J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

WFA ’16: The Real Miyagi

It is no secret why Fumio Demura is so popular. He used to kick the stuffing out of Steven Seagal at the Japanese Deer Park. Technically, they were only karate demonstrations, but they were unusually realistic. He certainly made an impression that he shrewdly cultivated. The beloved sensei deservedly gets the star treatment in Kevin Derek’s documentary profile The Real Miyagi (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Winter Film Awards in New York.

It wasn’t just Seagal who learned from Demura. Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee also picked up a few moves from the master. He came to Los Angeles with $300, a suitcase, and a spotty grasp of English (at best). He also knew karate. At the time, there was not a crying demand for martial arts instruction in America, but Demura built up a following performing at the now defunct Japanese cultural theme park outside of LA. When that closed (it was a more controversial dissolution than Derek has time to deal with), Vegas came calling.

Eventually, Demura built up an international chain of dojos. He also amassed an impressive list of movie stunt credits. However, his most significant work would indeed be doubling Pat Morita in the original Karate Kid. It would lead to a lifelong friendship with the Oscar nominated actor. Basically, Demura is like a Horatio Alger hero with a black belt, but after a year of filming, a potentially tragic turn threatens to end Derek’s film on a downbeat note.

Regardless of Demura’s ultimate fate, Derek more than convinces us the sensei is the real deal, who has almost single-handedly reshaped how Americans think of karate specifically and martial arts in general. Of course, he has help from an all-star cast of interview subjects, including Seagal, Dolph Lungren, Michael Jai White, Tamlyn Tomita, Billy Banks, John G. Avildsen, and Isaac Florentine. It is also a potent reminder of how significant Morita’s Academy Award nominated performance was at the time. Frankly, without Demura, it is hard to envision careers for Seagal, Lungren, White, Scott Adkins, or Gary Daniels.

There are indeed many applicable lessons from Demura’s success, such as the shrewd way he cultivated coverage in Black Belt magazine. However, the talent was always there. He is also a hugely charismatic figure, so it is pleasant to spend the screen time with him. Warmly recommended for fans of martial art cinema, The Real Miyagi screens this Saturday night (2/20) as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

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