The Karate Kid, a quintessential film portraying the journey of an adolescent through the odds of life and the final triumph of life, serves to cinematically describe the stages of development of an adolescent individual. It would be extremely interesting to apply the theories of Erik Erikson in deciphering the cinematic essence of the film and having a comprehensive view of the matter.
Erikson describes the stage to be one when the adolescent is concerned about how others perceive of him or her. The superego of the adolescent grows as does the confidence of oneself. The child finally develops a sense of sexual identity with time. In the phase of transition, every individual is trying to grasp his or her role as an adult. In the film The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso moves over to his mother’s place from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda in Los Angeles, California. The geographical displacement signifies the displacement of his self and the inception of the journey of discovering his identity as an individual. He comes close to Ali Mills, a girl in his high school. He seems to be on the path of understanding his sexual identity as he steps into this stage of life. Johnny Lawrence, Ali’s ex-flame, on the other hand is deviated from the moral road and seeks revenge on Daniel. He constantly bullies Daniel at every opportunity. Johnny is swayed by the unethical and vicious form of martial arts under the paramount influence of his mentor. His displacement to a state of tumultuous mental state and the subsequent actions which lead him to the realization of his own identity can also be related to Erikson’s theory.
Erikson goes on to discuss about ‘identity crisis’ when the individual is torn apart by what he or she is and what the society expects him or her to be. Adolescents face situations which demand the re-establishment of boundaries for themselves in opposition to a greatly hostile world. The adolescent is now in a state of ‘identity crisis’ or confusion. In the film, Daniel faces extreme bullying and even physical harassment from a gang of boys. His sense of self is stirred and broken. He is a weakling in comparison to the cumulative strength of the boys. The brutal world seems to be encroaching of his adolescent cognition and development. However, the intervention of Mr. Miyagi allows him to endeavor to find oneself and re-emerge in life. Daniel is allowed to have two months till the martial arts match which would decide his fate in the run for achieving identity. He submerges himself under the meticulous training of Mr. Miyagi, an expert in martial arts. As described by Erikson in his psycho-social developmental stage of ‘trust versus mistrust’, Daniel develops trust for Mr. Miyagi who gets transformed into his caregiver who gives him security.
Bio-psycho-social forces being at work, every adolescent achieves his own sense of ideologies. Erikson describes that the adolescent is on a bid to balance between what he or she has got and what he or she will do with it. While Daniel embarks upon a path of exercise and discipline, under the positive influence of Mr. Miyagi, he is driven by ideology of love and persistence. He trains day in and day out to achieve the respect and the sense of identity which every adolescent so eagerly seeks. Johnny, however, is influenced by the ideology of avenging and is ready to deviate from the path of conscience and morality to get his way. The ego quality of one’s fidelity depends on this stage. Whether one can keep loyal in the face of contradictory value systems is determined now.
Daniel is in the pursuit to develop his ego identity through his zealous practice and rigorous training. He becomes competent and gains mastery in the field of martial arts under the supervision of Mr. Miyagi. In the process, he goes through the psycho-social stage of ‘autonomy versus shame’, as described by Erikson. Erikson has opined that if an individual learns to control the body and its functions, it provides a sense of control and independence. Completing this stage of development, the individual becomes more confident and secure. Daniel too through resilience and grit develops his autonomy over his body and reaches a stage of optimum confidence and security.
The theory of ‘identity achievement’ states that the adolescent by now has already gone through the stage of identity crisis and is now committed to a sense of fidelity. Daniel shows the grit in his training and is greatly guided by Mr. Miyagi, who is by now his surrogate father-figure, in his cognitive development transcending the undulations of the past events. He is focused and aims persistently at the target. During the tournament is victimized time by his baleful opponent who deploys an unethical and forbidden blow on his knee. He remains in extreme acute pain and is suggested not to continue, thus giving up before the final match with Johnny. But Daniel is too determined to achieve his goal and convinces Mr. Miyagi to apply a pain suppression technique on him which enables him to fight. He exudes omnipotent determination and stamina and never gives in, although he is hurt again on his knee. He finally manages to get the better of his opponent and lands a kick on him which makes him win the tournament. Oblivious of the immense pain, he triumphs in glory as his mother, Ali and Mr. Miyagi, his mentor and the father-figure, look on in sheer appreciation of the lad’s grit, skills and achievement. He achieves the true sense of his identity through his persistence and focus. He emerges as the quintessential cinematic portraiture of the theory describing one’s achievement of identity in the face of crisis and hostility.
Every adolescent faces these stages in his or her journey for identity achievement. The film perfectly portrays the cognitive behavior of the adolescent and the gradual steps toward finding oneself and situating the goals in the plane of the ‘real’ world. The individual then treads on the alley of life that would lead to adulthood. Daniel becomes the epitome of psychosocial development in the film, The Karate Kid.
Steinberg, L., Bornstein, M. H., Vandell, D. L., & Rook, K. S. Lifespan Development: Infancy Through Adulthood. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2011. Print.