'Cobra Kai': Tamlyn Tomita on Returning as Kumiko More Than 30 Years After 'Karate Kid' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
It's been nearly 35 years since Tamlyn Tomita last played Kumiko, the sweet, caring aspiring Okinawan dancer Daniel (Ralph Macchio) fell in love with in 1986's The Karate Kid Part II. In season 3 of Netflix's Cobra Kai, Tomita returns for two episodes when Daniel travels back to Japan, to the same village -- now a Westernized shopping mall -- where he first met Kumiko.
As Daniel tells Kumiko in one of their first scenes together, where they try as best they can to fill in the blanks of their lives, "This is absolutely surreal. I feel like I haven't seen you in five minutes, but it's been 30 years." "That is the truth. That was an honest piece of dialogue," Macchio told ET of their reunion. "There's a spirit among us... having that Okinawa section this season is really quite beautiful and informs the story and informs the side of LaRusso that you don't know."
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For Tomita, now 54, that conversation between Daniel and Kumiko encapsulated all the feelings she had built up inside for the past three decades. "It's a wonderful, sweet, nostalgic and realistic point of view," she told ET. "It's the honesty to say that we had a lovely time in a moment in our lives that I will always treasure... What a satisfactory and lovely feeling that is, to be able to translate between not only Tamlyn and Ralph, but also Daniel-san and Kumiko."
Stepping back into Kumiko's shoes for a brief moment was surreal in every sense of the word, and Tomita made sure the Cobra Kai creative team honored the Okinawan culture in a more authentic way this go-around. The Karate Kid Part II, after all, kick-started Tomita's Hollywood career. "Thirty-four years later, 35 years later, it's like, who in their right mind thinks that they're going to revisit a story?" she said candidly. "It's the acceptance that Karate Kid and its universe really affected a whole generation and their descendants, their kids."
With the latest season now streaming, Tomita opened up about why she returned as Kumiko, her favorite scene to film (and one that didn't make it), the legacy of the late Pat Morita and her eternal optimism for the future of Asian representation in media.
ET: Things are cyclical, and sometimes they come back around after years and years. Did you ever think you would be playing Kumiko again after Karate Kid Part II, which was your first credit?
Tamlyn Tomita: You hit absolutely every single point. It was my first credit. It was my first thing ever. To be blunt about it, I am not bullsh***ing. I did not know anything, and Pat [Morita] and Ralph and Nobu [McCarthy] and Yuji [Okumoto], those actors taught me everything I know. [Director] John Avildsen taught me everything I needed to know in terms of the story and the arc. Robert Kamen, the writer, he was always open to talking about his experience in Okinawa, and that contrast and comparison to my family -- my mom's family being from Okinawa. I was literally learning and working on the job at the same time.
So 34 years later, 35 years later, it's like, who in their right mind thinks that they're going to revisit a story? I think the only other storyline that I can tell right now is probably the Rocky series. Because Star Wars doesn't count. Star Trek doesn't count. That's science fiction, but this is a grounded, real-world character. It's the acceptance that Karate Kid and its universe really affected a whole generation and their descendants, their kids. We're lucky to have been part of that universe to tell the story of where these characters are. I'm sure you've heard everybody else say it in the Karate Kid universe, we're just so blessed. We're so lucky. When Daniel-san/Ralph says [in season 3 of Cobra Kai], "This feels so surreal," in our scene together, it's like he's talking both from Daniel's mind and Ralph's mind. It was pretty surreal.
What made you want to step back into her shoes? What was it that made it a "yes" for you?
I think it was, and I want to emphasize the word, the rare and unique opportunity. Again, who gets to revisit where a character goes to 35 years later? And it's not only me, it's the whole world. I talked to [co-creators] Josh [Heald] and Jon [Hurwitz] and Hayden [Schlossberg] about really rectifying the portrayal of Okinawa, which I am a part of that culture, that world. They gave me that permission. They gave me that license to say, "Absolutely, are you kidding? We want to absolutely honor that, reflect that, portray that." For them to give me that permission, to give me and Yugi that permission to revisit where our characters are 35 years later, but a real open door, they treated us with red carpet treatment. It's like, "Of course. Please, let's do this together." It was a joyful, wondrous feeling to step into those shoes again with Ralph. It makes me cry because we all collectively missed Pat. Without Pat, this world really wouldn't have existed. That's what is a credit to those Three Amigos. Plus it's a real credit to Ralph that he said no all this time. The stories out there pre-Cobra Kai really did not reflect the better half, he says, of the Karate Kid, which is Mr. Miyagi. So he really tried to keep that integrity, keep that spirit, keep that honor alive.
When Kumiko and Daniel see each other for the first time in a long while, Daniel says it feels like "five minutes but it's been 30 years." How did that feel for you? Was it like no time had passed?
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It was double the work, but double the pleasure and double the ease. Because I'm 35 years older, Kumiko was my first acting job as Tamlyn Tomita. I didn't know anything about acting. All I knew was to react against this superstar that was Ralph Macchio. So I, Tamlyn, felt like she was a kid again who didn't know nothing, but all I had to do was trust in my relationship and for Tamlyn to trust in her relationship with Ralph and Kumiko and Daniel-san. It's a wonderful, sweet, nostalgic and realistic point of view. It's like, "Oh yeah. In another universe, maybe they could have gotten together." But it's the truth, it's the honesty to say that we had a lovely time in a moment in our lives that I will always treasure. I think that's what I tried to communicate. I think that's what Kumiko tried to communicate as well. It's like, "Oh, this is nice that we see each other and we're both OK, and we're both happy in our lives." What a satisfactory and lovely feeling that is, to be able to translate between not only Tamlyn and Ralph, but also Daniel-san and Kumiko.
Seeing Daniel and Kumiko together again felt a little bit like a comfort we didn't know we were missing.
Oh, that's so sweet.
Having many of the original Karate Kid stars back for substantial arcs and not blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos felt nostalgic.
Yeah, exactly. I think that's why they're succeeding so well, the creators. They tried to serve the characters. They don't try to milk it or make it so cheesy that it becomes unrealistic. They are very clever. They are very smart. But on top of it all, they try to honor the story. They tried to honor the universe. That's why they're successful in bringing about the melancholy, the bittersweet-ness of nostalgia. It's both sweet and bittersweet. It's like, "Awww," but you feel good because both of them -- everybody you see -- are still progressing in their journey. They're OK in the moment where we find them.
Were you able to film on location in Okinawa?
No. Let me clarify. They knew that Daniel-san was going to go to Japan. And so what they did -- the show, Cobra Kai, is entirely filmed in Atlanta, Georgia. They had enough money to send Ralph and Yuji to Okinawa for those scenes where they are overlooking the beautiful vista. That is Okinawa. That's the Okinawa that I know. They shot for two days. They flew over before Christmas [in 2019], shot for two days and flew back just in time for Christmas.
Since all of your scenes are set in Okinawa, were you a little bummed out?
Absolutely. Are you kidding? Of course, I was bummed out in not being able to go back to my mother country. I know that the Okinawan community was so happy, so jazzed, to have both Ralph and Yuji. It's what you said earlier at the start of our talk, that it comes full circle. We were able to redeem ourselves a little bit in showing the true Okinawa. That's what coming back around can mean, is that we can, not make up for our mistakes, but try to correct it to a more authentic picture. That's what movies and TV are all about, is trying to tell a story. And you try to tell it with as much truth as you can get away with.
Were you surprised or happy with where Kumiko ended up?
Oh yeah. Over the years, I'm always going to be remembered as Kumiko. For me, and with a lot of actors, actors are people. We're ego based. It's like, "I want to be more. I want to be known for more than just Kumiko." I, of course, went through that period. But then, when I saw both Ralph and Billy [Zabka] and John at a retrospective of the original Karate Kid for the 25th anniversary 10 years ago, the love and respect I have for them was reignited when I saw all three of them together. This was before any notion of Cobra Kai came about. Good people in this business still exist, and still are successful, and still can do good. This is what is reflective of what Kumiko says; if you put good out into the world, good will come back.
Did you have a favorite scene that you filmed for Cobra Kai?
It is the letter-reading scene. For me and Ralph, it was hard because we're both thinking about [Pat]... It's a double parallel time-space continuum, that we're acting not only as Tamlyn and Ralph, but Daniel and Kumiko. But it's reading the letter concerning family, which is so important not only between me and Ralph, but also Pat and Mr. Miyagi. We're relating on all kinds of levels. It's Tamlyn reading Pat's letters to Ralph versus Kumiko reading Miyagi-san's letters to Daniel-san. That was really enormously breathtaking. It took our breath away to take a pause, and Ralph and I would connect as Tamlyn and Ralph, but know that we had to connect as Kumiko and Daniel-san. But it was with the letters, it was with the intention and the knowledge of what we felt for Pat Morita.
Was there anything that didn't make the cut?
They cut out a scene. I'm excited and kind of disappointed. Both those feelings, because TV is very limited in funds in terms of telling the story. But there was a scene that Ralph and I shot that was cut. It was a really sweet scene. And I go, "Hmmm, I wonder why." So we'll see, because I can tell truthfully I have no idea what goes on with Kumiko. Just the fact that Daniel-san made an impromptu trip to Okinawa served its purpose. I think Daniel-san will move on and he will evolve into the next iteration of Miyagi-do. The idea that he can go back to Okinawa, I think it is more important that he connects to the Miyagi-do. Which I'm super excited about. I am so excited about that redemption and that arc of the story for Daniel-san and Chozen.
How do you think Karate Kid Part II holds up today, in regards to how it depicts Japanese culture? What has changed since then in the depiction of Asian culture?
Because you and I, being blessed with our ethnic heritage as well as our nationality as Americans, we continually ride so many identities, and it's our choice. It's our path and it's our choice, with which we can identify and put out our story. And Karate Kid, if you look back at it with a critical eye, it's a Hollywoodization of what Okinawa culture is. And yet, to see that distinction, to be able to delineate between Okinawa and Japan, is very personal and very important to me, however I can assist in that delineation. To try to tell another American, it's like, New Yorkers were not from Hawaii and Hawaiians are not from Georgia, right? So there's that kind of feeling.
Looking back with critical but also thankful eyes at the depiction of Karate Kid II, the heart of the story is classic. It is timeless. It's about family. It's about honor. It's about doing the right thing, which is sometimes the harder thing. That doing the right thing, making the right choices, can be a lonely, lonely path, but that's where your heart knows that it's going to be a hard path to walk upon and to follow upon. But in terms of representation matters, in terms of the depiction of Japanese culture, of Asian cultures, we have come far in 35 years. We haven't come far enough, but that's a part of our discussion, not only as Americans of all stripes and colors. How we want to tell our stories first in Hollywood, but also in independent stories. Every movie doesn't have to be a blockbuster, but in terms of telling the stories, it's about the relationships. It's about the human qualities that really connect us all. That's what makes Karate Kid so timeless, so classic. It'll live on forever.
You've had a long career since the movie. How did the role of Kumiko shape you as a person and as an actor, as you moved through Hollywood?
It's an evolving, encyclopedic collection of knowledge that I have. It's about telling stories that are meaningful. Because I happen to have this space, I can tell a story more authentically, especially if it's going to deal with Japanese, Okinawan or Asian cultures, that's my job. That's what my responsibility is. It's that people who look like you and me are few and far between, and I know when somebody sees my face, it's like, "Oh, she looks like me." It's like, yeah! We can be all-American girls, or, because we connect to our countries of origin, I have a responsibility to tell those stories as correctly as possible.
It's that kind of responsibility. It's also that joyfulness in being able to. I'm constantly learning what it means to be of Okinawan, Japanese, Filipina heritage. I'm constantly learning because I'm not raised in that culture. But also calling out for stories where they want to ask for the all-American cheerleader at a high school. It's like, why can't she be Latina? Why can't she be Asian? Why can't she be Black? She doesn't always have to be the blonde, blue-eyed girl. The enormity of what it means to be American is that we're moving towards an embodiment that American is in the heart. America is in the heart, it's not in how you look.
With Cobra Kai's success, there's a renewed interest in the franchise as a whole. How do you feel about new generation, younger viewers discovering this world?
It's bittersweet because there's a major component missing and I don't want to sound like a repetitive record, but Pat really should be feeling all of this. And I'm sure he is. I'm sure he is up there in heaven having a ball of a time because he worked his a** off. Pat Morita loved to work. He loved to entertain. He's probably up there in heaven looking down, saying, "Look, I'm still working, but I'm not sweating," because it's this continual memory of the integrity of Miyagi-san. And it still lives on.
That's a testament to the worthiness, the patience that it takes to find a balance. In the collection of Karate Kid movies that still is the mother load, is the source of Cobra Kai, that hopefully his spirit, his message of finding balance in life will live on. I think Pat is looking down at us and going, "Yeah." The notion that [there are] new audiences, old and young, is a gift. It's a gift that gets unwrapped every time somebody turns on Netflix and says, "I've got to find out what this Cobra Kai is all about." They have to go back to the source of what Karate Kid is. These stories are successful because they live on through time, no matter how cheesy they are, no matter how nostalgic. But it's that magic, that electricity, that connection that Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita make, and the writing of Robert Kamen and the direction of John Avildsen. That's really the core.
What else are you working on?
Being truthful, there's nothing going on right now because of the pandemic. But the idea that we're all in this situation together, we're seeing that the value of stories is being pushed to the front. People are looking and searching for good stories. I'm just so thankful to be a part of part deux of the Karate Kid series.
Cobra Kaiis streaming now on Netflix. For more on the series, watch the video below.