending to go to school, but really just loafing around and smoking a lot of pot—trying to get away from him, from my parents, from the realities of my life. I went to the mailbox one day and pulled out the contents and what do I see but an envelope on my Bank Of Hawai’i statement with an image of my father waving at me and smiling. Oh my god. Seriously? I can’t even get my goddam mail without him there?
Finally, I proceeded to show a slide of Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa—both even bigger stars in their time than my father. Although they weren’t a couple, they were like the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of the 1920s. They had the allure of sexiness and glamour that my father didn’t have during his heyday and they were huge stars. I asked my classmates whether anyone knew who they were. No. No one knew. The point of my final project became this: even though my father may have shared some semblance of celebrity or recognition, he, too, will be forgotten. He, too, will fade in the memory of the public.
And maybe this is why I am so passionate about this campaign to not support the remake of The Karate Kid. I don’t want my father to be forgotten so soon. It’s been only five years since he passed—five long years for me—and, maybe, if this remake succeeds or becomes another behemoth unto itself, the role he fought so hard for, the magic of the original film, the excitement felt by the Asian American community to finally have one of their own represented in the media will all be forgotten. It pains me to think how easily seduced most people are by Hollywood—that this shinier, brighter model may cloud the integrity and magic of the original film and diminish the heart and soul of my father.
Honestly, I don’t know what will come of this campaign I started. I am a mere slip in the bucket. With or without my input or protestations, the remake will succeed or fail and become what it will. The public, at large, will ultimately determine its fate. I guess, my intent is to simply create more awareness and need for dialogue about how Asian Americans are represented or respected in this society—this America, this United States of A, this place I and my father called home—and what, if we will, do anything about it. All I know is that Asian American representation needs to change now. All I know is my experience as my father’s daughter.