Tamlyn Tomita on Daniel and Kumiko's awkward reunion in Cobra Kai season 3
The Karate Kid Part II star tells EW how she came to reprise her role as Kumiko on the hit series.
Thirty-four years ago, in the summer of 1986, a kid named Daniel LaRusso fought to the death — almost — to preserve the honor of a beautiful and brave young dancer named Kumiko. (Cue the Peter Cetera!) Next month, fans of The Karate Kid Part II will finally see Daniel and Kumiko together again when Tamlyn Tomita reprises her role opposite Ralph Macchio on Cobra Kai. As the new trailer reveals, Daniel travels to Okinawa in the upcoming season 3 — where he crosses paths with Kumiko, a.k.a. the second love of his life. (The bad news: Daniel's old nemesis from Part II, Yuji Okumoto's Chozen, is there too.) Tomita talked to EW about how Cobra Kai exec producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg convinced her to bring Kumiko back, what it was like reuniting with Macchio after all these years, and what some fans still say to her about "Ali with an i."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did your appearance on Cobra Kai come about?
TAMLYN TOMITA: I think it was a surprise email that came early last year. They were wondering if I’d be interested in coming back as Kumiko. They said they would send a script as soon as they could get one ready. I think they were still finishing shooting season 2. They came back to me [with a script] in the summer, and it was so sweet. I said I would love to be able to participate. And they said, “Fantastic! We're so happy. And Ralph will be so happy!” It was really a joyous sentiment to be thought of for the Cobra Kai series. So yeah, I'm very, very thankful.
Had you watched the show before?
Oh yes, are you kidding me? At the time [that it debuted], though, I saw [that it was on] YouTube Red, and I never followed up on it — I didn't want to pay for it because I'm such a cheapskate. [When I finally watched], I was surprised, my socks were knocked off at how good it was because of the faithful integrity that the Three Amigos — as we call Hayden and Josh and Jon — and William [Zabka] and Ralph. Those are the five elements that really need to coalesce and make this a dream come true not only for the fans, but for those five people.
I was able to work with Ralph [on Cobra Kai] and see how he would approach things, and [Jon, Josh and Hayden] would listen to him with reverence and with respect. Each individual [on the show] really does take a lot of care, and they also are also cognizant of the fact that they're trying to bring in new fans. They know that a good story will be interesting to all generations.
We know from the trailer that Daniel will cross paths with Kumiko while traveling to Okinawa. Had you ever wondered over the years what Kumiko would be up to today?
Oh, sure. It was always related to dance, and maybe she fell in love and had kids. There’s all kinds of permutations as to what would have happened to her.
What can you tease about Daniel and Kumiko’s reunion?
I think it'll answer a lot of questions, and fans will be happy as to where [the characters] find themselves and the kind of discussions they have. I think fans will be pleased. I just hope with all the hope in my heart that we all did a good job.
What was it like working with Ralph again?
Oh my God. It was like slipping on a favorite pair of socks, or a beloved pair of shoes that still fit, that still are comfortable, and they still look good. [Laughs] That’s the important part. It was so easy, and we were just laughing, like, “Was it really 35 years ago? Has it been that long?” Because it just feels like yesterday.
I remember clearly how I was brought in [for the movie] and how wonderful everybody was, but particularly Ralph. He went through the audition process with me, to assure the producers that there was chemistry between us. He was already a star by the time I stepped on set and it was like, “Uh, what am I doing?” He took interest in helping me and guiding me and saying, “It's just all fun, just relax.” He never put any pressure on me. He never complained, he never felt irritated or impatient. He knew I was green, I had never acted before, and he really, really took the time to show me the ropes and say, “This is your mark. This is your light.” It was just a joyous, wonderful experience. So even though we were reprising these characters 35 years later, I still felt like I was that 21-year-old girl thinking, “Oh my God, this is Ralph Macchio!”
For the fans out there, I hope you can feel the sense of nervousness, the sense of awkwardness at the reunion of Kumiko and Daniel, and that was pretty real from Tamlyn Tomita’s point of view as well.
When you first heard that they were making Cobra Kai, what did you think of the idea?
When I read about it, and I read that Ralph and William were involved in it — I knew these two gentlemen would be the type of people to ensure that this story would be done in the right way. Because they've been saying no for 35 years. They've been saying no to people who said, “Oh, we've got this great idea for a sequel or a continuation,” and they have consistently said no, because it was never good enough.
And because of the passing of [The Karate Kid director] John Avildsen, and Pat Morita, because of the passing of Danny Kamekona [who played Sato in Part II] and Nobu McCarthy [who played Kumiko's aunt Yukie in Part II], they knew they had even more of an investment to make on behalf of those people who passed because their voices aren’t here anymore. [Producer] Jerry Weintraub is not around anymore. I trust Ralph Macchio and William Zabka and the three writers.
You’ve gone on to have many memorable roles in film and TV, including The Joy Luck Club, Berlin Station, and The Good Doctor. Do fans still approach you about Karate Kid Part II?
Absolutely. When I wear my hair up, I get tagged as Kumiko a lot more often than when I wear my hair in the natural style. It’s been a progression for me, because sometimes I wanted not to be known as Kumiko. I think that’s pretty typical for a lot of actors, you want to be known for your body of work, not just the sweet Okinawan dancing girl. Admittedly, there was a period of time where I felt like, “I’m not just Kumiko! I'm Waverley from Joy Luck Club!” [That role] happened to be kind of antithetical to the idea of a sweet, Okinawan dancing girl. Waverly was kind of a calculating, rich mean girlfriend. So I was lucky enough to have that role. Sometimes people kind of look at me askance, and they go, “Wait a second. Waverley is Kumiko?” So I get that pride, I get that ego boost, because I was able to play two characters that are dear to people's hearts, but there’s one that is beloved and one that is usually hated. So those two are the roles I usually get recognized for.
I've [also] had grown men say, sort of tongue in cheek, “Yeah, you’re not as good as Ali with an i,” or “I prefer you to Ali with an i.” So you get both and throughout the years — it's been 30-plus years — they always say, “Ali with an i,” they never just say “Ali.” That’s why I’ve never forgotten.
Cobra Kai season 3 premieres in January on Netflix.