It’s not just to reignite his old passion for karate and to avenge his old nemesis Daniel LaRusso. One of the reasons why Johnny Lawrence re-opens his old dojo Cobra Kai is that he believes that by doing so he can give today’s youth exactly what they need: the way of the fist. After saving his teenage neighbor Miguel from a group of bullies, Johnny realizes how soft many of today’s children actually are. This image is confirmed to him when a group of social rejects arrives at his dojo, who are desperate to toughen up, so they can awake “the snake within” and strike back at those who’ve humiliated them.
Luckily, Johnny provides the recipe that does the job: the offensive, no-nonsense karate that he was taught as a kid, based on a simple philosophy:
- Strike first
- Strike hard
- No mercy
The philosophy of Cobra Kai works wonders with these kids, as they become stronger and more resilient. The nerdy kid Eli, for example, turns from a shy, anxious boy into a ruthless fighting machine, and Miguel manages to defeat his bullies and gets together with one of the popular girls named Sam LaRusso, who happens to be the daughter of Johnny’s rival: Daniel LaRusso. Johnny Lawrence was once a bully himself. In the first Karate Kid film, we can see how he misuses the karate skills that he has learned as a Cobra Kai to harass the new kid in town: Daniel. Unfortunately for Johnny, Daniel is trained by the Okinawan Mr. Miyagi and defeats him during the finals of the All-Valley tournament.
The immensely popular Netflix series ‘Cobra Kai’ tells us a story that takes place 34 years after the original Karate Kid film, which now focuses on Johnny instead of Daniel, who are both men in their 50s now. Daniel seems to have a perfect life: a beautiful wife, two kids, a nice house, and a successful car dealership chain. Johnny, on the other hand, lives in poverty, has a drinking problem, works odd jobs to pay the bills (or doesn’t pay the bills at all), and has no relationship with his son Bobby.
But by opening his dojo, Johnny fights his way out of his misery, like true members of Cobra Kai do, and creates purpose for himself by becoming a teacher and role model for his students. Cobra Kai represents the active, aggressive part of existence. And for many people, its philosophy is appealing, because it’s about pushing boundaries, crushing fears, and focusing on achievement and conquest; things that far exceed the dojo. As Johnny Lawrence states: “Cobra Kai isn’t just about karate. It’s about a way of life.”
So, aside from physical fights, how can such a philosophy benefit our very lives? And what are the downsides and dangers of “the way of the fist?” Just a warning: this script doesn’t reveal the whole plot, but it does contain a few spoilers. Now, there’s no clear good and evil in the series, as opposed to the original Karate Kid film, where we see this clear dichotomy between good and bad. Instead, we see many areas of gray, showing that Cobra Kai and its members are more than just a bunch of wicked bullies.
Cobra Kai presents itself as a counterweight to a generation of softies. Or how Johnny’s old sensei John Kreese puts it:
Our society has gotten weak. Kids today are coddled. They get trophies just for showing up. Something has gotta be done. Someone has gotta step in, and stop the ass-kissing, and start the ass-kicking. That’s why we’re here. The world needs Cobra Kai.John Kreese, Cobra Kai, S2E
This approach proves to be very appealing to kids that feel marginalized by the scary world around them, and see joining Cobra Kai as a way to get their power back. The Cobra Kai series has made a huge impact on its audience, and online communities like Reddit show that people are attracted to what the infamous Cobra Kai dojo stands for. Cobra Kai isn’t just about fighting; it’s about the stance we take in life overall. It’s about confidence, discipline, resilience, getting what we want. It’s about getting away from the unhealthy sedentary lifestyle of playing games on our phones all day while eating boxes of twinkies.
But, on the other hand, there are downsides as well to Cobra Kai’s way of the fist. We see that the bullied become bullies themselves, we see anger and resentment, and we see a preference for revenge and violence as solutions to problems, and as ways to accomplish goals. This isn’t a surprise, because Cobra Kai isn’t about self-defense, but “self-offense” as Johnny puts it. Now, let’s dissect the Cobra Kai philosophy bit by bit, so we can see its cons and pros, and if we can apply it in our daily lives.
Strike first. Never wait for the enemy to attack.Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai, S1E2
The first tenet of Cobra Kai’s philosophy implies that there’s an enemy out to get us and that ‘waiting’ would give the enemy the chance to strike first. It also implies that opportunities come and go and that we should take them before someone else does. Johnny compares this to approaching a girl. You don’t wait for another guy to approach her, so you need to do it as quickly as possible.
Striking first is about being aggressive. It’s very much about the stance we take in life. Is it one of aggressiveness, offensiveness, proactiveness, or one of passiveness, defensiveness, and timidity? Or as Johnny states it: “If you’re not aggressive, then you’re being a p**sy and you don’t want to be a p**sy. You want to have balls.” The willingness to go on the offensive also sends a signal that you’re confident about your strength. Having the courage to approach an attractive person, for example, already shows that you’re confident enough to do this, which generally makes you more attractive.
As is written by an ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu:
Defence implies lack.Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Forms and dispositions
Attack implies strength.
The downside to this approach we see in Johnny’s students. They start training karate to fight back at bullies, but eventually turn into bullies themselves. They answer with violence when it isn’t necessary. We can see this with Hawk who repeatedly uses violence to solve non-violent problems. As a reaction to this mentality, Daniel LaRusso opens his own dojo called Miyagi-Do as a counterweight. Miyagi-Do is based on the principles of his old sensei, the legendary Mr. Miyagi, who passed away years ago.
In the Karate Kid films, we see that Mr. Miyagi consistently refrains from attacking first. Unless he is attacked, he always chooses the way of peace. This approach resembles the basic principle of karate, which is that there’s no first strike in karate. Aside from karate, when it comes to our everyday lives, it depends on the situation whether or not we should strike first. Sometimes it’s better to anticipate and to have patience. Sometimes it’s better to not strike at all. But when the time is right, striking first can be rewarding.
But… you can’t strike first if you don’t know how to strike, which brings us to the second tenet…
Striking hard is about giving your all.Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai, S1E2
The concept of striking hard doesn’t just apply to physical fights; it’s an attitude we take in life in regards to how we handle things. It represents a bold move, doing things well and effectively. In the case of Johnny, he strikes hard when he decides to open his karate dojo, giving it everything he’s got. By sheer force, he launches himself out of his rut. ‘Giving you’re all’ means not quitting without a fight, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, not accepting defeat.
We see an example of this in the series when Miguel asks Sam out on a date. She answers that she doesn’t want to date for a while, after breaking up with her ex-boyfriend Kyler. Miguel is disappointed. But instead of giving up, he still manages to hang out with her, by simply not calling it a date. But overdoing this approach doesn’t always work; especially when people become pushy, which is rarely attractive. In many cases, ‘no’ literally means ‘no’ and this ought to be respected. Also, using force doesn’t always get us what we want, and isn’t always the smartest way to act.
The ancient philosophy of Taoism focuses on the power of softness, showing us that the soft can overcome the hard. For example, water overcomes rock. An example of this we can see in the Grand Canyon. We can also see this approach in Miyagi-Do karate, which uses a form of meditation to assist in a fight, and soft, non-violent flowing movements to practice techniques. We can see the power of the soft approach after Johnny finds out that there’s a lifetime ban on Cobra Kai from entering the All-Valley tournament. Initially, Johnny wants to go to the tournament committee and kick their asses, but Miguel persuades him to use a more delicate approach: keeping calm and talking his way through. This works out very well, and Cobra Kai is accepted.
Now, softness doesn’t always mean good, and hardness doesn’t always mean bad. The soft approach can be just as evil as the hard approach. Some would argue that sneaky, sly attacks are much worse than those done directly and in your face. Johnny makes that clear when he finds out that his new student Aisha is a victim of cyberbullying. He calls people who engage in this cowardly and often anonymous way of bullying “spineless losers”.
The series shows us that cyberbullying can be taken care of by the hard, direct approach. Striking back hard at people who engage in cowardly ways of bullying often ends it abruptly, because it sends a firm message that scares off those who are too afraid to do these things in person. Aside from physical violence, we see that the direct approach is very effective in many different situations. It helps us to bring a message across, to make things clear, to get things done without nonsense. We just need to know when to apply it, and when not to.
An example from the third season is the way Johnny approaches Miguel’s inability to walk after he came out of a coma, as he concluded that the soft woo-woo approach from a ‘specialist’ won’t do the job. So Johnny applied an unconventional approach, using a dirty magazine, fire, going to a rock concert, and eventually the continuation of his karate training.
The next one is…
Life shows no mercy, so neither do we.Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai, S1E10
Johnny explains that life isn’t fair. And if we look at it: many bad things happen for no reason to innocent people. That’s why it makes no sense to show mercy because the world doesn’t show mercy to us, according to this logic. From a strategic viewpoint, we can say that by showing mercy we create a weakness that can be exploited by the enemy. This is especially true when your opponent fights dirty. The last scene of the second season shows this when during a fight Miguel shows mercy to his opponent Robby, and this doesn’t end well for him. This key moment amplifies the idea among the Cobra Kai members that showing mercy is indeed a bad thing to do.
Ironically, Robbie trains at Miyagi-do, and Mr. Miyagi values the idea of showing mercy to one’s opponent. Because (and I paraphrase here) for a man with no forgiveness in his heart, life is a worse punishment than death. Miyagi points to something essential here: he implies that mercy is a form of forgiveness. Withholding harsh treatment as retribution for one’s enemy’s wrongdoings can be seen as a compassionate way to acknowledge one’s humanity including their mistakes. Compassion is essential if we truly want to forgive someone.
And if we don’t, it becomes very difficult to let go of past experiences, as we keep holding grudges against people, until some sort of ‘defeat’ takes place. As Kreese puts it: “The fight isn’t over until your enemy is finished. You show your enemy no mercy.” We build up resentment, which causes suffering to ourselves, as it’s like drinking a glass of poison and waiting for the other person to die. This is clearly the case with Johnny, who resents Daniel so much that he smashes his television when it shows one of his car dealership commercials. This is not healthy, and we often go on to self-destruct because of it.
Johnny regulates his disbalance by substance abuse. He can’t let go of his grudge against Daniel after all those years, and he can’t let go of his childhood sweetheart Ali. He’s in pain because of this. Cobra Kai members don’t let go of the past, but instead use it as fuel, in a way that the Sith in Star Wars seek to channel their anger into power. Unfortunately, this process goes together with hate and suffering. Miyagi-do, on the other hand, teaches compassion, as Daniel states to Bobby: “Cobra Kai isn’t the enemy. There are no enemies. Your dad, his students, they’re just like you and me. They’ve just been taught the wrong way.”
Showing mercy is being compassionate regardless of how we’re treated ourselves; even if it feels right to take revenge.
All in all, the philosophy of Cobra Kai can be useful as a metaphor for daily life. It’s about doing things and doing them well. When you give a handshake, give a firm handshake, when you start a project, give it your all, when you work on a task, do it as best as possible. It’s also about discipline, taking what you want, not accepting defeat, and dealing with your opponents without mercy. It’s direct, firm, effective.
However, it’s not always the best way to live by. Its mainly aggressive stance can ruin opportunities, alienate people, and cause unnecessary destruction. And because of its gang mentality, the way of the fist isn’t very compassionate towards people outside the group, often referred to as ‘enemies’. Its contempt for forgiveness leads to hate, and all its consequences, including holding grudges and the inability to let go.
Mr. Miyagi emphasized that we need balance in our lives. In Taoism, there’s a concept called ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. Yin refers to the so-called feminine or passive aspects of existence, and yang refers to the so-called masculine or active aspects of existence. Balance means that we learn to appreciate both sides of the same coin. In many cases, the passive approach has better results. Many times, violence can be prevented, we’re better off yielding, accepting, taking a break, not intervening. On the other hand, we do need the active approach to survive, to achieve things. Thus, both yin and yang are part of life, and, ideally, these forces are balanced out.
Cobra Kai, for that matter, represents predominantly one part of that balance; the ‘yang’, or the masculine, active side. So for the sake of balance, Cobra Kai is complemented by characteristics that are more ‘yin’. Eventually, Johnny becomes aware that Cobra Kai needs nuance. He becomes open to change, as he begins to see that showing mercy is sometimes a good thing, depending on the context. He then tells his students not to take the philosophy “strike first, strike hard, no mercy” to the letter. I quote:
It will make you strong, it will make you formidable, it will also make you an asshole. Because that’s just black paint on a white wall. But life is not black and white. More often than not it’s grey.Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai, S2E8, 8:20
Thank you for watching.