'The Real Miyagi': Fantasia Review

The Real Miyagi Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Fantasia Festival

The Real Miyagi Still - H 2015

A loving testimonial to a hugely influential martial arts evangelist.

Meet the man behind the Karate Kid's teacher.

In the kind of admiring portrait a student might make of his master, Kevin Derek's The Real Miyagi introduces the Japanese karate sensei who, upon emigrating to the US in the mid-60s, became one of the discipline's key promoters in the West. Fumio Demura's strong connection to The Karate Kid will be the biggest selling point for this informative but unpolished film, drawing attention at fests, but the doc will be seen mostly within the martial arts community, with some small spillover on video to fans of chopsocky cinema.

An opening interview with Steven Seagal assures the uninitiated that Demura is "the real thing" as opposed to the large number of "experts" working in Hollywood who actually have few accomplishments under their black belts. Glancing at the walls of his dojo, we see photos of visitors from Bruce Lee to Hilary Swank and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not a bad group of admirers for a man who, after a few years of near-success in Japan, moved to the US in 1965 with $300 and slept in a garage, frightened and lonesome.

Demura found work entertaining tourists at Knott's Berry Farm, then raised his profile with karate demonstrations at California's now-defunct Japanese Village and Deer Park. Traditional demonstrations of fighting prowess were too dry for Americans, Demura realized, so he added humor and relaxed formal constraints so it looked like participants were really fighting. Soon, he was a regular in magazines like Black Belt and the author of a slew of training manuals, renowned for being good at both weapons (like his famous nunchucku) and bare-handed combat, whereas most experts were only great at one.

Demura had flirted with the movies before Chuck Norris recommended him for The Karate Kid, but he wasn't confident enough with English to take on a challenging acting role. Instead he trained native Californian Pat Morita; the pair became close friends, and Demura went on to serve as his stunt double for years while traveling the globe to promote his karate schools.

Derek talks to many of Demura's Regular-Joe students, who can't speak highly enough of their esteem for him, and follows the sensei both in California and Japan. Work is his life, we see, and when he falls into a coma a year into the doc's production, his surrogate family of students rallies around him.

The film is fairly awkward in its use of that coma as a framing device, and the quality of Derek's cinematography varies wildly throughout. Otherwise, though, the storytelling is sufficiently clear to serve as the most accessible biography this influential but under-known artist is likely to get.

Production company: Scoplin Pictures, Nico Bella Films
Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography-Editor: Kevin Derek
Producer: Oscar Alvarez
Executive producer: Pat Nevraumont
Music: Scott Moreno, Karin Okada
No rating, 83 minutes