The most popular elements that passionate fans and dissenters of the RurouKen film trilogy all seem to agree on is that the action scenes are awesome. Dissenters usually say, “just watch it for the action.” This always struck me as a strange thing to say. I think it’s because it was always intended to be a slide against the film, as though to say, “The only thing the films did well was the action,” similar to how some might say, “Watch Transformers for the special effects.”
This actually got me thinking, though. What makes a fight scene? If we broke down a fight scene to its cinematic elements, if we peek behind the curtains, what composes the fight scenes that everyone, including dissenters, would argue is this film trilogy’s strongest element? And to it’s fans, what makes it better than its competition? What did Team Otomo just get right?
The truth is, those questions are gateways to more questions; film is different from any medium because film is alive. It’s evolving, moving towards new directions, restructuring old words and phrases to create beauty and meaning in new ways. RuroKen is no different, but if we’re going to understand how these elements congeal together to create the magnificent and electrifying action sequences fans of this series are going to enjoy, we need to understand those elements in their own isolated contexts. There’s a lot to keep track of, and a lot of these posts will overlap with one another since film is collaborative, so always make sure to come back to previous posts to freshen up and see how things come together.
Also, if we’re going to understand what Rurouni Kenshin does well, we sometimes need to look at how other fight scenes are crafted, sometimes to terrible results, which means we will occasionally be drawing on other fights from other films and TV shows.
DISCLAIMER: THIS SERIES IS NOT A REVIEW. I WILL SPECIFY IF I LOVE SOMETHING, BUT OTHERWISE I WON’T COMMENT TOO MUCH AND THE FLAWS I POINT OUT MAY OR MAY NOT IMPACT MY ENJOYMENT OF A NON-RK SERIES I’M NITPICKING. THIS IS A FORUM FOR RUROUNI KENSHIN PRIMARILY, SO PLEASE RELEGATE DISCUSSION TO THAT TOPIC, THANK YOU. I DON’T WANT UNWARRANTED GoT SPOILERS OR PEOPLE SAYING I HATE THEIR FAVORITE SHOW.
The Dancers of Cinema: Choreography and Action Direction
This post MAY contain spoilers for the following: (you’ve been warned guys):
Game of Thrones Season 4
Rurouni Kensin trilogy
Star Wars The Phantom Menace
The most obvious and exciting element of any action sequence is choreography. This doesn’t always apply to just fighting; stunt coordination, chase sequences, and so forth, require very precise positioning between the actors and the camera to capture the intended effect of that sequence. To a choreographer, also known as an Action Director, designing a fight sequence can be more than just exciting violent titilaton; it can be a valuable lens of which to view our characters.
The Action Director in our case is Kenji Tanigaki. Bringing his flair and experience from working in Hong Kong and Hollywood action films and working with some of the biggest names in action cinema such as Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen, Tanigaki-san works closely with Otomo to make sure that everything goes well and ensures the actors are perfectly safe. He is also responsible for making every action in the film cinematic and crisp visually. This can get very elaborate and set up varies between directors, but the end result, if done right, is usually incredible. Even his peers respect Tanigaki’s skill; look at this tweet from Gareth Evans, director of The Raid and The Raid 2. (Warning: Language)
First thing they need to make sure they have right is the casting and action team. The actors typically are the ones that need to do these moves to feel authentic. This isn’t universal and can vary depending on director or production team. This mostly commonly in American or Western productions as these actors are often high profile and the right actor isn’t always the best fighter even with training and 6 months isn’t enough time to make them look good. What’s worse, not training seriously can result in injury, which might interfere with scheduling for other shoots that actor may be doing.
In these sorts of productions, especially those with a tight shooting schedule, they will cast stunt doubles to do the more complex movements that the character might demand but the actors are unable or unwilling to do (Unless you’re Leo DiCaprio and your director is Alejandro Gonzalez Iñnarítu). Here’s an example. This is from Episode 8 of Game of Thrones, “The Mountain & The Viper” (Slight spoilers).
Here is a set piece clothed with a flurry quick cuts of multiple angles (coverage) of a single piece of choreography done in several takes. We’ll discuss this particular editing style in the Editing section of my series, but the point is, it looks really cool. Pedro Pascal (The actor for Oberyn Martell, this particular character) begins and ends the shot, and it looks as though it were him the entire time until we zoom in.
Now this isn’t necessarily bad or even terribly distracting if done right. It’s an insurance policy for the actors since fight choreography is extremely exhausting work and training for months on end might not be enough or even an option, especially for the tight shooting schedule found in the production of Game of Thrones.
This small excerpt took a lot of designing, practice, and rehearsals, not just by the stunt team and the actor/double, but for the crew behind the camera. They probably had to do multiple takes, some with Pedro and some with his double, and edit it rapidly together. They also set up coverage from multiple angles for the editor to have as much footage as possible to assemble an acceptable cut. It’s pretty tiring work just for one seemingly tiny little throwaway and inconsequential piece of choreography.
That being said though, the small bit can show us a lot about the character of Oberyn Martell himself, so it definitely has a place here. Oberyn is pleasing the crowd, showing off his prowess to his audience and THE audience. He’s a bit of a cocky guy so it fits right in with his character in my opinion.
I bring this up to create a negative because this is something Otomo and Tanigaki ACTIVELY avoid. Let me explain.
In Otomo’s action scenes, the emphasis is more on the actors rather than the the movement of the character. His blocking (the arrangement/placement of elements such as characters and objects within the frame) for fight sequences mirror the standard coverage of a conversation with two or three cameras depending on the set piece. Once again, I’ll explain in detail later, but what this is meant to bring up is that his emphasis, as is the emphasis with dialogue scenes between characters, is character.
What I mean is that the camera is usually emphasizing the face of his actors along with their individual movements to show the audience their state of mind and also to show the audience that it’s the actors doing the movements.
This helps increase immersion, as well as simplifies shooting because the cinematographer (Director of Photography or DP) has a bit more freedom to shoot naturally rather than manufacture angles where we can introduce a stunt double and return to the actor in editing. I refer back to my GOT example. The editing cuts between wide angle and long dolly shots to make sure we can’t see the stunt double’s face as we return to a medium shot before and after the little stunt is done is something Otomo isn’t keen on and neither is Tanigaki.
The Men and Women Behind the Moves
A fight sequence is a programmed dance, coordinated moves and visual cues that must be hit for maximum effect but to actually be effective, it needs to seem completely organic and representative of the person fighting. The fighting moves need to come from characters themselves and when done right can illustrate a lot about a character.
When the choreography comes before the character and feels too rehearsed or unnatural, you can actually distract from the drama of the scene as well as offer no insight visually about the characters fighting. Consider the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.
This may look cool because its fast, the moves are flashy and elegant, but from this small bit of choreography and the entire fight itself, we can’t really tell anything about these characters. We know one’s evil because of the color of his light saber (we’ll discuss this in another post), but beyond that, we don’t actually know Darth Maul or how brutal he is, other than he’s ready to kill Obi-Wan’s master and does so. Aside from the cool costumes, there is nothing that visually separates these characters from one another in terms of skill or style.
Compare this with the first fight sequence of the first live action movie. Ya’ll know what I’m talking about.
This fight sequence delivered a lot of critical information we needed to know about Kenshin without him having to say a single word. In the opening text of the film, we’re told of the Battousai’s legendary cruelty, but to see it was a different story. His fighting style tells us three crucial things:
He’s fully equipped to fight and overcome multiple opponents at once, emphasizing his use as an asset in the war effort. He’s fast and kills efficiently, stopping neither to torture or gloat. He neutralizes the threat as quickly as possible.
He has high manuverability to get in and out of his opponents space, suggesting master level swordsmanship skills, especially since he is the only character in the entire scene that we’ve seen with this proficiency.
He economizes his movements, so there is no motion goes to waste signifying he is ruthless and very efficient in killing. Notice how in the gif above he cuts one opponent and it smoothly leads into him facing the next. He is every bit deserving of the legend we’re told in the opening text.
The interaction he has with Saito in this scene shows us that they’ve had multiple inconclusive encounters on the field and Saito managed to survive them, subtly signifying to us that Saito is at the very least his equal, which becomes important given what motivates the forthcoming action scene 10 years later where he completely dominates Kenshin and cuts his shoulder with the Sakabatou.
This is an example of how fight choreography can go beyond being cool action and can actually be a tool to help tell the story (the second half of this series will be focusing on just that).
Later in the film, after these two same characters reunite 10 years later and have a duel, Saito brutally overpowers him. In contrast to Kenshin’s manuverability and speed, Takagi-san designed Saito’s moves to utilize his weight as he’s physically taller and stronger than Kenshin. He’s not as fast but his strikes hold an insane degree of power as we see when Kenshin attempts to parry and Saito manages digs the blade into his shoulder. Saito gives Kenshin a significant amount of trouble and this piece of choreography shows us that Kenshin’s skills have greatly diminished from the opening action sequence. He’s rusty, and if he fought Saito for real, he’d likely die. This once again factors in the story as it sets up Jin-e’s plot at the end of the film to draw out Kenshin’s fighting ability through sheer anger by emphasizing the difference between Kenshin’s current skill and that of his former self.
Another example where choreography transcends its role of entertainment and spectacle and becomes a form of visual storytelling is when fighting Gein. Notice how Kenshin seems to be having trouble here, but after Gein begins to aggravate Kenshin, we get this:
We even get subtle foreshadowing as Kenshin cuts his nose. This foreshadows what he’ll do to Jin-e when he gives him a similar wound after Kenshin is slowly beginning to revert back to the mindset of his assassin days. Even if you don’t have subtitles and have never seen RK before, you can grasp what’s happening just from the visuals.
My absolute favorite example of how choreography can be a powerful indicator of characters and their state of mind is the final fight between Kenshin and Shishio. (The video is below, please check it out before reading on).
Let’s talk about this brutal bastard for a moment. This single fight right here lasts about 2 minutes in the film and to the amazement of everyone, it is one of the most brutal fights I’ve ever seen on film (and I watch A LOT of martial arts films).
We see glimpses of his utter brutality earlier in the second film when we watch the flashback of Shishio at Toba Fushimi.
This scene actually sets up about as much crucial information about Shishio as it did Kenshin:
He is ruthless and unrestrained; his moves emphasize the maximum amount of pain and brutality, ensuring suffering in his opponents before they die.
He fights dirty, not being above using human shields and considers life expendable.
He takes sadistic pleasure in humiliating his opponents, as seen when he stomps on an opponents head and presses their faces into the dirt as he brutally impales them.
When Kenshin-gumi finally arrive to challenge Shishio, we see Shishio’s choreography speak volumes about him.
In the small clip I’ve posted below, we can see that Shishio is psychotically brutal. He isn’t graceful or formal, he lacks all the elegance of Kenshin’s fighting style, and he is sadistically toying with his prey like a cat taunting a mouse. He is less interested in slicing Kenshin as in a formal duel and more interested in repeatedly bashing his flaming sword into Kenshin’s face or pummeling him into a pile of red-headed pulp. He makes no effort to dodge Kenshin’s moves. He reacts to the pain they cause, but instead of deterring him, they excite him. He isn’t above pulling dirty moves like slamming Kenshin repeatedly against a wall while chuckling, or biting a chunk out of Kenshin’s neck. He’s designed to be the exact opposite of Kenshin.
Tanigaki, when planning a scene of this magnitude, needed to take into account several elements that can impact what the audience needs to know about these characters. How long has Kenshin been fighting? Is he injured? Shishio, is he ready to fight? Is he reluctant, eager? How would Shishio fight? Does he fight with a flowery style like Kenshin? Is he evasive or does he just take hits and overwhelm his opponents?
These kinds of questions are some that he needs to ask and work out with the director and actors on set to figure out the fight scene and choreography. It’s not an easy job. After his stunt team performs it and does camera tests to show Otomo as well as be prepared to revise if Otomo and his DP want to place the camera in certain places, the set of moves are then taught to the actors who interpret them in the context of their character, and then perform them in excruciating detail. Just imagine he nightmare he went through filming the four vs one fight scene at the film’s climax. I think that fight scene deserves its own post some day.
Reality vs Cinematic Realism
As impressive as they may be, the final obstacle a choreographer must deal with is the camera. Some moves may be practical, but they don’t look good on screen. The moves need to test well for the camera, which is why there are cameras present during rehearsals.
This helps the director and the cinematographer know in advance what the shot is going to look and give feed back to the Action Director to adjust certain moves if they don’t test well or are illegible on screen. That being said, sometimes this means certain moves need to be exaggerated, heavily expanded on, or redone entirely, which may not be in accordance to the real life basis of those techniques. The biggest example of this is actually a fan favorite technique… The Battoujutsu that Kenshin earned his name sake for.
This looks good. In real life though, this stance is incredibly impractical, and to help me illustrate that fact, I present you real life superhuman Iaido master, Isao Machii.
This is the real life Battojutsu stance. Notice how different it looks from Kenshin’s.
This is the technique performed:
Why did Otomo and Tanigaki change it? I mean, it doesn’t look to bad right? This all ties in to how Kenji Tanigaki choreographs and speaks to the main element that TeamOtomo emphasizes throughout all of these action sequences: Drama. Drama comes first and in good cinema, drama doesn’t just stem from the writing; it’s also visual. Kenshin’s stance is very exaggerated compared to Machii-san’s because Hiten Mitsurugi was designed for the camera. This may be obvious to some, but remember that the next time we see a film with unrealistic choreography, it might be because it looks better.
Don’t misunderstand though, Machii-san is extremely impressive, but on film, it doesn’t have the same gravitas or dramatic flair it does in RK. This is because Machii’s battojutsu is designed to actually kill; it’s a practical move with no room for flair.
Tanigaki probably adjusted the stance because, arguably, it’s not as visually interesting and doesn’t work as well with the camera because its much too practical and restrained. Otomo envisioned the Battojutsu strikes to carry a lot of narrative weight, and Tanigaki has to interpret that with considerations to the camera. You might think, “well, I thought Machii’s looked cooler.” Sure, you may be right, but it wouldn’t work on camera the same way Tanigaki’s “Sou Ryu Sen” does. How do I know? Because we actually do see Kenshin perform Battojutsu accurately.
This is what it would probably look like this in real life, which works for this particular instance. Our reaction is probably like Eiji and Misao’s in the background. But when Battojutsu becomes the point of the whole fight, the finale or the ultimate technique, it can’t look like this. It needs to be dramatic, it needs to be cinematic. Compare with this:
It’s slow, the stance is heavily exaggerated but the tension rises. The slow moves emphasize this epic moment; because we know there’s going to essentially be an explosion of motion, the slow build up tenses us with anticipation. We know these two are going to go at it, and the exaggerated stance tells the audience visually, even if you have no clue what battojutsu is or looks like in real life, that this is serious and this moment is climactic.
The choreographer doesn’t just have to adapt the movement of characters to look good on camera, they need to make every movecinematic to fit the tone of the scene. They need to design a move after carefully considering whether or not it looks good on camera. Multiple camera tests are needed in order to ensure they get the look just right and months of planning go in, just to film a tiny little scene like this battojutsu duel. Impressive, huh?
All in all, Rurouni Kenshin’s choreography and stunt team all work day and night to build an aspect of the visual language of this film. Their choreography spellbinds us, shows us insight to their characters, as well as sets up different tone, and whether we laugh:
They are masters of controlling what we see and how we feel about it and if done right can create truly memorable drama without being tied down by dialogue. I have no doubt in my mind Kenji Tanigaki and his team are a large part of why this worked as they took what we loved from the manga and brought it to life with a wonderful stunt team and actors and we should applaud their efforts.
These are some of the most exciting action sequences to make it to the screen, up there with Bruce Lee films, Ip Man, and the Raid movies. Great action, great drama, and great story telling; that’s what this is all about folks. And this is where I leave you to go work on the next installment; See ya guys!
To everyone for reading
HYRK for giving me an avenue to write about this wonderful series.
To the people who let me borrow their gifs. I know many of you worked so hard on them and they’re really helpful.
DISCLAIMER ABOUT GIFS: A lot of the graphics I used are crowd-sourced. I got them from Tumblr’s auto-find system they implemented or on google. If you see a gif without proper credit and its yours and you’d like some credit, please contact me and I’ll designate everyone to your blog as well as give you a credit in this section of the post.