One of the main reasons why so many people take up karate is because of the 1984 blockbuster movie The Karate Kid.
This movie was huge in the United States and introduced karate to mainstream audiences back in the 80s. Today, it is a beloved classic movie that a lot of parents are eager to show their kids – and this usually starts a passion for martial arts, specifically for karate.
However, there has always been one debate that has haunted this much-loved movie – the debate regarding the potentially illegal move used in the climatic tournament. This has led to a lot of discussion around kicks to the face in karate – so is it a legal or illegal move?
Here, we are going to be covering all of the rules regarding kicks to the face in karate and how real life differs from movies – even when it comes to martial arts and karate.
What Happened In The Karate Kid?
In The Karate Kid, a boy named Daniel takes up karate and learns it from his wise neighbor Mr Miyagi. By the end of the movie, Daniel is in the final for the Karate Championship and is up against his bully, Johnny.
During the fight, Johnny makes an ethical move but an injured Daniel managed to use the iconic crane kick to kick Johnny in the face and win the winning point, becoming the new Champion of the tournament.
As it is the kick to the face that wins Daniel the match (and the tournament) many assume that kicks to the face are permitted in karate matches.
However, there is one detail in the movie that causes confusion. Before the match begins, the referee is listing off the rules and clearly says that hits to the face were not allowed – so does that mean kicks to the face in karate are illegal moves?
Are Kicks To The Face Legal In Karate?
Despite what the referee said at the beginning of the match, the face is worth one point if struck.
This means that it is legal to strike the face in karate and the competitor will be awarded a point if they strike their opponent there – which is what happened to Daniel when he used the crane kick to strike Johnny’s face.
This means that kicks to the face are legal at least in the fictional tournament that happens in The Karate Kid.
Just before the match itself, we hear another character plainly say that everything above the waist is a point – including the head and by proxy, the face.
Throughout the tournament, we also see other characters including Johnny and Daniel kick their opponents in the face in other matches and even block their opponents from kicking their faces. Even in the final fight, Johnny kicks Daniel’s face after he sweeps out his leg!
This means that in the tournament they are participating in, kicks to the face are legal. The issue is that this tournament is fictional – so are the rules different for real life karate?
According to the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), the face is considered a legal target area. This means that strikes and kicks to the face are allowed in most tournaments as long as the movement is controlled and is sportsmanlike.
Attacks to the eyes are not allowed, as is any kind of slapping or punching. These kinds of attacks are not considered ‘karate’ and so they are not rewarded and not allowed in official tournaments.
We see this also happen in The Karate Kid. During the final fight, Johnny punches Daniel in the face and is penalized by not being rewarded the point because he used his fist and not the side of his hand or foot.
The thing is that each tournament and dojo will have their own rules. Some tournaments and dojos will ban kicks or strikes to the face in the interest of safety for their players. This may be the case for younger students.
Also, some dojos or tournaments only allow kicks to the face if they are done to the side of the face and head instead of the front.
This is why you may see a lot of people argue about whether Daniel’s crane kick was legal or not. A lot of dojos ban front snap kicks or uppercut kicks which strike the front of the face.
Because Daniel’s crane kick lands right on Johnny’s forehead, this kick would be considered illegal in certain dojos and tournaments because of where it landed.
However, the rules in the movie clearly allow these kinds of kicks because Daniel would have been penalized. Just like how Johnny was penalized for punching Daniel in an illegal move, Daniel would have been penalized for kicking Johnny in an illegal move.
So, kicks to the face are a legal move in karate but the dojo or tournament you are entering may have banned them for safety reasons.
This is why Daniel’s crane kick causes a lot of confusion for karate artists.
Some would argue that the move was illegal because when they did karate, kicks to the face were definitely illegal – but what they fail to realize is that whether a kick to the face is legal or not depends on your dojo and tournament.
In the Karate Kid, kicks to the face are definitely legal in that tournament because they move is performed multiple times and are always rewarded or not penalized. This is why Daniel won the championship.
However, you need to check your tournament’s rules first before performing a kick to the face. You can clear up the rules with your teacher or referee to make sure you don’t unknowingly commit a foul move – so it’s always best to speak up when in doubt.
However, according to NASKA, kicks to the face are generally considered to be legal – but each dojo and tournament are allowed to adjust the rules to suit them.