More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story (2021)

Posted in Reviews by - October 02, 2021
More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story (2021)

A ‘warts and all’ documentary about the life of Japanese American comedian and actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who died in 2005 at the age of 73 after a lifetime battling with alcoholism. Curated by his third wife, Evelyn Guerrero, and seemingly endorsed by Morita himself, the film appears to be based on an unfinished memoir and features Morita’s own voice narrating much of the story. As a sickly child with spinal tuberculosis, he was practically immobile for most of his childhood, before life-saving back surgery gave him the ability to walk again. At the outbreak of war, the Morita family were forcibly removed from their home in California to live in ‘internment camps’ – along with thousands of other Japanese American citizens – which is where much of his trauma originates, as well as his alcohol addiction. Later, he helped in the family’s Chinese restaurant and worked for engineering firms, but a call for show-business beckoned. He rose to prominence as an entertainer, embodying the ‘friendly face of the enemy’ in postwar America, playing up a “foreigner” persona as a stand-up (known as the ‘Hip Nip’) and later on TV shows like Happy Days. As an American, he felt estranged from the Japanese heritage upon which he profited. Guerrero speaks of a family reunion in which he felt insecure about not being able to speak Japanese. Perhaps it was this distance which made it easier for Morita to play crude, caricatured, and narrow portrayals of Asian people on film and television – clips which now look hideously out of date. Of course, the contrary is also true, that Morita was something of a trailblazer; an Asian face on prime-time television during a period in which the American media landscape was not at all open to diversity. Yes, maybe the roles were crass, but at least it stopped actors like Mickey Rooney and Marlon Brando donning ‘yellow face’ to play them. Most of the contributions from his Happy Days and The Karate Kid co-stars are warm and affectionate – only James Hong calls out the elephant in the room; that Morita’s most treasured screen role as the wise Japanese botanist and martial arts master, Mr. Miyagi, is still an Asian stereotype. In truth, Morita knew even less about karate than his co-star, Ralph Macchio, who at least did some lessons as a child. The producers wanted Toshiro Mifune for the role, but there is no doubt that Morita is perfect casting; a role for which he rightfully received an Academy Award nomination. His co-stars remember him fondly as the antithesis of his most famous character, including stars Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Kove, who all speak of Morita goofing around on set. The only parallels between Miyagi and Morita, it seems, was their shared sense of internalised struggle. His success as an Asian American entertainer in Hollywood was profound and cannot be understated, but as the title suggests, his work was far more prolific and diverse. The film paints an honest, cautionary and somewhat tragic tale of a very complex man; a performer in the truest sense of the word, with talent and charm to spare, but ultimately consumed by his own demons.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a keyboard in London, UK.

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