This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. Most particularly, the sub-genre of anime that I will be exploring is the classic hero’s journey – wherein we chronicle the story of one boy/girl as they go from ordinary persons to extraordinary – starting from their call to adventure, their overcoming of various challenges, their gifting of a particular skill, and eventually culminating in the establishment of their new identity as a hero. It’s one of the most well-known, and often-used tropes in Western cinema as well as anime, because of the simplicity of the plotline, but as well as the most challenging to try and revitalize. The two examples of which I will explore this week will be the highly popular (and still-yet-to-be-reviewed) Shonen Jump series Boku No Hero Academia and Academy Award winning director John G. Avildsen’s 1984 summer blockbuster, The Karate Kid.
EASTERN COMPETITOR #3: BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA
Animated by the Tokyo-based studio Bones, the story centers around Izuku “Deku” Midoriya, a middle-school-aged boy who seeks to become a hero, except for one impediment: he is not born with any superpowers (known as a quirk), which severely hinders his progress, and leaves him as a target of bullying and ridicule from classmates like the literally hot-tempered Bakugo. After a near-fatal attempt to fight a villain, he is rescued by his role model, All Might, an American muscle-man whose true personality is a frail, lethargic and almost malnourished person who willingly takes Deku under his tutelage, granting unto him his own power, the “One For All”, thus giving him extreme strength and agility, and allows him to get accepted to a prestigious hero academy, U.A High, where together with his classmates such as gravity-defying Ochaco Uraraka, speedy Tenya Iida, and many others in his quest to control his abilities, thwart evil forces threatening his school and city, and become the greatest hero of them all.
The series has been widely acclaimed by a number of media outlets, consistently being ranked as one of the top anime of the decade by Polygon, Crunchyroll and IGN, high sales volumes for the accompanying manga, and international recognition in 2019 when it was used to promote Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, and the franchise has released two movies, Two Heroes and Heroes Rising, with a third film underway for a summer 2021 release.
WESTERN COMPE”TITOR #3: THE KARATE KID
The Karate Kid is one of my top 3 favorite movies of all time (alongside The Man In The Iron Mask and Miracle). Ever since I saw it on television back in the fourth grade, I was hooked by its story, its music, and the outstanding performance of Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita as Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi respectively. Like the former competitor, Daniel, a newcomer to sunny California, falls in love with a girl named Ali Mills, only to be accosted by Johnny Lawrence, a hotshot karate pupil with the Cobra Kai, beaten to a pulp, and the target of their bullying throughout high school. One Halloween night, after he pranks Johnny in a bathroom stall, and is subsequently attacked by them, he is rescued by Mr. Miyagi, an elderly janitor working at his apartment block, who agrees to teach him the secrets of karate to help defend himself, and face his fears at that year’s All-Valley Under-18 Karate tournament. Though his methods are strange, unconventional, and at times can be frustrating to bear, they prove effective in teaching Daniel karate, in the process forming an unbreakable bond between student and teacher, and gives Daniel the courage to face his fears with courage, dignity, and honor – winning him the title from Johnny in a memorable final fight.
Like BNHA, The Karate Kid would also spawn a series of sequel movies in 1986 and 1989, as well as a line of action figures, a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon, and a currently-running television series, Cobra Kai, of which I’m a fan of and summarily chronicles Daniel and Johnny’s adult life, as well as the karate journey of their children.
As is the case with the previous East Meets West series, the following categories will be used to compare both flicks. As I have not reviewed Boku No Hero Academia, and considering the fact that it has not concluded as of 2021, I will attempt to refrain from analyzing the series’ story, and instead look at the show from a character-based perspective, such as:
- Best Lead Character
- Best Mentor
- Best Student-Teacher Relationship
- Best Evil Organization
- Best Hero’s Journey
CATEGORY #1: BEST LEAD CHARACTER
No comparison of these two shows is proper without an analysis of the two lead characters, and the main subject of the archetypal hero’s journey: BNHA‘s Deku and The Karate Kid‘s Daniel. Both characters come from modest backgrounds with mother figures, with no biological fathers in sight (though, unlike Deku’s father who allegedly works overseas, Daniel’s father died prior to the events of the movie from cancer) and find their mentors in the unlikeliest of places in the unlikeliest of times. However, it’s important to note their differences as well.
- Personality: When not fighting, Deku is quiet, very introverted and shies away from fights. On the other hand, Daniel is very social, yet hotheaded, and won’t hesitate to stand up for himself when he’s been wronged.
- Interests: Deku’s only interest is following the lives of his favorite heroes, namely All Might; Daniel, being the typical 1980s kid in America, has interests in cars.
- Romance: Both characters have crushes, with different outcomes. Deku’s crush on Ochaco is obvious to the viewer, as well as his difficulty establishing a relationship with her; Daniel has an easier time approaching girls, as evidenced by him striking a relationship with Ali and Kumiko in the first and second films, respectively.
Believe me, given how acquainted I am with The Karate Kid series, I want to say that Daniel is the better character of the two, but one thing that’s stopping me from this is seeing how he doesn’t really change after the first film. Sure, he’s fought his fair share of bad guys, conquered more hearts and has worked very hard to get where he is now, I’m not denying that. But in essence, no matter which film you watch, he’s essentially the same kid from the first film, and is very prone to inconsistent behavior. For example, the third film, which contrary to many people I actually liked the most, evidences this when he practically cowers to fear against his far more aggressive agitators as if we forgot that one movie ago he survived a death match in Japan, and even the Cobra Kai TV series mostly finds himself stuck in nostalgia-land.
Deku in contrast is more consistent change in his personality. Over time, he goes from the insecure weakling presented in the first season to a brilliant fighter, more confident in his abilities and roles, and shows that he’s not scared about what anyone says to him – even Bakugo, his worst nightmare. He’s also a very good strategist, as seen during the training episode of season 1, the UA tournament arc of season 2, and during the hero license test in season 3. And unlike Daniel who at certain times is dependent on Mr. Miyagi to save him, Deku is independent, and can fend for himself effectively. He is far better written, and I cannot simply acknowledge BNHA without realizing Deku’s prowess at such.
BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA 1, THE KARATE KID 0
CATEGORY #2: BEST MENTOR
Another facet to consider is the mentors that play a significant role in Deku and Daniel’s journey to heroism: of course, I’m talking about All Might and Mr. Miyagi respectively. Without these persons, there would be no hero powers instilled in Deku, nor any karate skills built into Daniel’s bodily ecosystem. Arguably these two characters serve as the strongest fighters in their respective franchises, as they are stockpiled with powerful techniques passed on from generation to generation, and are virtually untouchable in their fights. Any enemy who they face in battle is really walking their first step to doom.
All Might is an all-star celebrity hero, loved by many – including Deku – and envied by many villains. He spends most of his time in the spotlight when he’s not teaching at U.A High, and up until his forced retirement in the third season is pretty much the most prominent figure in BNHA‘s universe. How about Mr. Miyagi? He owns no karate school, has no immediate family living in his country, very few people outside of the apartment complex know about him, and his life is one of a humble fisherman in Okinawa – which is exactly what his origins are. Were it not for Daniel, he would have probably lived alone in obscurity, but that’s beside the point.
Though they possess a very strong proficiency in their fighting abilities, their philosophies regarding fighting are also different. All Might primarily uses his attacks in an offensive manner, with the end goal of preventing villains from further damaging the city – the traditional American superhero archetype. That is, until the third season – when All Might sacrifices what remains of his powerful abilities to subjugate the League Of Villains’ leader, All For One. Mr. Miyagi is very reliant on karate as a defensive technique, and focusing on ways to outsmart his opponents rather than engaging them head-on. Because of this, not one single villain has managed to land a single hit on him, and his versatility even despite his advanced age make him a fearsome force to reason with. Where All Might lacks in superhero ability, Miyagi makes up for it with his years of legitimate training and agility.
Granted, All Might is the more powerful of the two mentors in terms of power, but he lacks one thing that Mr. Miyagi has: a parental inspiration. I mostly saw All Might as more of a personal trainer type of figure to Deku, showing up here and there to tell him how to be a hero. Never have I seen him spend time with each other that’s not training, or most importantly, teach him valuable life lessons such as “Lesson not just karate only. Lesson whole life. Whole life have a balance.” or “Never put passion before principle. Even if win, you lose.”. In short, Mr. Miyagi truly was the father figure that Daniel needed in his darkest hours, and that to me will always cement his character as awesome.
THE KARATE KID 1, BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA 1
CATEGORY #3: BEST STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIP
Having determined that Deku is the better protagonist, and that Mr. Miyagi the better (and far more memorable) teacher, a look at both student-teacher relationships is now in effect, as their bond makes quite an impact in both series. BNHA and The Karate Kid demonstrate this aspect of the hero’s journey in, as Mr. Miyagi would put it, “same, but different” ways. As I’ve mentioned before, Deku and All Might’s bond is mostly characterized by a purely student-trainer point of view commonly found in traditional hero stories. When Deku needs some advice on something, All Might is there to provide it. He takes a mostly laissez-faire approach to his student’s development, allowing him to try things on his own until he either gets it right, or is in dire need of his intervention.
Now, on the other hand, Mr. Miyagi serves as Daniel’s surrogate father: someone who you want to be with all the time, who you can learn from, and will always be there to bail you out of trouble. It’s sweet and all, but in consequence this makes him very reliant on him for advice, especially with karate. It’s not until 37 years later, after his mentor’s death, that he finally expands his karate knowledge and learns something new – albeit from another former rival, Chozen Toguchi from the second film. Nevertheless, the two of them share some very heartwarming and tense moments with each other, just as any parent would with their child – which is far beyond what Deku and All Might’s personal trainer-like relationship is.
But perhaps most memorable are the methods they use to teach their students ought to be explored. All Might has Deku train for months by cleaning an entire beach filled with trash, which helps the latter grow some muscles, discipline, and a sense of confidence. He rewards him by having him eat a piece of his hair to inherit his One For All power, but still it’s up to Deku to build up on that and form himself as he goes. It’s funny and unexpected, but at the same time seems to be a bit of a cop-out of a solution. Mr. Miyagi has the famous “Wax on, wax off” sequence having Daniel do a bunch of household chores at his place to help teach him the fundamental muscle memory needed to block his opponent’s attacks. It’s clever, unconventional, but it opens up a door that I’ve previously explored as a metaphor for Divine Providence, whose lesson is clear: sometimes, God will guide us in ways that seem unknown to us, until we realize it.
Who has the better student-teacher relationship in my opinion? Probably Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. Deku and All Might just don’t have the same level of chemistry as the former, and I’d even reckon that apart from the first training sequence, All Might doesn’t really do much for Deku other than serve as his on-call mentor – and this is shown when he’s slow to correct his student when he is shown incapable of controlling his newfound powers. As for the other group, Mr. Miyagi is always there to correct Daniel’s mistakes and lead him towards the right path – whether it’s stopping him from causing a scene or delivering him from the clutches of Cobra Kai. Daniel is instantly thankful for this, and no stronger evidence of their bond is needed outside of the second film, where Daniel calls his master “more important than anything” to him, shortly before taking off to Okinawa.
THE KARATE KID 2, BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA 1
CATEGORY #4: BEST EVIL ORGANIZATION
Cobra Kai serves as the lead evil organization in the Karate Kid films. Led by former U.S Army veteran John Kreese, with a philosophy centered around the motto “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy”, the organization trains its students to seek any method, no matter how brutal they may be, to emerge on top of any dispute. This is evidenced by Johnny Lawrence, Daniel’s chief rival, who is shown initially as an able-bodied, capable fighter and the dojo’s best student – but while the organization claims success in this field, it cares little about the psychological effects imbued on students, which proves negatively in the events following the first film, when its cruel philosophy rears what little good conscience remains in its students – two of them being Bobby (forced to injure Daniel’s knee in the semifinals) and Johnny (who is nearly killed by Kreese for getting second place).
BNHA‘s villains are also grouped together in the aptly-named League Of Villains, whose sole purpose is simple: to dethrone the heroes, and rule the world with an iron fist of evil. Some of its prominent members consist of the most psychotic persons known to man, such as the knife-wielding Himiko Toga, the godlike Nomu army, and its current leader, the brutally merciless Tomura Shigaraki. They are a united force, bonded by this one common goal, and will stop at nothing and use any means to subjugate the main protagonists of the series.
I don’t think section needs any more explanation except to say that the League Of Villains take the entire cake, as they’re far more lethal, intimidating and are capable of brutality at their disposal; only the power of God can stop them from continuing their path of destruction. Make no mistake, these are people who you do not want to cross; and while the Cobra Kai team boasts an effective karate procedure, all it takes for them to back down is one warning from Mr. Miyagi, an order to back down from their “fearless leader” Kreese, and their reign of terror on Daniel is immediately thwarted. For a villain, that’s unrealistic and forced by the plot. Added to the fact that the organization easily collapses thanks to Kreese’s outrage in the second film, one can say that it Cobra Kai‘s venom is weak compared to BNHA‘s stomping ground.
BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA 2, THE KARATE KID 2
CATEGORY #5: BEST HERO’S JOURNEY
Ultimately I want to check: who did the hero’s journey better? DoesThe Karate Kid‘s classic storyline prevail, or is it the high-octane adventures placed by BNHA that take this round? Certainly, one can’t ignore how similar the lead protagonists fare in their quest to emerge as the hero. Consider their similarities in their stories:
- Call To Adventure: Deku wants to become a hero through All Might’s “I am here!”; Daniel’s calling to karate starts on one beachfront battle gone wrong
- Meeting A Mentor: Deku finds this in All Might, while Daniel gets Mr. Miyagi to show him the way of karate
- Trials And Challenges: Deku gets this in learning to harness his control his inherited signature ability, All For One; Daniel learns karate moves through Mr. Miyagi’s regiment of household chores. Through numerous adversities, both persons are successful in overcoming their trials in life
- Ordeal: Deku learns to cope with the responsibilities that come with being a hero, while Daniel has this in the form of the All-Valley karate tournament
- Reward: Deku faces a change in personality and has a new outlook in life, emboldened by his hero status, and Daniel triumphs over his fears of Cobra Kai‘s bullying by finally standing up to them
Now I’m not going to sugarcoat anything, but I think Deku’s character arc is the better version of the hero’s journey. ThoughThe Karate Kid is an incredible film, one which has become tradition for me to watch every summer, and Daniel LaRusso is part of my cosplay lineup at Anime north. However, I cannot ignore things like the stalness of his character in the third film, his lack of proactivity, and how ill-tempered he can be at times to dampen his journey; this is not the case with Deku. I’ve only seen BNHA (up to season 3) once in the last three years (believe it!), but it’s clear from that one viewing that he has an independent growth mindset, is willing to defend his principles, has many friends to support him, and most importantly, works hard to achieve his goals. As a result, we see him go through a significant personal growth, and unlike Daniel, is more open to becoming a better person in various ways (as seen by his willingness to bury the hatchet with longtime bully Bakugo, or encourage others like Todoroki to give it their all). Objectively speaking, his journey to become a hero is exactly that – a quest to become a model of inspiration – but for Daniel, his journey lasts only one film (two at best) before staggering into unknown, unexplained realms left unfinished 37 years later.
And with that, it’s my pleasure to announce that the winner of this week’s East Meets West is Boku No Hero Academia.
FINAL SCORE: BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA 3, THE KARATE KID 2
You might be wondering why I compared BNHA to The Karate Kid rather than the obvious choice of The Avengers series of movies by Marvel. The answer is simple: such a comparison would be too mainstream, and I wanted to focus on the character dynamics and the concept of the hero’s journey from both films, since they are quite similar in tone. Also, I haven’t had time to re-watch the entire Avengers trilogy or the fourth season (and the movies) of BNHA, so doing that would have completely derailed the quality of my post. I promise you that sometime in the future (probably in 2022) that I will make an East Meets West segment dedicated to bringing these two flicks together and see who did it better.