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Cobra Kai's Ralph Macchio & William Zabka on glory days, Ali Mills, and the longevity of the Drum Technique
Since we first caught wind that Cobra Kai Season 3 was looking to make another Karate Kid franchise visit to Okinawa and revisiting classic franchise characters Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto) and Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), we’ve been watching Karate Kid 2 on a pretty much constant loop. Mostly, we were hoping to match the machinations of the film’s most lasting lesson: The Drum Technique. So when SYFY WIRE had a chance to video chat with Cobra Kai’s Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso), William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence), and Mary Mouser (Samantha LaRusso) recently, we drummed up the courage to ask about the technique, and whether we can expect it to be as impactful on the series as it was in the film.
**SPOILER WARNING: Mild spoilers for Cobra Kai Season 3 below!**
Now that Season 3 has officially dropped on Netflix, it’s safe to say the answer to that is... well, not quite as drum-heavy as we’d have hoped, though we do get a nice shout-out. Alas, apparently not everyone in the San Fernando Valley carries a toy drum around like they did in Okinawa in Karate Kid 2, when Daniel was urged on — by everyone in town rolling the toy drums back and forth between their palms so the swinging mallets would strike rhythmically — to unleash a similar motion on his new, post-Johnny rival, Chozen. If you’ll recall, Daniel’s new post-Ali love, Kumiko, was performing a lovely traditional dance in a perfect Karate Champ setting when Chozen ziplined down and put a butterfly knife to her throat in order to goad Daniel-san into a fight to the death (spoiler: no one died).
Admittedly, this time around, the Drum Technique doesn’t exactly live up to its original rhythm, but it would have really had to have been placed in the forefront of Cobra Kai’s new season to do so. So we get it, and we don’t want to set up any lofty expectations for those who haven’t binged. Still, it is brought back in its own, cool way this season, and it’s always fun to talk about!
“Listen, it worked for LaRusso back in '86, the Drum Technique saved his life,” Macchio tells SYFY WIRE about the venerable move. “There is an element of that in Season 3 to the next generation, where the Drum Technique is called back. So you’ll see that going forward.”
Of course, it only makes sense that Daniel would teach his daughter, Samantha, the time-honored move.
“The Drum Technique is fun and exciting because it’s another aspect that we get to kind of pull into this — these fantastical elements that get pulled into the real world and see how they would theoretically be applied in a real fight,” Mouser says. “In my mind, the drum technique still comes back to the hallmarks of Miyagi-Do, which is about balance and about equal movements and things like that, and seeing that kind of play out. I don’t want to give anything exciting away, but I am excited for people to see if they even catch it.”
All those little nods to the past go a long way toward setting the nostalgic feeling of the show, while also helping to hurl the action forward. Macchio believes that one of the things that showrunners Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald truly excel at is “embracing that nostalgia and then using it.”
He points out that in the case of Season 3, such nostalgia is specifically used to inform Daniel about Miyagi-Do: “Things that he didn’t know, even about Mr. Miyagi [Pat Morita], and reconnecting with those great characters and those wonderful actors in Tamlyn and Yuji, and then taking that and paying it forward and forming him with his own rivalry with Johnny Lawrence, and that there might be hope for them to get through their crap together, but then again it’s a lot more fun when they don’t.”
“I think that’s another cool thing that we do with a lot of the stunt work that we do on the show, there are a lot of moves or callbacks that are really specific to the franchise, but you have to really slow them down,” Mouser adds. “Like one of Samantha’s first moves was in the movie theater, and it was blocking Kyler from making a move, and it was supposed to literally be a wax-on/wax-off situation, except a modern take on it, and if you slow it down, you can tell that, but I think that’s like the same kind of thing: You have to look for these cool little moments and pieces.”
While the Drum Technique perhaps could have rocked harder in the new season, Chozen and Kumiko’s returns definitely don’t disappoint. Like every returning character in the series, it’s not surprising in the slightest to find out what’s become of them, but totally satisfying at the same time.
“It’s the same thing that happened with Billy [Zabka]... There’s a spirit and a connection between those actors, all of us, that were part of what The Karate Kid has become, which is way bigger than us as actors, you know? It’s so well embraced around the world,” Macchio says. “Tamlyn and Yuji, I maintain a friendship; every couple of years we connect in some way, but as far as being in each other’s presence for that amount of time, it was like being a teenager again with Tamlyn, that stuff was just so angelic and that kind of ... it’s been five minutes and 30 years at the same time and that was sort of wonderful.
“And then the Chozen character, what would that be? And how that informs even the LaRusso/Lawrence of it all later on... Yuji knocked it out of the park, and Tamlyn, and all the characters that we bring back from the past,” Macchio continues. “I love tapping into The Karate Kid Part II of it because that was really Miyagi’s land, and we got to go to Okinawa [for Cobra Kai] and shoot a few of those exteriors, so it was special, it was really sort of like having Pat and Miyagi shine a light on the show, and I think that’s a nice balance to a lot of the other plot-driven action stuff as well.”
Of course, Chozen and Kumiko aren’t the only franchise favorites making a big comeback. It’s probably not a surprise at this point, considering it was teased at the end of Season 2, that Elisabeth Shue’s Ali Mills, Johnny and Daniel’s original feud fire, finally makes her much-ballyhooed return.
“I think she was tentative. This is a big deal to go and bring back a character that is 35 years old and remembered a certain way, even for us, you know, to step out. They’re crystallized in time, and there’s no risk in leaving it alone,” Zabka says about Shue’s return. “So to step back into that, I think like an actress she approached it the way we approached it, which was cautiously but optimistically, and stepped into it as it felt right and she could trust it.
“She wanted to make sure that she came in and Ali was treated right and respectful and had a great arc and she wasn’t just there for, ‘Hey, there’s Ali.’ And that’s what the writers are great at doing,” Zabka continues. “So she came in, and then working with her was so natural. You know, all the characters are friends from so long ago, there’s an instant connection and a kind of understanding that happens in this organic way of working with somebody. So she was awesome, and I’m super excited about her coming on the show this season.”
With such a connection to the past, it’s no wonder that Zabka and Macchio sometimes still feel like they’re back in West Valley High School. In fact, Zabka just thinks of himself as “a big kid.”
“Who wants to grow up, you know? We polish our past, I think” Zabka says. “Those times — high school, early college, the friendships you make, the bonds you make, the music you heard, the experiences you had — those things stick with you forever, you know? As you get older things get a little choppier and we’re just getting through. There’s something solid about that time, so to feel that way and to get to play that character and to represent that time brings it all back to the surface in a way you feel like a big kid, which I love.”
“You sort of represent youth in a way,” Macchio adds, “because our characters have resonated for 30, it will be 40 years. It sounds ridiculous to hear those words but that is the truth and so I embrace it now... because you know, growing up is overrated, so let’s stay young. And this show allows us to do that. Sometimes it’s tougher when they cut out of a flashback to present day. It reminds me that some time has gone by, but for the most part it’s fun. It’s a fun existence.”
Almost as fun as banging on a drum all day (at least if you’re Todd Rundgren).