Last week I started this series, in which I offer insights for writing scenes involving swordplay gleaned from my ten years (off and on) of studying kendo–Japanese fencing. My goal in these posts is to explain some of the realities of fighting with swords that most people looking in from the outside simply don’t understand, and thereby provide people with the tools to craft more intelligent, mature battle scenes.
If by chance you happen to be a serious kenshi, please go here and read my disclaimer about my rank and the spirit in which I’m undertaking these posts.
Today, I would like to look into the different ways we should regard a sword on a practical level. In short, a fighter sees his/her own sword first and foremost as an extension of him/herself. On the other hand, he/she regards an opponent’s sword primarily as something that gets in the way of a job that needs to be done.
There are, of course, some very complex ways of looking at what a sword is in the esoteric sense. That is a question that I fully intend to leave alone for the moment, as that mainly affects how your characters will treat their weapons when they are outside of combat. For instance, a European who sees his/her sword as nothing more or less than a tool used to accomplish a certain end will treat a blade very differently from a Samurai who belives that a sword is connected to the soul of a warrior. The European will trade a broadsword back and forth with a comrade or stack them in piles, while the samurai won’t even let someone else touch his katana. The former might ram his blade into the ground in triumph after a battle (a la Braveheart), while the latter may keep his sword in a family shrine, carefully oiled.* On the practical level in combat, though, both traditions treat swords in a similar way.
As warriors, assuming that your characters are experienced and well-trained, they should rightly conceive of their own swords as natural extensions of their own bodies. That is one reason why real swordsmen aren’t made in a day. They have practiced with their weapon so much and carried it with them so often that, in a very real sense, when facing their opponents, they aren’t “hitting them with a sword” so much as they are reaching out and touching them. Though good fighters will have some intelligent, intentional strategy in mind, the actual movement of the sword will in many ways be instinctual. In the heat of sparring, I have found this to be very true. The distinction between your arms and the sword disappears when things are working like they should, and you no more have to pay attention to where your weapon is going than you need to watch your hand every time you scratch your head. You just know where it is, and also know what you need to do in order to make the appropriate movements.
The only way that your characters will ever reach that level of proficiency is through sheer, monotonous practice. They have to repeat the same motions over and over again until what they’re doing becomes a muscle memory. And bear in mind that this can take weeks, months, and even years to master.**
Your characters should regard their enemies’ swords differently. Of course, they will want to give them a level of respect (a good cut or thrust from even the most unskilled swordsman can kill too), but they shouldn’t fear them. An attack may provoke a parry or a dodge, but never a cringe or a flinch. Another important thing to remember is that their opponent’s sword is not their target. It isn’t even the focus of their attention.*** It’s simply something that is in the way, preventing your characters from doing their job–which is to drive their steel into the actual body of their enemy and end the fight.
This distinction is especially important for American audiences, whose only experience of swordplay is often the stick fights almost all of us had as children or perhaps the swordplay taught in Americanized martial arts studios. Both are universally bad examples upon which to base your description of swordplay, because the whole point of those situations is to not hurt your opponent. As a result, we were almost always fixated on attacking each others’ swords, and not on hitting the people standing behind them. That of course is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do in a real fight. You need to control your opponent’s sword, not as an end in-and-of itself, but as a way to getting through his defenses and killing him. Modern fencing (western and eastern) mirrors this by focusing on scoring solid points on vital areas.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that every character you write will be a real “warrior” and practice even this basic level of skill. In a fantasy story, your young hero may pick up a sword and get lucky. After all, they are heroes,and things have a way of working out for them, but you do want to make them believable. Understanding how a fighter should regard his/her weapon will let you convey all sorts of shades of meaning. For instance:
- Beginners aren’t used to the sword being there and they always think of it as something extra, sticking out into space. Therefore, they rarely can judge distance properly. Characters like that might get too close for their weapons to do much good. (Many swords require leverage to work properly.) Someone might swing too wide and end up sticking their sword into a tree.
- They might fixate on their opponent’s blade and fall for an obvious feint.
- If you want your characters to improve, you’ll need to show (or at least hint at) the time spent practicing. You could do an interesting psychological study of the process of the sword changing from an alien implement weighing down a person’s arm or hip to it literally becoming an extension of his/her body.
- Advanced characters will be able to demonstrate a new level of realism. You will be better able to anticipate what each one thinks, sees, and feels regarding their weapons, and then describe it to your reader.
Anyway, I think I have gone on for more than long enough. If you care to comment, please do. What are some other ways that these ideas might affect our writing?
*I once knew an alleged kenshi who literally worshiped his mail order katana before practice, and treated us incredulously when we said we were doubtful that “swords have souls.” I say “alleged” because this individual also claimed to have studied kendo for ten years, but had never owned a set of bogu (armor) and had never tested. I can understand that some Americans feel like they must somehow “out-Asian” everyone else in a situation like that order to be more “real.” I just wish they didn’t make the rest of us look like morons in the process.
**That is one reason why kendo just hasn’t caught on with American martial artists. People come to the dojo expecting to become Obi Wan Kenobi in a week and a half, and instead find themselves repeating the same basic motions (men, kote, do) over and over again, literally thousands of times before they’re ever allowed to put on bogu. Their feet will blister and bleed before the callouses build up. Their backs will ache, their arms will feel like they’re going to fall off, and their knees will give out. Depending on how severe their sensei is, they might even throw up. Most Americans just don’t have the patience and discipline. Our club at our university was like a revolving door of students.
***The sword moves so quickly and unpredictably that you can’t trust your reactions to it. It is very easy to mislead someone who is watching the tip of your sword, and trick them into opening up to you. You should focus on your opponent’s eyes, while keeping the entire motion of their body in view. In kendo, this is called “looking at a far mountain” and I’ll say more about it in the future.
Post Script: Unfortunately, I must also add a very sad note to this post–due to increasing problems with my joints, I’ve had to decide to officially quit practicing kendo for good, starting this week. My body, it seems, was never designed for the kinds of repetitive motions the sport requires. I’ve already had two shoulder surgeries and ignored the advice of two doctors. After going back to practice this month, I felt my elbows start to ache like my shoulders did. Unfortunately, I’m just not good enough at it to justify four surgeries for the sake of kendo, and I would like to be able to move when I’m older.
Kendo has taught me so much over the years, and in many ways it helped me become a strong and honorable man. It gave me a backbone, discipline, and intensity that I doubt that I otherwise would have had. I would like my series of posts here to be a thank you to the sport and those who who have invested so much time and effort in teaching it to me (in chronological order): Kanako Ono, Ai Nariyama, Charles Riddle, Carl Basham Sensei, Russel Ichimura Sensei, and Min Kang. Thank you again for everything you have done. You made a serious difference in my life that will last beyond my days in bogu.