Swordsmanship for Dummies, Part I: Cool Moves Get You Killed

Today, I would like to start a series of contributions that key in on something that puts me among a minority of Americans, and that is the fact that I have had, over the course of the last ten years, the opportunity to study real, honest-to-God formal swordplay in the form of traditional kendo.  Kendo is a Japanese martial art, and the word itself means “Way of the Sword.”  For those who may not know, kendo is the “modern” version of kenjutsu, the sword art of the Samurai warrior class of feudal Japan.  While it is a significant sport in Asia–particularly in Japan and Korea (where it takes the form of a Korean art called kumdo)–in America is it virtually unknown.*  To get an idea of what kendo involves, check out this video and the Wikipedia entry on it.

I have only tested once with the All United States Kendo Federation, many moons ago in 2002, and hold the rank of yon-kyu.**  So, I want to make very clear to any serious student of kendo that I’m not pontificating beyond my station.  All I am attempting to do is take the basic principles that kendo has taught me and explain them in such a way as they might be of use to people with no experience in swordplay writing scenes with characters who will be picking up a blade.

Since kendo served as the inspiration for George Lucas in his invention of Jedi for Star Wars, I thought it might be good to take a quick look at an issue raised by the movies:  speed and its relation to economy of motion.

People, of course, are interested in things that are visually intricate and stunning.  Combat with swords is no different.  If you think of lightsaber battles in any or all of the Star Wars films (with the exception of “Episode IV: A New Hope”, which is probably the most accurate portrayal in any of the movies), you’ll immediately bring to mind images of flashing, flipping, and flailing the likes of which are not strictly humanly possible.  The actors make big, circular slashing motions that leave dazzling trails of light.  These images are definitely engaging.   It is only one step farther to think of a hundred other movies with similar scenes where the hero or villain flings their blades around to such an extent that he/she looks more like a walking food processor than an actual fighter.

Impressive?  Yes.  Attention grabbing?  Certainly.  And also a good way to get yourself killed.

So, how should Obiwan die? Should Darth Maul take his exposed left arm? How about a leg? Why not just go ahead and cut him in half?

I say that for the simple reason that one important aspect of staying alive in combat is being faster than your opponent, and a key aspect of speed is economy of motion.  In short, the less you move, the faster you are.  To put it another way, when you drive to a destination and you’re in a hurry, all things being equal, you try to take the shortest most direct route.  You won’t add in a detour that takes you sixty miles out of your way without a very good reason.  If you did, even if you drove faster, you would probably arrive later than if you had taken the direct route. The less time you spend in motion, the faster your trip goes by, even if you’re technically moving more quickly on the detour.  You move a sword in a similar way.  You’re always faster when you move less.  Therefore a key point to good swordplay is to keep your motions as tight, as small, and as controlled as you possibly can.

Big, flashy, slashy moves are impractical for several reasons:

  • First, remember that unless your characters are fighting with a butter knife or a club, strength and power are not as important as you might think.  They are fighting with blades, not baseball bats.  If they are using something akin to a katana, they are fighting with a three foot razor blade.  Even swords of a lower quality will cut well when handled and cared for properly.  Therefore, a fighter doesn’t have to pull all the way back to do serious damage.  That is only necessary when facing a heavily armored opponent.
  • Second, despite popular belief, constant motion and attack is not always a good thing.  Every time your characters move to attack, they are open to being attacked in turn.  There is an instant where their bodies are dedicated to the motion they are going through and if their opponents can strike in that instant, they won’t be able to react.  The bigger the motion, the bigger the opening.  The more people flail, the more potential kill shots they open for their opponent.
  • Finally, it is impossible for your characters to take advantage of their opponents mistakes when they’re flailing.  If they’re already committed to a series of attacks, they won’t be able to hit the openings their enemies give them. This becomes more important as the ability level of their enemies gets higher.  Better fighters  leave smaller and smaller windows of opportunity, and the best (like these) are so good that most of us could never see an opening at all.

Of course, there are some caveats to give to this.  First, this applies to intelligent fighters (which, if they’re still alive, they will be).  If your character is of a berserker bent, he/she won’t care–of course they’ll also be dead in one or two battles.  Second, heavily armored knights of the high medieval style are also allowed more flailing because the quality of their gear.  They have the luxury of lumbering up to each other and whacking away because they aren’t likely to do much damage anyway and it is a semi-legitimate tactic to just smash your opponent over and over again as hard as you can until something gets through.  Even there, though, the principles laid out above are a good idea:  Wait for your opening, and then drive your point home.

What do you think?  Are there any other examples from movies or books where the writers could have used a few lessons in “economy of motion”?

*There are reasons for that.  Kendo is treated with an almost religious reverence by many of its practitioners, and there is a very strict code of etiquette and discipline to which students must adhere.  Also, as a very serious martial art, progress is slow and difficult.  Practitioners may go years between tests, and then actually fail to live up to the very high standards some testing boards set.   Most Americans simply don’t have the patience required and would rather spend their time in westernized tae kwon do or karate schools of a much lower quality.

**Testing in real kendo is very different from other martial arts.  Whereas most styles will let you test inside your own school, real kendo requires that you test before a board of senseis from all over.  That usually only happens at major tournaments and if you’re like me–someone who lives beyond driving distance of an established dojo–you’re not likely to test very often.  I have been blessed in that we have a local club at our university where the main instructor is credentialed.  So, my experience is broader than what my rank might imply.


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 17, 2011, in Brian Melton, Characters, Fantasy, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Movie Reviews, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Star Wars, Swordsmanship for Dummies, Universes, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Wayne the Shrink

    Others who needed a lesson? Errol Flynn is probably the prime example, and others of that style of movie.

    Yeah, I’m dating myself! I used to watch them on Sat. afternoon movies on TV when I was a teenager.

  2. “More haste, less speed.” — Gollum

  3. Excellent!

  4. Brian,
    Your essay is very well written, and your point is excellent. In my (European/Olympic style) fencing class, I am always reminding my students that they need to tighten up their movements. I see lots of wide, sweeping parries that leave the defender totally open to a follow-up attack, and totally out of position to launch their own attack. Keeping the point on target (aimed at the opponent’s valid target area) limits your range of motion but keeps you in position to attack and defend at all times.
    I have noticed from watching online video clips of Olympic fencing matches that most of the time the action is too fast for a casual observer to follow – there’s a sudden motion and a point is scored and the viewer is saying “What happened?” That wouldn’t work in a movie, which is trying to tell a story, the ending of which is already determined. Sports and duels aren’t like that.
    If I may have your permission, I’m going to print out your article and give copies to all my students to read.


  5. *sigh*

    My bogu is in the attic, a couple of thousand miles away…

  6. Carl E. Basham, Jr.

    I enjoyed reading your article Brian. I believe the key to all martial arts is to hold the center. I recall an old saying which goes something like this: It is easy to rush into the heat of battle and be slain. It is more prudent to wait and fight for a cause worth dying for.

  1. Pingback: Living Your Book: Doing Battle | Lantern Hollow Press

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