By Jason Czajka
This reviewer is fairly confident that by law, I have to use the phrase “Wax on / Wax off” in the very first sentence of this article. I mean – when I say the name Pat Morita – what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For most, we can hear the Japanese American comedian turned actor do his best impression of a naturalized Japanese man, thick accent and all – instruct a young Ralph Macchio on how to channel his focus through a tedious task as simple as waxing a vehicle. But the best part about the documentary, More Than Miyagi – The Pat Morita Story by director Kevin Derek, is that through archival footage, interviews with former friends and co-workers, anecdotes from his third wife Evelyn and incredible home video footage – we learn that Pat Morita was so much more than just the Sensei of Daniel Larusso. He was a pioneer as one of the earliest and most well-known Asian American actors in Hollywood, beloved husband and father, and life-long friend to nearly everyone who crossed his path.
Upon initial viewing of this documentary, I found myself “waxing” nostalgic (pun intended) seeing the various roles that Pat Morita has played over the years. The movie follows in classic biographical foot- steps, first covering the early years of Morita as a child born to Japanese immigrants, his suffering from a debilitating disease requiring years of hospitalizations through America’s entering of World War 2 after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. We learn through his own words the difficulty that Japanese Americans faced post WW2 due to the hostilities that many Americans still harbored against people who looked like their enemy. Pat used the trials and struggles he faced as fuel for his stand-up comedy and very quickly developed a name for himself in the industry. From there Mr. Morita’s career skyrocketed. From Laugh-In to Sanford and Sons to Happy Days, Pat Morita was Hollywood’s go to Asian lead. But the pinnacle of his career will always be his time spent as Mr. Miyagi – a Bonsai cultivating, wise mentor to a young boy who learns discipline and respect through the teachings of karate in 1984’s The Karate Kid. Morita would go on to play the iconic Miyagi character for a total of four Karate Kid films. His legacy in this role being a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 1985 Academy Awards.
As the documentary moves past the post-Karate Kid years for Morita, we learn more of his ongoing struggles with Alcohol and his eventual succumbing to symptoms brought on by his years of alcohol abuse. In his later years, Morita struggled to find the success that he enjoyed throughout most of his career and his desire to continue to act and remain relevant led to much anguish and stress as time went on. However, this film, in fun and touching way chooses to put most of the focus on the storied and incredible career of this amazing actor and the legacy he left behind. Through this documentary, a new generation of fans will hopefully emerge and develop an appreciation for his impact on cinema, while those of us that remember Morita fondly through his body of work will be able to reminisce about the true genius that he brought to the world.
All photos are COURTESY OF LOVE PROJECT FILMS.