The first time I ever saw a bonsai tree was when I watched "The Karate Kid" in 1984. I was still a child, and I still hold this as a beloved introduction to bonsai, as do many people who are now adult practitioners of the art. Unfortunately, this movie is also a source of misrepresentation of bonsai, unintentionally planting some poor images into the minds of millions of people and likely causing avoidable frustrations to generations of new bonsai hobbyists. And I am afraid that, as good as the series is (and we all love it!) the reboot "Cobra Kai" is likely continuing this cycle of misinformation. These errors are subtle to the uninitiated, but to those of us who practice bonsai regularly, they are significant. There are two bonsai-related things I think "The Karate Kid" could have done better, and one "Cobra Kai" should rethink.
Say It Ain't So, Karate Kid!
In the first and most memorable bonsai scene of the original movie, Daniel walks into a dark room where Mr. Miyagi is trimming some Juniperus procumbens plants. Mr. Miyagi invites Daniel to trim one of the trees and the scene unfolds as a lesson in mindfulness and thoughtful bonsai practice. Watch for yourself:
1. Wrong Species: although many Americans think of Juniperus procumbens (or the Nana variety) as a "Bonsai" it is actually called a Japanese Garden Juniper. While the species is commonly used as a spreading ground cover in Japanese gardens, it is almost universally rejected as a bonsai subject. Instead, bonsai practitioners use two other kinds of junipers abundantly - Juniperus rigida and Juniperus chinensis v. Itoigawa and v. Kishu.
And why does the exact species matter? Because J. procumbens and J. procmbens 'nana' are not your friend in the long term when it comes to bonsai. Yes, you can create a bonsai with a procumbens juniper, as you can train the trunk and branching, but you cannot maintain and improve it after creation, when the foliar characteristics become quite important. Even in the 1980's when this species was more popular, bonsai practitioners "in the know" were grafting other more cooperative varieties onto it to escape the problematic maintenance issues. Today, these are the plants that you might buy in a home center in a plastic pot, or from a roadside truck from a guy who doesn't know very much about bonsai.
2. Wrong climate: the bonsai portrayed in the movie are not grown indoors by most or perhaps all serious practitioners and artists. Bonsai being mainly made from tree species means that they nearly all want bright all-day-long sunlight. Where Mr. Miyagi is keeping his trees they would certainly not receive enough light, and lest you think perhaps he is in a greenhouse at night, refer to the third movie where they are also kept indoors at the store. This unfortunate movie styling decision seems to have started a trend in all other movie and serial entertainment where bonsai are kept indoors as decorative objects, resulting in the majority of people believing that bonsai should be kept indoors.
While it's fine to bring bonsai indoors, and during winter protection can be essential, generally they are easier to grow outdoors where they create tighter healthier growth than inside buildings. Bonsai can be grown indoors, but you will face many challenges in providing adequate light and your efforts will largely be confined to tropical or other species that tolerate the constant temperatures inside homes. To their credit, the creators do keep some scenes with trees outside, as in the third moving "Roots" scene.
Mercy, Cobra Kai!
3. That juniper is not a bonsai: In the first season, Daniel holds up the little juniper you can see in the screen shot above during his commercial for his dealership. This is an untrained juniper that doesn't look like a tree; certainly not like a juniper tree. It's still the wrong species, and really shouldn't be held up as an example of American bonsai.
What was your first exposure to bonsai? Was it from "The Karate Kid" or "Cobra Kai"? Let us know in the comments below and share your impressions!