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'More Than Miyagi' doc unveils the man behind 'Karate Kid' legend

Phil on Film
'More Than Miyagi' examines the life of Pat Morita.
Posted at 6:59 PM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 10:54:22-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Few cinematic icons are as stalwart as Mr. Miyagi, the aphorism-spinning sensei who taught martial arts to bullied kids in the four "Karate Kid" films.

The role not only earned actor Noriyuki "Pat" Morita a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, but lifted him to the highest echelon of film icons, serving as a sage figure for the children of the 1980s and 90s. Morita became so associated with Miyagi -- as well as Arnold in "Happy Days" -- that his public persona was almost indistinguishable from the roles.

As it turns out, that was by design.

The documentary "More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story" tries to peel back the public layers of a private man to get beneath the facade of a calculated image. Morita, who died in 2005 at age 73, overcame institutional racism, battled personal demons and endured countless hardships just to continue to land roles.

Unlike his broken English-speaking characters, Morita spoke with no accent and hardly knew any Japanese. He didn't even know karate. He was happy to insinuate he did his own stunts while, in reality, a stunt double did much of the heavy lifting.

The film, which was set to launch on-demand Feb. 5, catalogs his tale of inspiration, mystery and sadness.

Director Kevin Derek rounds up family, friends, filmmakers and co-stars to give insight to the complicated comedian and actor. Ralph Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Kove -- who appeared in "The Karate Kid" and now carry on Morita's memory in the spinoff Netflix series "Cobra Kai" -- provide some transcendent perspective on Morita's personal side.

It's Evelyn Guerrero, Morita's third and final wife, who provides the most glowing praise and stinging insight. In addition to gushing about his work ethic, sense of humor and fortitude, Guerrero paints a picture of a troubled, possibly tortured soul. She and others say Morita was a high-functioning alcoholic who nearly always had a drink in his hand. They say he squandered some professional obligations and opportunities, and there may have been family difficulties as well. None of Morita's three daughters agreed to be interviewed.

Most fascinating are Morita's early-career stand-up routines, in which he twisted stereotypes inside out in order to score laughs and shine light on his talents.

He parlayed the stand-up success into TV and film, mentoring those he worked with even as he was struggling to find his own way through a career that would stall and sputter just when it seemed it was about to take off.

Only he could know the pain and ostracism that dwelled behind his stoic, studied demeanor. But what thoughts pulsed beneath those fiery eyes, no one could possibly say.

RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.
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