The Real Mr. Miyagi

Pat Morita’s iconic sensei in ‘The Karate Kid’ was based on his mentor, Japanese legend Fumio Demura. A new documentary looks back at Demura’s astonishing, influential life.

08.07.15 9:15 AM ET

Back in 1984, a gentle-voiced Okinawan named Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san how to wax on and wax off like a pro, sending karate into the hearts and minds of America with one swift, perfect crane kick.

In real life it was a gentle-voiced master from Yokohama, Japan named Fumio Demura who taught Noriyuki “Pat” Morita the true meaning of sensei, sparking a decades-long friendship between the Karate Kid star and one of modern martial art’s most iconic figures.

Demura’s impressive legacy is chronicled in Kevin Derek’s doting documentary The Real Miyagi, which traces how the son of a silk tradesman came to America in the 1960s with nothing but $300 and a suitcase. Knowing no English but armed with training in karate and the weaponry-focused kobudo, he went on to found his own influential karate practice in Southern California, teaching his craft to generations of students—including a nunchaku-obsessed Bruce Lee.

The 1961 All-Japan karate champ started gracing the covers of Black Belt Magazine, which martial arts-obsessed youngsters, including future Expendable Dolph Lundgren, saved up to buy and pore over. Over the years Demura picked up several other high-profile fans, like Chuck Norris, who once credited his success as a karate fighter to the beloved instructor, author, and stuntman.

Tae-Bo legend Billy Blank remembers seeing Demura perform karate with wide-eyed wonder. “I’d never seen anybody move their body so sharp and crisp like that,” he says. “He was so masterful… it looked like somebody took a pen and drew him in each movement, it was so precise.”

Black Dynamite and Mortal Kombat: Legacy star (and nine-discipline black belt) Michael Jai White recalls how, as a kid, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on one of Demura’s early how-to tomes. “I sent away for a book called Advanced Nunchaku—which is funny because I didn’t know anything about nunchaku,” laughs White. “I just would cut off pieces of broomstick and put a chain around it and swing ‘em around like a crazy person, and I thought I was kinda good.”

The partially crowdfunded documentary, which earned a berth at last week’s genre-focused Fantasia Fest in Montreal, recounts Demura’s rise to prominence in the U.S. martial arts scene in the 1970s performing karate demonstrations with his fledgling band of students where he could, in forums like Buena Park’s now long-defunct culturally-themed Japanese Village and Deer Park.

It was there that future action star, seventh-dan black belt, and sometimes lawman Steven Seagal was known to literally beat the drum for Demura’s shows as a young wannabe martial artist. But Demura wasn’t an empty-headed guru spouting exoticisms, Seagal tells the camera. Sprawled across a couch with a throw pillow across his lap, Seagal puts it another way.

“There are so many people in the martial arts and in the movie business who never really studied the martial arts. All they do is bullshit people and talk about all the people they studied with and all the things they did, when they really did nothing,” he says. “Demura sensei’s the real thing.”

Demura’s precise moves and thrilling choreography earned him the attention of Hollywood types just as Hong Kong chop-socky cinema was making waves stateside. The sensei himself recalls how Bruce Lee came to him to learn the art of the nunchaku, keen on perfecting the right presentation that would wow his audience. “He wanted to use that weapon so he started practicing with that book and asking questions,” Demura says. “He was very intelligent about showmanship. He knew what the public wanted.” 

Directed with sometimes plodding and hagiographic adoration, The Real Miyagi spends considerable time on Demura’s scrappy roots, traveling with him on a recent visit to Japan to pay respect to his family, and the 2011 health crisis that landed the now-76 year old Demura in a coma. 

It was after turning down the part of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid that the stocky, amiable sensei struck up a lasting closeness with Morita. (Demura claims he was approached to play the character but declined when he saw the size of the role, citing his poor English.)

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He’d already starred in a samurai show in Vegas, did Slaughter in San Francisco with Chuck Norris, and survived shooting with tigers on the Burt Lancaster-Michael York version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Brought in by producer Jerry Weintraub, Demura got to know writer Robert Kamen and Morita and, several surviving colleagues from the film franchise argue, his persona ended up rubbing off on the character.

Says actor and martial artist Yuji Okamoto, “Always remembering that you put 100 percent into anything you do otherwise you don’t do it at all, that’s what the character was about. You don’t ask questions, you just do it because there’s a purpose, and I think that’s what [Morita] took away as part of the character of Mr. Miyagi.”

Demura also stunt doubled for Morita, as seen in rare, grainy rehearsal footage from the making of Karate Kid provided by director John Avildsen; rewatch the Halloween fight and that’s Demura leaping from the chain-link fence to hand the Cobra Kai punks their own butts. 

“All he did was make me younger by his influence, steadiness, rocklike spirit, and compassion for his fellow man,” says the late Morita in archival footage. “He indeed brought many, many qualities to my work that I was lucky enough to manifest…. One day I will teach this man to catch flies with chopsticks and I will have contributed to his life.”