Elderly martial arts master

Elderly martial arts master

The elderly martial arts master is a stock character in fiction, especially martial arts films.[1] Typically East Asian, he is a near-invincible master of the martial arts, despite his age and presumed decrease in physical strength. Most often he teaches either generic Kung Fu, or an exotic style specific to the movie (see List of fictional martial arts). During the films, the master often becomes close with his student, with the master becoming a father figure to his trainee, who is, in turn, looked upon as a son. Usually, when the master is captured or killed, or an iconic portrait of the deceased master has been desecrated by some villains, the hero will take it upon himself to rescue or avenge his master.


Personality traits and mannerisms

A typical elderly sensei, spends most of his time meditating in a dojo, while himself is deep in thoughts.

The master is typically a serene, calm, sober and reserved old man. He represents the maturity and self-contentment that comes with age, along with the quiet confidence that comes with experience—both of life in general and of the skills and also the ideals and values that he has inherited from the martial arts. To him, his martial art is not just a way to beat people up or to act tough, it is—in keeping with the values and ideals generally attached to and associated with the martial arts by the Oriental societies—more a means to positively developing one's personality, way of living, to cultivate values such as respect, patience, self-control, discipline and the whole lot. The master is polite towards everyone, even the mischief makers who would misbehave with him sometime in the course of the movie. He always tries to verbally prevent mischief makers or the rival martial artist (who is often young and arrogant and sees the martial arts only as a means to act tough and bully people) for as long as he can, and that too politely. Only when he is forced to use his skills and left with no option, he shows how the mischief makers are no match for him—thereby demonstrating how politeness should not be mistaken for weakness. These are shown, for example, by Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid series, or the Janitor in the new Karate Kid 2010, or Yoda of Star Wars.


The master always speaks in a very calm and composed manner. In case of the master being east-Asian, as is almost always in such films, he is invariably given the accent of an Oriental (Chinese or Japanese, or Thai) who is not used to speaking in English and can only speak it without much fluency and speed. His way of speaking takes on a particularly benevolent, patient, affectionate and friend-philosopher-guide tone when he speaks with his disciple. He typically reprimands and/or castigates the protege in his more "raw" and "immature" stage, but always in a fatherly manner. In most films of this genre, he often controls or restrains his protege, from getting provoked and retaliating at the "bad boy(s)", and makes the protege realize that everything has the "right time and place" and that losing control of oneself or giving in to the provocations of the rival or enemy is not like the true martial artist he wants his disciple to become. His speech is also full of philosophical observations, anecdotes, short parables or insights, that are mostly intended to constantly improve the insight and knowledge of the disciple in the martial arts, but also at times to improve his personality, behavior, moral values, and way of life. In the martial arts epic Enter The Dragon, the old master at the beginning of the film is seen taking a walk with the hero played by Bruce Lee, where he tells his best disciple how the latter has succeeded in acquiring an intuitive skill in the art that has gone beyond the mere physical, and how it is his duty now to use that wisely and prudently in life. The master's dialogues with the protege would often carry short recollection of his own earlier life, his fighting or career experiences, or how he had come upon a particular knowledge or insight.

Relationship with the protege

Though the master is always the benevolent father-figure, he can be very strict when it comes to the training. He does not give any false hope to the protege when it comes to training. He makes it very clear that in order to trained by him, the young man has to be unquestioningly obedient and be ready to bear the pain.

In the movie Bloodsport the teenage Frank Dux is treated by the Japanese master Shitoshi Tanaka in a very fatherly and affectionate manner in general, but the training in rigorous and harsh, and the master never gives any relief or comfort zone to Frank Dux. In the movie Kickboxer the hero played by Jean Claude Van Damme is made to kick the palm tree trunk with his bare shins, until he fractures his shin and drops to the ground in agony.

In Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) paint the fences and walls, and wipe the floors and the cars, with two specific arm-movements day after day, and only when Mr. Miyagi tests (by mock attacks) and finds that those movements have become spontaneous and unconscious reactions from Daniel, does he give the boy respite from that toil. It was then that Daniel too realizes, why after all his master had made him do that for days—in spite of him becoming tired, aching and fed-up—for those are actually blocking and parrying techniques, which his master by his experience, had ingrained into him without his being aware of it.

In many movies, the hero, after being wronged in some way by the rival gang or fighter, or after having his martial artist brother, or friend, maimed for life (or even killed) by the formidable and vicious fighter, seeks the master out himself with a resolution to take revenge. In such cases, the master is often unwilling at first, and may appear to be so just to test the seriousness and commitment of the protege. But finally after a few days, he agrees to start training, after he feels the protege has passed his test. The training imparted is typically harsh and rigorous right from day-one, and the master does not care if the hero has bruised and bloodied himself all over. He often administers medicine and pain-relief techniques, which are in many cases seen to be complimentary and associated skills that such masters possess along with fighting techniques—since oriental martial arts are also closely related and complimentary to traditional physio-therapy and healing systems. Yet, in other movies, the protege does not really have to persuade or coax the master. The master is seen right from the beginning. He and the protege get to know each other often by a random event.

In Bloodsport the teenage Frank Dux sees a Katana sword through the window of Shitoshi Tanaka's house, and in his teenage immaturity, decides to steal it with two of his friends. He is caught in the act, by the master and his son who was of the same age as Frank. But the master in gentle and kind to Frank, and instead of seeing that Frank is punished, decides to teach him a long term moral lesson—that such a sword can only be earned through merit, one cannot be a fighter by stealing it. He talks to Frank's parents about the benefits of martial training and expresses and wish to make Frank his student. That became the beginning of a lasting and close father-son like relationship between Frank and Tanaka, and when Tanaka's son died as an young adult, it was Frank—by then grown into a mature young man, a soldier in the army and a worthy disciple—whom Tanaka saw as his deserving successor and inheritor of his martial legacy. The training phase of the movie thus ended with a quite ceremony in which tanaka was seen handing over his katana to Frank, signifying Frank's success in earning that sword, which he had tried to steal as a young boy, by merit and qualification. Frank, too shows the place his master occupies in his life by dedicating his victory in the underground Kumite to him.

In the second Karate Kid movie, there is a touching scene where Daniel Larusso is seen coming up to the bereaved and tearful Mr. Miyagi who was sitting alone facing the sea and grieving for his father who had just died. Daniel sits besides him and comforts the old Mr. Miyagi both with words and an arm on his shoulder.

In some movies, the ability of the master to make his protege rise above the thought of "revenge", and to acquire the moral strength and fortitude to hold himself back from doing to the rival/ villain the same thing that the latter once had done to his brother or friend, even in the face of the strongest provocation, is shown very movingly and dramatically. In the Taekwondo classic Best of the Best, featuring some world-renowned martial-artists and a renowned martial arts grandmaster (Hee Il Cho, the coach of the American team Frank Couzo (James Earl Jones, prevents the American fighter in the last face-off of the competition, Tommy Lee Philip Rhee, to deal a fatal blow to his Korean opponent Dae Han Park (played by Philip's real-life brother Simon Rhee). Tommy had maimed his opponent and rendered him helpless by disabling his arms and legs, and the Korean could barely keep standing and taking a fighting stance. This was the same man who had cruelly killed his brother in sport combat years ago with excessive brutality. All Tommy had to do was to deal the final maiming or death blow with a powerful kich he had already braced himself for, as the scene of his brother's death flashed through his mind. But Coach Couzo's gentle but strong "No!" "No!" call from the sidelines helped Tommy avoid repeating the same crime for the sake of revenge and come down to the level of Dae Han. By doing so, he own over Dae Han with moral strength instead of and eye-for-an-eye revenge, which made Dae Han repent and approach Tommy to hail him and give him his own medal after the fight was over.


The old master often shows a wry and restrained sense of humor at times. Master Tanaka flashes his katana with a practiced lightning speed to cleanly cut off the visor of Frank's baseball cap, with Frank becoming wide-eyed in frightened surprise. In Kickboxer the lead character of Van Damme is awakened flabbergasted and gulping at dawn from deep sleep by a huge splash of cold water by his master. The Kung Fu movies of Hong Kong starring Jackie Chan are probably the most mentionable as containing the most instances of master-disciple fun and frolic. In Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi shows a subtle sense of humor by pretending to deal a final "death blow" to the last standing member of the gang of mischief-makers that tries to assault him at night, but brings down his hand and at the last moment just "screws" the guy's nose and drops him. In another instance, when the arrogant and disrespectful rival fighter misbehaves and provokes Miyagi and Daniel, Mr. Miyagi tells him a story about his younger days in his native Okinawa, when there was a bull in the village that terrorized everyone, but one fine day, when there was a festival and a fest held, everyone was very happy and scared no more. Why so? because on that day, replies Mr. Miyagi as the punch-line, the angry and scary bull became very tasty soup. The Master also keeps an eye on his protege's less martial and more "romantic" activities. He views them in an indulgent manner, as Mr. Miyagi does in the case of Daniel, as something that is but normal for the protege's age. But he also takes care, directly or indirectly, to make the disciple remember that the "girl" should not be interfering with and hampering his martial arts training or lessening his seriousness and commitment when it comes to training hard. Mr. Miyagi also displays humor in his rustic practicality when he explains to Daniel the importance of belts in martial arts. He says "belt hold up pants."

General conclusion

All in all, the "elderly martial arts master" is an overall positive, "role-model" archetype, aimed by all means at the children, adolescent and youth viewer. It is essentially founded on the images, traits and qualities that are traditionally associated with the late-middle age or old age in Asian societies like China, Japan, India, Thailand etc, which are the birth-places of most world-wide practiced martial arts. It is the image of an individual who has acquired experience, time-tested wisdom, insights, values and skills—not only in the sphere of his art but also in life in general, and his always ready and willing to gift or impart what he has to a deserving young individual, whom he recognizes as potentially deserving and fit to be groomed and helped to reach his innate potential. The values and qualities that are associated with such an archetype, and always found to be intended for the audience to recognize in him through the eyes of the protege, are wisdom, patience, dedication, discipline, self-control, strength of character, respect towards others and the art, and the ability to hold one's ground and to desist from using the art/skill unless forced to and unless left with no other option—which is an all-time outlook or attitude associated with martial-arts culture from the beginning. Though at times appearing as cliched, over-repeated and too simplistic or uni-dimensional, it is definitely one of the most positive, straightforward, uncomplicated and clean among the fictional stock characters.


See also


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