WARNING: The following contains spoilers from Season 5 of Cobra Kai.
For five seasons, I’ve been saying the same thing: For a show – and franchise, for that matter – centered on a Japanese martial art, there aren’t a ton of Asian people on the Netflix series, Cobra Kai.
While I’m mindful of the fact that a majority of the legacy characters from The Karate Kid franchise are white, that’s not to say that the newer people introduced into this universe can’t be a tad more representative of what its Southern California setting looks like.
And yet this season, viewers finally start to see a change as Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffin) starts taking over the San Fernando Valley with more and more Cobra Kai dojos. Aside from some of the minor characters from previous seasons, Yuji Okumoto returns as Chozen Toguchi once more, to fight alongside Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), in his efforts to stop the Cobra Kai invasion. Alongside Terry is Kim Da-Eun (Alicia Hannah-Kim), granddaughter of his master Kim Sun-Yung, and her team of senseis, as they apply their merciless teaching methods to the Cobra Kai students. Among the new students is Devon Lee (Oona O’Brien), formerly of Eagle Fang Karate, who hesitantly adapts to this new style of karate, despite the questionable leadership.
On a surface level, it’s easy to say that Cobra Kai has stepped up its Asian representation game this time around. However, quality far exceeds quantity, and after watching all ten episodes, there’s plenty to point out across the spectrum. (And just for the record, this is not a critique of the performances of the actors, but rather a critique of how they were written.)
For one thing, a majority of the characters are not Asian American, with Chozen flying in from Okinawa, and Da-Eun and her team from Korea. While several of them do have ties to the film franchise in some capacity or another, it’s still very hard to believe that a majority of the Asian characters on a show that is (and I cannot emphasize this enough) set in Southern California, would be from Asia. Not to mention that it only adheres to the perpetual foreigner stereotype that many Asian Americans are all too familiar with.
If the writers wanted to add some nuance, why not have Da-Eun be from Australia (where Hannah-Kim is from)? At least it would show that the United States isn’t the only place outside Asia where an attempt at spreading this style of karate is made.
Another critique is how a majority of the Asian characters are mostly used as tools for the white characters. They’re summoned to be extensions of whatever the objective is to the side they’re on. For Da-Eun and her team, they’re used to deepen the spread of the Cobra Kai teachings. For Chozen, he’s brought on to help Daniel put an end to them.
Lastly, a majority of the characters follow along another stereotype of Asian people, and that is that they’re cold and ruthless. Da-Eun and Chozen have no F’s to give when it comes to either teaching students or actual combat, and while sure, it can be empowering to see, it’s definitely problematic when thought about in this context. Chozen carries sais in his jacket, which eventually became handy, but otherwise, it was kind of unsettling to see.
For the most part, these critiques apply to Chozen, Da-Eun, and her team. The exception to it all was the character, Devon. If anything, the way her character was written this season was a remarkable improvement from the last one, where she was summoned to Eagle Fang Karate in an effort to enhance the sadly minimal number of female karate kids on this show.
It wasn’t an automatic switch to Cobra Kai for her. She struggled, she hesitated, and ultimately, she wound up in a good place when she turned her back on the teachings. While she was, for the most part, portrayed second to Tory Nichols (Peyton List), her arc as well as her development is enough to where it left a lot of room for so much possibility to grow in the next season.
Despite the problematic elements to Chozen, it is fair to say that the writers also did well with fleshing his character out throughout the season. When he first re-entered Daniel’s life back in the third season, it was a mind-blowing moment to see him no longer angry with him. He felt bad about what he did in the past, and this season shows that even more so. He really wanted to make amends with the student of his uncle’s best friend, and it’s fair to say that he did, just by being there for Daniel. It also was really nice to see him bond with the likes of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Not to mention that his fight with Terry in the season finale was bad-ass.
Cobra Kai has finally enhanced on its Asian representation. While there’s definitely a lot of work to be done quality-wise, based on what was done well, there’s a lot of potential to improve.