CS Soapbox: Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence v. Daniel LaRusso, Who’s the Better Sensei?
WARNING!!!: This piece contains SPOILERS for Cobra Kai! Proceed with caution!
Since becoming cognizant, humanity has asked the hard questions: are we alone in the universe? Are eyebrows considered facial hair? Who’s the better sensei, Johnny Lawrence or Daniel LaRusso? What does it all mean? While attempts at answering the latter prove increasingly futile, the former, which was thought lost but not forgotten, has been found thanks to Cobra Kai.
1984’s The Karate Kid is a classic. A story following Daniel LaRusso who, after moving to Southern California, finds himself the victim of a group of bullies studying karate at the Cobra Kai dojo. The lead victimizer is Johnny Lawrence, the ex-boyfriend of Daniel’s new love interest (and quintessential girl next door) Ali Mills. Thankfully, Daniel meets an eccentric handyman and Okinawan karate master, Mr. Miyagi who teaches the teenager both defense-oriented karate and a “wax on, wax off” philosophy to combat John Kreese and Cobra Kai’s “strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” In the end, Daniel silences his aggressors, wins the All Valley Karate Tournament, and becomes the best around—nothing’s going to ever keep him down. But a whole lot keeps Johnny down.
When Daniel won the ALL Valley Karate Tournament, he won at life, going on to have a loving family and live a lavish lifestyle. Johnny lost. He drank away the decades that followed, knocked up a girl, abandoned his son, and, at the beginning of Cobra Kai, is completely broke. This is why the once spoiled rich kid (with an abusive father) decides to reopen his old dojo—something that triggers Daniel’s PTSD and leads to the formation of the opposing dojo, Miyagi-Do Karate. As the protagonist of Cobra Kai, Johnny, a man stuck in the ‘80s, desperate to relive his glory years, is granted the relatability he deserves. Daniel is as (self?) righteous as ever.
Cobra Kai’s popularity proves that the lessons taught and learned by Johnny and Daniel are more relevant than ever. As sensei, Johnny is intense while Daniel is predictably subdued, adapting approaches taught to them by their respective teachers. More than that, their methods reflect their worlds. For Johnny, the world is a cruel place that only respects aggression. So, he puts his students in conflict with one another, inflicts rigorous/borderline dangerous training methods, and berates them, even repeatability insulting Eli’s lip deformity, pushing him into the mohawk-sporting persona “Hawk.” It’s in line with Johnny’s core objective: be a badass. A fist-pump, beer-chug worthy idea that gives the students of Cobra Kai the confidence to stand up to their bullies and helps Miguel Diaz defy science and walk again. The only problem with Johnny’s teaching style was that one big lie.
No mercy. When Johnny sees the adverse effects of Kreese’s philosophy, he abandons the aforementioned part of Cobra Kai’s mantra and attempts to cut his old sensei from his life. Johnny genuinely cares bout his students and doesn’t want to see them end up like him. Unfortunately, Kreese isn’t easily rid of, season 3 painting a vivid picture of who the war veteran actually is and how far he’s willing to go serving his greater good. Despite its shifting perspective—From Johnny and Kreese to Daniel, Sam, and Robbie, Cobra Kai almost always pays homage to, and draws parallels with, The Karate Kid.
Johnny’s first student, Miguel, is essentially a young Daniel—an underprivileged “dweeb” who meets his mentor in the apartment complex where he and his mother live. However, while Johnny tells Miguel, “don’t be a pussy,” Miyagi taught Daniel to “wax on, wax off.” Weirdly, both Johnny and Daniel are Miyagi’s spiritual successors. Daniel is just actively (and desperately) struggling to honor his late master.
When training his daughter, Sam, and Johnny’s son, Robbie, Daniel he has the pair do chores to develop muscle memory and instill a work ethic. He inspires growth, reflection, patience, and maturity. Above all, Miyagi-Do Karate teaches martial arts to be used for defensive purposes only. This helps his students fend off members of Cobra Kai at their high school and reasserts the fact that Cobra Kai, and Johnny, are flawed, albeit obnoxiously.
Season 3 is the pinnacle of Daniel’s deconstruction. After traveling to Japan, his former enemy in The Karate Kid Part II, Chozen, reveals a secret, lethal pressure point techniques Mr. Miyagi kept secret from Daniel. Having no option other than to kill, Miyagi’s ancestors once had to defend Okinawa against Japanese invaders. Defense can come in many forms, and “if an enemy insists on war, then you take away their ability to wage it.” It’s a storyline that plants a seed in Daniel’s mind about Johnny and their so-called differences—maybe the best defense is a good offense? Johnny is not too stubborn, too drunk, or too old to change…and neither is Daniel.
The first film preached balance in all aspects of life. The end of The Karate Kid’s is a metaphor for Cobra Kai: everyone is the hero of their own story. Whether you adhere to How I Met Your Mother and Barney Stinson’s view of The Karate Kid (being about a ”scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate”) or simply support the evidence arguing Daniel’s climactic crane kick as illegal, there was no denying the classic underdog story is problematic. In 2018, Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg’s Cobra Kai reframed not only the story of Daniel LaRusso but of the once bully, Johnny Lawrence.
Whether you’re Miguel, Robbie, Sam, Tory, Kreese, Johnny, or Daniel. By making Johnny the initial protagonist, Cobra Kai critiques nostalgia by mocking the fact that he knows nothing about technology, listens to the same music, uses dated vernacular. It’s satire but it also has heart, showing you everyone’s backstory and giving you almost no one to hate. If the show has a central message then it’s that combat, like life, is unforgiving but be compassionate anyway.
Being around people with opposing, aggressive, convincing, sometimes even charming ideas helps one to reaffirm one’s identity. This doesn’t mean don’t have an open mind, the point of having an open mind is to close it on certain subjects. If you don’t you are forfeiting your right to think. The end of Cobra Kai’s third season encapsulates this, bringing two remote associations together: sensei Lawrence and sensei LaRusso.
So, there’s no way we’re alone in the universe, eyebrows are most definitely facial hair, and neither Johnny Lawrence nor Daniel LaRusso is the better sensei, they are two halves made whole. In season 4, the pair will become a two-headed beast of flirting ideologies, forcing on compassion to direct their moral compass as their students, together, take on Kreese’s Cobra Kai at the All-Valley. Vegas odds are on a hilarious, brutal, and touching conclusion that sees Kreese realize the error of his ways, even if it’s a tad too late.