Maybe you’ve always known this in your heart, but Karate is magic. And I don’t mean it has elements of ritualized mysticism– I mean it will give you a Chinese accent and the power to teleport children into and out of your Karate lair. I’m very excited to show you 1996’s The Magic of Martial Arts.
Karate is already violence we teach children, but The Magic of Martial Arts adapts it for kids. It speaks directly to an audience who believes their puppets come to life at night, and it’s singularly insane. It’s hosted by a man named Master Eastwest who is what happens when you combine the mystical orange belts of the East with the unearned confidence of the West.
My copy comes from an Ocean County library that described it as “DISCARDED.” And when a New Jersey librarian decides you’re trash, I know better than to put you in my VCR. So I did what any genius would do– I wired a trophy and a hot dog computer up to a yin-yang bird bath and projected the VHS tape from that. You can build one of these at home yourself if you believe enough in your Karate, and get your trophy and your sensei’s permission first.
The character of Master Eastwest is brought to life by Brandon Scott, an actor who once played a magician on an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati and who went on to become a “controversial UFO investigator.” He is affecting a voice like he came into the audition going, “AH SO SOLLY, ME MISTAH KARATE,” and the director said, “I love it, but take it down haaaaaalf a notch.”
After the tape tells you to go get your parents, Master Eastwest appears in a turquoise gi with dolphins on the arms and legs along with a rainbow yin-yang headband. In 1996, this was the exact costume children dressed their social studies homework in, so it reads less like “profound mysticism” and more like “ordinary Trapper Keeper.” He sings a ballad about Karate leading you down a path of mental freedom that turns into a bouncy melody about always running away from fights. If the key grip came into frame and said, “Not sure when you’ll see this, but sorry I couldn’t be there on your birthday, Brandon! There should be some Tuna Helper in the garage!,” I’d still think, “No one will ever be more disappointed than a viewer who rented this hoping to learn how to kick ass. They will never trust anyone or anything ever again.”
Master Eastwest is thousands of years old– the living spirit of Oriental fighting arts. From China to Japan, whenever an Asian was killed by hands or feet, Master Eastwest was there. “Wow,” two child actors add. None of this should be necessary to demonstrate the appeal of jump kicks to children, but Master Eastwest’s amalgamation of Oriental philosophies and sorceries seems very important to the filmmakers. It’s well-meaning racists whose exposure to Asian culture came from the safety warning on their throwing stars and nothing else, and normally that would just be my opinion. But I think this is a special case where I can conclusively prove The Magic of Martial Arts fails at its cultural appropriation.
As I mentioned, this tape was once in a public library, meaning it was given a Dewey Decimal Classification: 796.8. This categorizes it as “Combat Sports,” probably since there wasn’t a code for “Karate Kids Music But Weirder Than That Sounds.” But you know what there is a code for? “Oriental martial arts forms.”
Look, I get this is a weird digression, but I think it’s important. A librarian saw this VHS tape adorned with Eastern symbolism, made by a man dressed like a Cedar Creek Chinatown window jumping up and down and screaming he’s from the Orient, and they decided no– the state of New Jersey finds this to be not Oriental. It’s bureaucratically savage. It’d be like a record store putting Vanilla Ice in the “Comedy & Exercise” section.
Anyway, I rest my case, but after Master Eastwest, the legally not Oriental spirit of the Orient, explains his origin story, it cuts to two kids to reveal this was all a story being told by a young boy to the world’s most credulous girl. And since these filmmakers believe in magic, not second takes, the actress responds, “Wow. He’s ancient fossil.” He’s… he’s what? That’s what you got from all that? You know, this whole conversation is nuts. Let me show it to you, carefully transcribed, word-for-word:
This girl was told a lengthy history of a prehistoric Karate ghost who hides among us like a man and lives somewhere in a cave, and she is so eager to go there and be with him she promises. Fans of English will recognize that as a phrase missing a few words. What did she promise? Well, long after she makes it, the video explains this promise is to only use Karate when your life is in danger. It’s obviously a necessary step when becoming a living weapon, but presented like this it’s a reminder that children don’t have the best judgement. After all, this one heard an impossible story about a lonely white man who writes his own songs about cowardice and she is willing to do or swear anything to get into his cave to learn the most ordinary childhood skill.
She is transported inside, alone and confused. I don’t know how time works in the Karate cave, but she’s there at least long enough to consider how this might have been a mistake. Suddenly, Master Eastwest appears in her face! Facing the wrong way! Improvising Kung Fu movements! Casting a black girl in the role of “Kid Still Fucking Standing Here While This Bullshit Happens” was probably a mistake!
Master Eastwest eventually starts teaching everyone Karate after he’s certain you’ll never use it under any circumstances. It’s safe to say it’s not good Karate, maybe worse than pointless, but it gets kids worried about strangers murdering them in caves. Far too late for them, but maybe not for you.
Master Eastwest, or Señor Chinoracisto as he’s called in the South, starts by teaching one of the most important aspects of Karate– ducking. Well, not exactly teaching. He asks you to stand up and starts punching you in the face screaming, “DUCK! … DUCK! … DUCK! … DUCK!”
Maybe this is a New Jersey librarian thing to say, but if you change the word “DUCK!” to racial slurs, this is probably the same way Master Eastwest’s father taught him how to respect other cultures. So depending on how you interpreted “duck” you either know how to slip straight punches or you’ve trained yourself to bow directly into them. Either way, there is no door leading out of this cave, so it’s time to move on to screaming. Wait, first, let’s use our Karate to conjure juice.
Okay, now for screaming.
The “Kiai” is an expression of your Karate power! It’s awkward! Embarrassing! These unattended children abducted by magic from around the globe fucking love it!
Master Eastwest, a Dutch name meaning “Chow Mein Pizza,” isn’t really specific about punching and ducking, but there are a lot of things to go over when it comes to screaming. Unfortunately, no one is listening because he forgot to tell these kids what they’re supposed to do with their body during a kiai. It’s a loophole one awesome kid takes full advantage of by putting his entire soul into a kick with each scream. Little Dernell is kicking so hard he has to stop and put his outfit back together after each one. And while the failed birthday magician explains some long, secret history of Oriental shrieks, the other children become way more interested in young Dernell who clearly knows what Karate is all about.
The tape shows a few real world applications of Karate, like running away from school bullies or destroying the dick of a full grown adult mugger, but my favorite one comes when the little girl from earlier, who promised, gets a toy snatched away by her little sister and immediately threatens to kick her to death. Master Eastwest knew she was going to do this, so he followed her home and hid behind her couch. He leaps up, fingering the Karate Alarm!
Niaje’ steps back and stands at attention. She knows this person as the man who teaches her Karate in a cave. But her sister? To her, this is a white madman in her home– she has no reason to think she’s going to live. And remember, this is an Asian ghost who claims he can hear any child on the planet and teleport. So they should make a note of how this guy was just crouching behind their couch, waiting. “Kids, my Oriental powers are too depleted to warp back to my cave! There’s only one thing that can restore my abilities! I need to find… oh, but you couldn’t possibly be able to help, unless… no, there’s no way you have… a mommy’s swimsuit from the laundry?”
Master Eastwest reminds Niaje’ about her promise to never use Karate unless her life is in danger. And then, as if to prove she still doesn’t know when that will be, stays in her living room and starts dancing. He performs a song called “Three Deep It Out,” which is a fist-pumping Karate song about taking three deep breaths to calm yourself down. The girls know it and join in, and it is no exaggeration to say if their parents came home during this performance, they would react as if seeing their daughters neck-deep in the mouth of a boa constrictor.
I think I’ve made a strong case for how this shit is all the way crazy, but haven’t sold you on it being all the way racist yet. Fine, but what if I told you they stopped the vague Eastern mysticism to circle around two children while they performed an African dance for no reason, with no setup or explanation? You might say “nonsense,” or “You’re– y-you must be mistaking some common hip hop moves for Afric–“
Let me stop you right there, racist Karate apologist. Look at this:
Those kids are at the Zamunda consulate auditioning for Prince Akeem Joffer’s wedding. This is something that would get Rachel Dolezal to say, “A wonderful, enriching time was had by all at the Spokane Cultural Center.” Artistically speaking, this is like trying to whisper in your sleeping wife’s ear, “Karate can bring every culture in the world together,” but accidentally spraying a diarrhea swastika onto her biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. while you bite her ear off.
The last third of this tape is dance performances and awkward sparring matches demonstrating how ineffective Master Eastwest’s self-defense techniques are against even the gentlest untrained 8-year-olds. He watches silently from a rock as the children tug on one of the boys, not explaining if it’s a training drill or some kind of metaphor. If he turned around to grin at the camera and said, “This is absolutely a sex thing,” it would actually ease my mind a little.
It’s time to wrap up their musical self-defense VHS tape, so from a very normal place, the tender arms of her cave Karate teacher, a little Asian girl tells Master Eastwest, “I wanna be just like you when I grow up.”
Master Eastwest tells her, “You already are.”
She responds to this troubling insanity with the lack of surprise you can only get from untalented child actors and asks, “I am?”
“Yes,” he clarifies, before transporting her and all the kids into a forest where he has changed into his non-Karate clothes and a toupee.
Huh? He’s… got a secret identity? Or is this an innocent man who was only temporarily hosting the being known as Master Eastwest? The children are confused too. Was this his last act of Karate magic? Were they given drugs that are finally wearing off? Who made your wig, new guy? A New Jersey librarian’s back?
He tells the kids Master Eastwest also lives inside each one of them, but it comes across more like a warning or a curse than an inspiration they can take with them. Stripped of all his rainbows, dolphins, and baldness, these kids are starting to realize there’s something off about this Chinese-voiced white guy. “Surprise! Your first instincts were right! I’m an ordinary guy who is going to kill you!”
Whoever this man who was once Master Eastwest is, he looks like a police sketch of a driver who vanished with a full school bus. He’s dressed like he bought his outfit from a clerk at Party City who said, “Where did you find this? I thought they discontinued the ‘pedophile’ costume.” I have more questions, Rainbow Tribe Productions! Why did the plot call for this? To teach us anyone can decide to be a magical racist with lethal hands and feet even if they’re not allowed within 500 feet of a playground? To whom would that be a comfort? Is there a couple out there right now thinking, “Dernell left for that Karate video shoot 24 years ago. It’s weird he’s not back yet.”
This article is brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme, Lane Haygood: Also known as Master Northsouth, an offensive collection of stereotypes about Swedes and Chileans.