3 Things The Karate Kid & Cobra Kai Got Wrong about Bonsai

3 Things The Karate Kid & Cobra Kai Got Wrong about Bonsai

Bonsai Art

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!

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  • Todd on

    My first introduction to bonsai was from books and then in person by attending the Japanese Festival held at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis Missouri. The festival started in 1977. I’m not sure what year it was that I attended the first time but it was close to that year. The Bonsai Society of Greater St. Louis had a display of trees from members on the club. Has a teenager that couldn’t drive I had to rely on my parents to get me to the meetings. As an driving adult I joined the club as a member. In 1984 when Karate Kid first came out I knew enough then to know this was a “movie” impression of what bonsai is (not). I have enjoyed bonsai for 30+ years and I’m still a member of the St. Louis club. My advise to anyone, young or old, that wants to learn bonsai is to join a local club. The knowledge and experience you get in a local club can make a huge difference in your trees in your location. It has given me a hobby that I will enjoy for a lifetime. I hope it will do the same for you.

  • Erich on

    My first exposure to bonsai was Karate Kid, but it wasn’t until I saw one in person that I became hooked. It was a mall-sai grade j. procumbens too. But at least that led me to find books about the subject, and over 30 years later I’m still hooked.

  • Eric Schrader on

    Hi Mike – Unlike Kishu and Itoigawa, or even a good tight Rocky Mountain Juniper, procumbens foliage tends to stay “juvenile” in most climates. Hot humid climates like Hawaii see more mature growth, and make the trees more suitable. However, in most places folks will struggle to create tight pads. Many people have had success growing procumbens for decades, it’s a good plant for growing, and it can make a mediocre to good bonsai, but if you walk the halls of the best bonsai shows in the world, you’ll rarely see one. I’ve visited Kokufu-Ten four times and I don’t think I saw a single one. In the US, all high level work on junipers uses Kishu, Itoigawa, or natives with favorable wood and foliar characteristics. . . . I had one I grew into a nice little tree, but usually they end up a bit leggy and uninteresting.

  • Mike on

    Hi Eric. It does seem procures juniper are very popular in the US for bonsai beginners. Can you elaborate on what about the foliage leads to difficult log term development.

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