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Realism of Sword Play in AK Films

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    I figured I throw this out here, maybe someone will find it interesting 😕 .

    In China recently, I came upon a small town where I stayed with some guy that was for lack of knowledge in this-a master swordsman, or at least one by my limited standards. He had two old swords, that I would with strong certainty claim they were over 100 years old, and the real deal, likely used in some battles, and certainly not some eBay knock-off. Such wear, and obvious craftsmanship made this very obvious, as well as the level of pride and skill from their owner.

    Anyways, I was able to witness the use and to use of these swords, though various items, moving up to large meats on bone, then a two live and larger then human sized pigs.

    I wasnt at all very good with them, and lack the required ability to transfers ones entire body motion to the arms, and thereby the sword. Despite poor swordsmanship, I was with time able to partly sever some rather large bones after traveling though some large areas of meat. It took me however a few tries, some time in the planning, and often a repeated blow or two. Typically I didn’t cut, but merely dragged flesh. In short-I sucked, but anything I did would of been deadly to a human. Granted, I didnt miss, which I did a lot.

    The owner of these swords however was simply amazing, with great speed, and seemingly little effort he split meat and bone, not even pausing in the strike though the rather thick, slightly larger then a human leg bone from I think a donkey in these case.

    This was all demonstration to me. A later day the town came together to celebrate something I couldn’t understand(wasn’t because of me, and the language barrier prevented full understanding of the event). Anyways two very large and living pigs were hung up via rope over a tree.

    These swordsman, became the make shift entertainment for the day.

    From his sword in the sheath, standing some 20′ away from the pig, in less then a second he was able travel to, and to slice very clean though the stomach region. A brief second, and the almost all the intestines came pouring out. I did examine the pig afterward, and their skin is rather thick, and organs placed a bit deeper then a humans. I concluded a strike like that on a human, would result in much the same, if not worse. (The cut to the pig could of been more severe, but I think he was avoiding cutting into the intestines, so to avoid contamination)

    Next, was the limbs of the same pig, after with rope they were pulled outwards from the body. In the same quickness, and incredible smoothness he cleanly chopped the limbs. It was so seemly easily done, it appeared fake. Keep in mind, this is fat pig had legs that would easily be larger and more fattier then a human. I too concluded, a human arm, or leg could easily be cut clean off, quickly, and smoothly with one strike.

    I wasn’t allowed to touch the first pig, or cut the second pig’s stomach or limbs, but I did get a whack at its head (throat region really). I didn’t go all the way though, the sword got snagged up about 2/3 of the way in. That however was entirely due to my lack of skill. The swordsman finished off the head of my pig, and then the untouched head of the first pig-chopping it off, but with a slight hiccup. That pigs neck region is was incredibility large, about twice that of a human. A human neck, stands little chance, properly even from me.

    The point of this is, if such characters like Yojimbo, or any of the Seven Samurai, being supposed experts in the sword existed in reality-which to some degree did.

    I have little doubt the same quickness, and ease in of killing in AK movies, is indeed rather realistic. This being something I always wondered about, reading about this stuff, hardly compares to seeing really happen. I was awe stuck in this whole ordeal.

    I would even say, the part in Sanjuro, where Yojimbo is getting a kill a second, is very likely possible as well.

    In short:

    Swords are awesome.

    People kill easy.

    AK fight scenes are fairly realistic in the ease of killing.

    A sword in close quarters is very deadly.

    I would rather face a gunman, then a swordsman, in many cases.

    The speed and agility that can be seen in a master swordsman, is nearly unbelievable.

    The aftermath of sword wound, is grotesque, and fascinating.

    Pig guts smell bad.

    Pig heads dont bleed very much

    Pigs taste better when you kill them.

    Watch out for a 50y/o bald 5′ tall Chinese man, named Zodcha(sp?), when your in Northern China.


    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for this fascinating piece, Jeremy! As anyone with proper Mythbusters experience behind them can tell, a pig is actually a very good diagnostic substitute for human flesh. 😉

    I probably have mentioned this before, but I practised kendo (sword fighting) in Japan. This was four times a week for one and a half hours at a time, for about ten months altogether — plus a couple of camps. (On Friday evenings I studied sado, or tea ceremony, instead.)

    I never was any good, but it did give me something of an understanding of the way of the sword. Obviously, kendo is not “the real thing” as it is quite ritualised, but the dynamism of a real Japanese style sword fight is, I believe, still there. And if you observe a fight between two persons who have decades of study behind them, it does make you think of scenes from Kurosawa’s movies. One time, in fact, my teacher and his assistant, while fighting one another (which was quite rare a spectacle for us students), pretty much produced the last scene from Sanjuro, minus the blood of course.

    And I can also confirm what Jeremy wrote and tell you that the speed in which the characters in Kurosawa’s movies handle their sword with deadly blows is indeed pretty realistic. Having been at the receiving end of so many blows (I told you I was no good), I can tell from my own personal experience that a skilled swordsman can unleash a three or even a four hit sequence in which each separate blow carries such force that it leaves you sore even through the layers of protective gear that you are wearing. And we are, of course, talking about bamboo swords here.

    When you move onto actual Japanese swords, which we got to try a couple of times for certain exhibition sequences, you also notice how a good sword works for you with the way in which it is built. When the weight is distributed properly, and the blade is straight, a sword gives you a surprising amount of guidance. It makes the sword faster to hit, but also harder to manoeuvre. But even then, I witnessed skilled swordsmen hurling those things pretty much like they did the bamboo sword.

    On the other hand, I also talked a bit with my teachers about sword fights in Kurosawa’s movies, and Mifune’s swordsmanship in particular. And they were quite insistent that, however great an actor, Mifune really wasn’t much of a proper swordsman. While the blows he gives could certainly do damage, he does not conserve his momentum as a samurai would, his footwork (and therefore balance) is all over the place, and neither is his fighting realistic in that he never seems to have a defensive plan (which obviously makes great cinema).

    In other words, in a real sword fight against proper opposition, Mifune’s characters would for the most part probably have been dead in a matter of seconds.

    So, if I have anything to add to Jeremy’s observations, it is that while the outcomes of what is depicted in Kurosawa’s samurai movies could indeed very well have taken place in the real world, the manner in which Kurosawa’s swordsmen for the most part move and act, is not equally realistic.

    Then again, I don’t really think that it was necessarily even meant to be realistic. Apart from the last account of the duel in Rashomon, of course, which always feels very realistic to me, and reminds me of my own first tries at a proper duel with another beginner. 😉



    I figured you could fill in some area, as you have mentioned your kendo experiences before.

    I dont know enough to tell the difference between someone that could fight well and one that can’t in real life with a sword. And maybe this guy wasnt any good, but it still had a hell of a swing, and was rather amazing in his ability to cut though stuff.

    Vili makes a good point however, that I just know realized, the guy I watched after a strike, didnt the return defensive trip of the sword in the same motion and smoothness of the offensive swing. I can see, how Mifune attacks and the guy I watched tend to end everything after the swing, rather then bring the sword back into a defensive or re-offensive position.

    I done a bit of knife combat training from the now infamous “BlackWater Worldwide” group (anyone interested in tactical pistol or carbine training, it’s well worth the price and open to civilians). The biggest thing that was taught in the knife portion was the quick return of the knife to defend or re-strike all within the same motion of the first strike. So, even in my limited knowledge I can certainly now see, the flaws of Mifune’s fighting habits and the guy I witness too.

    Just never connected anything till now.

    So I would have to agree with Vili in that the manner of swordplay properly isnt all too realistic, but I still stand at the aftermath of the sword fight could very well happen.

    These swords where straight with a tanto end, the weight was balanced but a slight bit towards the hilt. The neat thing(never handle a real sword before, only $20 e-Bays) was the sword blending so well with the hands, it became a natural extension. Still it wasnt enough to make me any good, in fact on one downward swing, I missed and nearly hit my leg. 🙁

    The speed displayed in the movies, I still have to say a expert could accomplish. Going back the BlackWater the most important element was the speed, and split second time an average knife attacking person can overcome you, making his knife become much more advantageous overt a pistol within a 5-30′ range, in many cases- giving the limitations of gun movement, and the ever dangerous fact: that action is faster then reaction.

    So, if a swordsman of the level shown in Kurosawa films, attacked someone, he could likely hit and kill several people, before anyone could process the fact they are under a threat, much less defend or counter-attack. Add on Vili’s conformation of many strikes all carrying the same power, along with their speed, I’m sure some blood-baths on the level of Sanjuro are quiet possible.

    It’s always been this that I wondered. While directing I’m sure overpowered absolute realism, I can be rather satisfied in the thinking the the fight scenes, display a character of realism and possibility.

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