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Real Miyagi, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Fumio Demura is his own man, but if this helps you learn his name..."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There have always been a fair number of documentaries like "The Real Miyagi", but I wonder if there are a lot more in the future. Equipment to shoot/record fairly well in 2K is readily available, if not quite cheap, it's a lot easier to track down archival material than it was, and if you get the right subject, the path to getting certain parts crowd-funded is clear. Furio Demura is the right kind of subject - reasonably interesting, willing to be involved, and able to inspire folks to go to participate. Fortunately, the things that can get this sort of movie made also tend to make it interesting.

Demura was an impressive karate fighter in early-1960s Yokohama, but when organizational politics started pushing him back in favor of new faces, he opted to come to California with one suitcase, $300, and just about no English. He faced a great deal of prejudice early on, but not only founded a dojo in 1965 but through his personal charisma, drive, and great skill with nunchaku, he was a key figure in popularizing karate in America, including serving as an inspiration (and double) for Mister Miyagi in The Karate Kid.

Director Kevin Derek doesn't quite lead with that, since Demura suffered a cerebral edema and fell into a coma that doctors gave him a roughly five percent chance of coming out of when the film was about a year into production (17 March 2011, to be precise). Aside from being a rough thing to deal with when the filmmaker clearly has a great deal of personal fondness for his subject, it's something that is clearly going to hang over the film as a whole and almost requires explanation: Depending on when various interviews about the same parts of Demura's life were shot, there will be some sharply different tones right next to each other.

This doesn't prevent Derek from telling Demura's story in clear, mostly-chronological fashion, with segments touching on his early years in America and how his showmanship brought karate into the mainstream, his partnership and great friendship with Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, and his later life, where even some health problems before his event did little to slow his aim to grow the sport around the world. Derek peppers in footage from trips Demura made to Japan into the film to highlight how the land of his birth is still a big part of who he is despite nearly fifty years in America at the time of filming.

Demura himself proves to be an entertaining subject, still appearing boyish even nearing seventy despite being a fierce fighter and teacher in the archive footage. He's an engaging presence and both he and those who know him have fun stories to tell, whether about him karate chopping the "train robbers" at Knott's Berry Farm, Steven Seagal banging drums at the Japanese Deer Park, or current students marveling at his work ethic. As the film goes on, it perhaps drifts from his accomplishments and how important they were to how he's a beloved figure, not always to its benefit.

That's a common issue with labors of love made about noteworthy but relatively uncontroversial figures, one which "The Real Miyagi" can't quite escape. On the other hand, we should all be so lucky to live a life where someone can make an upbeat ninety-minute documentary that doesn't feel drawn out as we reach our golden years. Demura's managed that, and Derek does a capable job as his biographer.

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originally posted: 07/25/15 01:55:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/26/15 Renee Hendrixon It was a very well-done documentary uplifting story 5 stars
7/25/15 Jennifer Reed Very inspiring story 5 stars
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Directed by
  Kevin Derek

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