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Snicker Snack

This week, as we peer into the depths of the Holocron, your gatekeeper would like to discuss the difference between dramatic swordplay and militaristic swordsmanship.  The contrast between the two forms of weapon training is not only physically different but also mentally, and some could also debate spiritually.



“Wow those guys were awesome with those swords!  I’d hate to fight one of them!”

–          A common saying outside any movie theater playing a movie with swordplay


Before we dive in to this topic of discussion, I feel as though I should give a short resume of my training so I do not get spammed with, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” over and over in the comment section.  I have studied Japanese swordsmanship since 1996.   In 1998, I began training under an accomplished instructor, Soke Kenneth Gillenwater.  Soke is a title given to the founder of a style of martial art.  Since that time I hold a Shodan (first degree black belt) in Kenji Ryu Aikijutsu, and a first Kyu ranking (the level directly before black belt) in Kobodo.  In English that means that I have studied a form of unarmed combat based on sword movements, with actual preliminary swordsmanship as an added component in my Aiki studies.  Kobodo is the study of weapons, primarily of the Karate weapons: bo staff, nunchuka, sai, kama, and tonfa.  When talking about martial arts, I have always found it easier to show visually what you mean instead of just talking about it.  This link is to a YouTube video of Donald Angier, an Aiki teacher, who demonstrates some of the techniques I have studied.  While I do not practice the same style as Angier, the basic concepts are similar.  While I have not received any formal training in other forms of martial arts outside of those I have mentioned above, I do have a basic understanding of how they differ from the arts I have learned.  If any of my readers do study any of them or those that I train in, I would love to hear from any of you in the feedback for this article.


The best place to begin is with the word martial.  Martial means, in its base form, militaristic. These were techniques and movements used by warriors in the past to fight wars.  Within a Japanese setting, we are talking about Samurai arts, since they were the only ones that could legally study and practice such arts.  The mentality of warfare cannot be emphasized enough within this context.  In war, in the past as it is today, the goal is to kill your enemy before he kills you.  There are no rules to this kind of combat.  When we see two armies clash, everyone is fighting for their lives.  Now granted, trained soldiers know how to hold formation and fight as a team.  What I mean is that if you were fighting with a sword and you disarm your opponent, you would not bow to him and say, “Pick up your weapon, sir;” you would stab him in the face and move on to the next enemy.  This is not due to a sense of cruelty or viciousness.  When this exchange happens, there is another wave of more soldiers coming at you.  This idea of honor in combat only came into play later when gentlemen, away from battle situations, dueled over some disagreement.  However, the mentality of kill or be killed only has a place on the battlefield, and as such is not for staged sword fights intended for movies and television.  Ever since human beings have fought wars, warriors have struggled with this mentality in wartime, and having to cope with civilian life when their term of service is over.  I do not want to get into shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder as it is commonly called, but I did want to mention it here.


In my training, I was taught that if my technique required more than three moves to defeat my opponent I was not practicing true art with the sword.  I always smile when I watch any swordplay in films or television where the actors are twirling their weapons behind their back, throwing them into the air, then catching them and spinning them around even more.  In the training that I have received, the concepts of block, parry and counter do not apply.  These ideas almost set you up for a back and forth type of fight.  I have always been taught that when the opponent attacks, cut him as he attacks, which finishes him so you can move on to the next enemy.  This harkens back to the battlefield state of mind in which the samurai trained.  Fewer movements also do not drain a fighter’s stamina as quickly, which allows for prolonged fighting.


On the official SWTOR forums, I found this thread.  This was, in all honesty, one of the inspirations for this article.  It is about whether we will see the reverse lightsaber grip in SWTOR, as used by Ahsoka and Galen Marek.  Throughout this thread many folks chime in saying that the reverse grip on a lightsaber is not the way to fight, and to fight like that is ridiculous.  Right now I am spamming my imaginary soundboard of our own Samm Money saying FAIL.  There are many times in swordsmanship when we use a reverse, or underhanded grip.  As a matter of fact, Kenji Ryu has several of our sword exercises utilize a reverse grip.  In the video I linked above of Dr. Angier, he uses an underhanded grip as well.  This thread was started a while back, and in the Join the Fight trailer released at Comic Con at 1:05 you can clearly see the Sith Warrior pounce with an underhanded grip.  It looks like we will see this in SWTOR, even if just as an ability.


It might be prudent at this point to have a short discussion on Wushu.  After the Communist party took over China, they banned all training of martial arts in the country.  It is truly a tragedy to the martial art community and to the world that many Chinese systems simply “died off.”  If the new generation does not learn the art then the art dies.  Due to public outcry and I believe an interest in Asian martial arts in the West, the government appended this law to say that the public could train in martial arts in only two forms; motion pictures and Wushu.  Wushu is a combination of kung fu techniques and gymnastics.  Competitions involve the athletes performing single or team kata.  Kata are a form of martial training that we also use to learn movements for our technique.  They are a series of preset moves that are done in a predetermined sequence.  Here is a link to a video of a few clips from a Wushu competition to give you an idea of what these kata look like.  As you can see, Wushu is very flashy and acrobatic.  Wushu should hold a special place in all Star Wars fans’ hearts because Ray Parks, Darth Maul himself, studied Wushu for years.  I remember reading in some of the Expanded Universe that Maul was trained in ancient Sith battle techniques.  So I suppose Wushu is ancient Sith Ninja arts.


It is not my intention in this article to downplay what actors and actresses perform on film when they learn swordplay.  I will be the first to tell anyone that what they learn takes a great deal of coordination, strength, and muscle memory that can only be learned with a great deal of time and dedication.  Also, I have never heard in interviews or commentaries on these films that they brag about learning swordsmanship; they always say that they learned swordplay or sword moves.  A fight choreographer works out the fight routine, just like a dance choreographer would, and teaches the moves in the correct order to the actors.


In conclusion, I want to bring Star Wars back into the main picture by saying that when two Force-users are fighting each other with lightsabers, there is more going on than the physical battle.  Imagine a Sith Assassin is fighting a Jedi Sentinel.  All Force-users can see glimpses of the future right before they happen.  Qui Gon explains this to Schmi Skywalker about Anakin’s special abilities in Episode One.  As the Sith attacks with his double-bladed lightsaber, he is trying to cloud the Jedi Sentinel’s mind about seeing the attack he is trying to land on her.  Meanwhile she is trying to pierce through the Sith’s Mind Trick and perceive the attack coming at her.  So whenever we see two lightsaber-wielding combatants dueling, there is also a psychic battle happening that we cannot see.  This is why those more powerful in the Force can easily defeat those not so powerful.  We see this in Episode Three when Anakin goes to the Jedi Temple, mowing down all the Jedi there with ease.  But he had much more of a challenge when he fought Obi Wan on Mustafar, because Obi Wan was more powerful.


All in all I enjoy seeing swordplay, and general weapon work in films and television shows.  If nothing else it raises interest in our past and the difficulty in learning a weapon.  I just know the difference between what I see on the screen and what I have learned in my martial studies.


Here is the Feedback thread for this article.

You can follow me on twitter @kenjisamurai37.  After reading this lesson you can see how I came up with that one.

Until next time may the force be with all of you.

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