Since karate skyrocketed in popularity in the 1970s in America, it has consistently cropped up across pop culture. Whether you’re at the movie theater, watching TV, or listening to music, references to this martial art are everywhere. To get you up to speed, here are some of the most notable references in pop culture over the years:
Bond, master of international intrigue (and karate)
Martial arts, in general, tend to figure heavily in James Bond movies, especially in the older films that were released when American audiences first fell in love with karate and kung fu. In the very first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No, which featured Sean Connery, the villain is the ½ German, ½ Chinese Dr. No. Some actually consider 1973’s Enter the Dragon to be an unofficial remake of Dr. No. However, to get more karate-specific, take a look at 1967’s You Only Live Twice. This film, and the 1964 book it comes from claim one of the first major appearances of the ninja in Western pop culture with the karate fighters that Bond takes on. In 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond (this time, Roger Moore) wakes up at Hai Fat’s karate school and is subsequently chased through the countryside by a swarm of karate fighters. We can only hope this fantastic series’s love affair with the Far East continues in the Bond movies to come.
True Romance: a love story Tarantino-style
If you haven’t seen this cult 90s hit from Tony Scott, add it to your list ASAP. Besides the fact that the screenplay was written by Tarantino and brought to life by a cast that includes Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, and James Gandolfini (and the list goes on), there are some A+ karate references. The first date between lead characters, Clarence and Alabama goes down at a Street Fighter triple feature, showing Street Fighter, Return of the Street Fighter, and Sister Street Fighter. Sonny Chiba’s character in all three, Takuma Tsurugi, was taught a unique martial art based on Karate and Shaolin Kung-fu, and Sonny Chiba himself is a fourth-degree black belt in Kyokushin karate. In another scene from True Romance, Alabama can be seen watching John Hoo’s A Better Tomorrow II. Enjoy.
The man, the myth, the legend: Chuck Norris is Walker, Texas Ranger
Chuck Norris is known for many things, including fighting Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon, co-starring in The Delta Force, and recently showing up to a belt ceremony for kids in his free martial arts character development program. But he is also famous for his role as Sergeant Cordell Walker in the eight-year TV series, Walker, Texas Ranger. Walker enforces the law of the land through his expertise in martial arts, and all who cross him soon regret it (and usually end up on their way to jail in the back of his truck). Norris found a perfect outlet in this show for his black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Judo, and Tang Soo Do, a karate-based Korean martial art. If those accomplishments aren’t enough to secure his legacy, the thousands of Chuck Norris memes across the Internet probably will.
Half vampire, half human, full martial arts expert: Blade.
Though Chuck Norris is a larger-than-life icon that may seem like a superhero, Blade is a bona fide Marvel character that uses his part-vampire powers and insane martial arts skills to protect humans from the bloodthirsty creatures that hunt them. He has the superhuman strength, speed, and rapid healing of a vampire, but is unaffected by daylight and is not immortal (though he ages very slowly). For the film adaptations, Wesley Snipes, who has a black belt in Shotokan karate, famously brought his own personal love for martial arts to the screen. After all, Blade is supposed to be a master martial artist who excels in fight styles from boxing, jiu-jitsu, karate, and kung fu to capoeira, escrima, and ninjitsu. Fortunately, Snipes nailed that tall order, and the action sequences have aged well (the visual effects, unfortunately, have not).
You are the one, Neo.
Blade was a hot topic until the Matrix came out the following year, and blew everyone’s collective mind. One of the many standout scenes comes when Morpheus and Neo spar in the virtual dojo, shortly after years of specialized martial arts knowledge are uploaded to his brain in a matter of seconds. He famously opens his eyes and says, “I know kung fu.” However, the unique fight style developed by martial arts choreographer and director, Yuen Woo-Ping for this film trilogy is really a mix of disciplines, including Wushu, jujitsu, karate, and tai chi. The whole film (and trilogy, for that matter) is a goldmine of phenomenal fight sequences. Rumors are flying that another sequel may be in the works, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Karate Kid: the movie that inspired a thousand karate careers
35 years after the original movie premiered, this franchise is alive, well, and still being referenced all the time. If you have somehow gotten through life without seeing this classic 80s film, it’s a coming-of-age tale about a new kid in town learning karate skills from his mentor, Mr. Miyagi. Watching Daniel-san turn the tables on his bullies resonated with audiences everywhere. Although YouTube Red’s reboot, Cobra Kai keeps this franchise on everybody’s lips, you can also find nods to the original film everywhere, from shows like Stranger Things and How I Met Your Mother to the rock band, Sweep the Leg Johnny. The film was also re-released in select theatres this year to celebrate the anniversary of its premiere. Oss!
TMNT: Karate gets comical with mutated turtles and a giant rat.
These famous turtles named after Italian Renaissance artists became famous from the kid’s cartoon series, but that TV show was adapted from comic books first published in the 1980s. The band of crime-fighting heroes earned many fans for their adventures and martial arts techniques, which they learned from their mutated rat sensei, Splinter. Our heroes technically practice ninjitsu and wield traditional Japanese martial arts weapons, but ninjitsu is closely tied to both judo and karate. Check out episode 145, “Karate Schooled,” to see an evil sensei who hypnotizes his students. Want to take an even deeper dive? There’s an official “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Teach Karate” series of manuals from 1986 that could be calling your name.
Bruce Lee: the legend that started America’s fascination with karate.
Bruce Lee is the first person to come to mind for many when they think about karate, and it’s no wonder. As the star of Way of the Dragon, as well as The Green Hornet TV series, he brought karate to life on the silver screen in a way that audiences never forgot. Lee did a lot in his short life, including popularizing karate in America, making legendary films, and founding hybrid martial arts school, Jeet Kune Do. Now you can find him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and referenced in music from the Wu-Tang Clan, Wiz Khalifa, Bruce Springsteen, and Nicki Minaj, just to name a few. He’ll also be portrayed by Mike Moh in Tarantino’s upcoming comedy, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.