Understanding Action: Fighting Excellence

Anime and action have a long, treasured relationship.  Whether it’s short bursts of intense actions in films like Ghost in the Shell, entire series built on big fights aka the battle shounen genre like Dragonball or even some goofy fluff action like the fake magical battles of Chuunibyou, if you want action, anime has got you covered.  But for all of the battles be they long, short, important, or fluff, a surprising number of shows also have some pretty poor action.  Since action is something I really enjoy I figured I might as well give a spiel on what I think makes for good action while other fights from famous series fall by the way side.  Just a heads up there will be spoilers because I am going to talk about specific battles and trends in various shows.  That said the focus will really be on the key elements of what I think makes for good action so if you don’t mind the some scattered spoilers feel free to stick around.  To me the most important aspect of any given fight is the amount of impact it has and by extension how memorable it is.  A low impact fight will always fall by the wayside when compared to a high impact fight.  Now there is no set way to generate impact, there is no one killer formula to make action better, there is instead a set of formulas to use and the impact of the fight will largely boil down to the quality of the execution, i.e. the skill of the people making it.  Let’s look a few important elements of battles and some examples for comparison.

Fight length is something a lot of action enthusiasts pay attention to and with good reason, however there is no set length or even ballpark of length for a good fight.  There are good and bad fights of all lengths.  At face value a short fight might seem like it would be unsatisfying, a lot less bang for your buck if you will.  However a well-executed short fight will trump a mediocre long fight every time.  A great example of a short, but memorable and impactful battle would be Greed vs. Wrath, the original Greed that is, from FMAB.  The fight only lasts a few minutes, but the dynamic movements, unexpected reveal of King Bradley as a Homunculus, dramatic timing of entrances and exits of minor third parties to the fight, and overall good dialogue exchanges keep the fight a high impact one despite its short length.  By comparison some long shounen battles can get almost mind-numbingly tedious as we’re forced to sit through 10 minutes of heavy breathing and third party exposition in the middle of a giant battle that spans 4+ episodes.  Not that long fights are inherently bad either, a long fight can be an unparalleled spectacle which a short fight will struggle to live up to.  A good example is the Fairy Tail duel, Azuma vs Erza.  In the Erza vs Azuma fight, the battle is dynamic and both combatant use their abilities to the fullest, Erza morphs through armor after armor to crush Azuma or counter his offense, Azuma meanwhile uses the arena of battle to his advantage since his magic lacks the sheer versatility of Erza’s but works extremely well with battle environment.  Add to the fluid and dynamic combat an excellent musical track, strong battles noises like super heavy punches and arena shredding strikes and you have a spectacle.  Give both a combatants a good back and forth, pounding the shit out of each other, before finally ending with the ol’ nakama power-up and some fantastic last words from the defeated side and you have one hell of a spectacle.  The aforementioned Wrath fight, while excellent doesn’t have the same value as a spectacle because as cool as it was to look at, it was ultimately too short to be the same kind of spectacle that Erza vs Azuma is.  But if this description seems to sound like long fights are actually better, that not necessarily true.  Erza vs Azuma is a better spectacle, but if you never wanted a spectacle in the first place you would naturally go for the Wrath vs Greed fight.  Some people like quick fights and others prefer long ones, for me personally a good short fight is awesome, but I usually prefer a spectacle when given the option.  But using length alone as a sign of quality is stupid.

Even fights of similar length can feel completely different.  Take for example Akame ga Kills’ Mine and Sheele vs Seiryu as opposed to Fairy Tail 2014’s Gray vs Rufus.  Mine and Sheele’s fight had a lot of impact because the fight had good directing.  The choreography was great as is standard in Akame ga Kill but what really got me on this fight was the fact that Night Raid lost.  The fight has some good back and forth initially but towards the end, Mine is pounding Goro and Sheele has cut off Seiryu’s arms and blocked the bullets from her hidden guns.  It looks like Night Raid will win once again even if it was a tough battle, but then in a moment of desperation Seiryu turns the entire fight on its head, putting Mine in danger by making Goro go berserk, forcing Sheele to engage Goro and then giving Seiryu the opportunity to kill Sheele with her final hidden gun.  And this whole setup works because we don’t see it coming.  Sheele’s death hit me harder than anyone else’s in Akame ga Kill because I had no clue it was coming, it just hit me like cheap shot.  By comparison, when Gray does something similar, turning the fight on its head with a single spell that confounds Rufus’s magic and ends the battle I’m left feeling disappointed.  Now the main reason for this is twofold, one the outcome of the fight was obvious well before it even began.  It was a revenge battle in a shounen series, clearly the hero was gonna win the second time around because unless you’re HunterxHunter that’s how shounen generally work.  But more importantly, the buildup was awful.  Gray just gets pounded on while Rufus casually beats the shit out of him and gives exposition on his magic.  It’s bland and boring, and I was genuinely more interested in the concept of Rufus’s magic than the fight itself.  And when Gray turns it around he ends the fight in one blow, instead of pounding the shit out of Rufus which is what he should have done to breathe some life into the fight, I sat there feeling deeply unsatisfied because Fairy Tail fights generally are good spectacles and this was a piss poor showing.  There was no back and forth, no dynamic movement, poor dialogue, and no dramatic timing, it had no saving graces.  But interestingly enough a quite few Fairy Tail fans argued with me when I criticized the fight, their criticism being that the fight was true to the manga, which is as good a segue way as I can give you to that topic.

The idea that something is automatically better if it stays true to the source material is utterly absurd.  For a non-anime example, look at the Lord of the Rings.  Arwen and Eowen are two of three or four notable women in the movies, and they each have their moment of badassery, crushing the Ringwraiths with a river and killing the Witch King respectively.  Now imagine for a minute how much less awesome those two would be if they didn’t have those scenes.  Because in Tolkien’s books a random elf lord defeats the Ringwraiths with a river and Merriadoc Brandybuck kills the Witch King.  Peter Jackson’s decision to edit the original material and make two of the most prominent female characters in the story more important and memorable was a great idea.  So when people come to me saying something was fine because that’s how it happened in the manga I will refute them with every fiber of my being.  Because the Gray vs Rufus fight, though an accurate reflection of the manga, was shit in the anime and it would have been so easy to make it better.  Seriously, Gray’s magic is only as limited as his imagination, and given his battle experience and smarts, I find it unlikely that he couldn’t have come up with a spell or two that used Rufus’s strengths against him.  Or maybe he just could have chained together a spell into a physical attack since he has martial arts training and has literally done exactly what I just described in previous fights.  The changes could have really minor and still improved the fight.  So hiding behind the defense of “that’s how it happened in the manga” is ridiculous.  I’ve said it before and will say it again, the anime has to stand on its own.  If the anime adapts the manga in such a way that the anime suffers even if it’s true to the manga, that is not a good thing, it’s a fuck up, and if you want a more detailed analysis of why, don’t worry it’s coming.  Also if the problems of adapting manga, VNs or light novels into anime interest you I’d advise you to check out Digibro’s channel on Youtube since he has some good videos on the subject.  Now to give you guys that long analysis I promised.

The fight that drove me to write about this subject was the Hercules vs Gilgamesh fight in Fate Stay Night UBW, which finished airing recently.  To me this fight was an absolute failure, a missed opportunity of colossal proportions.  Let’s build some context.  In UWB, the series not the movie, Hercules is introduced as Berserker alongside his Master Illya around episode 3.  His entry into the series is a dynamic, balls out fight, on par with some of the best action sequences you will see in Fate Zero, which is pretty fucking impressive.  But then we fast forward 12 episodes and Berserker and Illya die without ever accomplishing anything.  Seriously, they enter with a bang, sit in the wings for a while and exit without ever doing anything.  That setup alone is an atrocious waste of potential, I was looking forward to seeing Hercules kick ass and take names, and boy was I disappointed.  But I would have been at least ok with this if the two had gone out with a bang, but sadly they don’t even come close.  The battle between Gilgamesh, the King of Heroes, and Hercules the most physically powerful Heroic spirit the Fate series has ever seen was not an epic battle between raging demi-god and an arrogant but powerful hero who is 2/3 god and 1/3 man.  Instead it was hardly a fight at all.  This is because of two main factors, one the episode of battle is split between developing Illya as a character and the battle itself, and two, Hercules never takes any kind of initiative or has any forward momentum.  So let’s start with basic logistics.  Cramming one episode with character development and a good battle is tough, especially if the character development is made up some of pretty downer flashbacks.  If the Ufotable wanted to go this route, which is true to the VN as critics of my criticisms have and will likely continue to point out, then it should have been split into two episodes like how Terraformars handled the death of Reinhardt.  In Terraformars, the first episode of Reinhardt’s death battle begins with him kicking ass despite ridiculous odds before cutting away to reveal his past and current family situation back on Earth, the episode then ends with him giving the enemy the finger and pulling off a big move in an episode aptly titled Too Sad to Die.  Its only after all of this in the next episode, after we have been given time to appreciate the man as a character that the fight starts to turn sour and he dies taking what enemies he can with him.  But with Illya, she is developed in the same episode she dies, literally by the time we have processed her dark and depressing backstory she’s already been killed.  And because it’s handled like this, it gives us no time to build-up a proper feels train or appreciate her character so what was the point?  Like I know what the series wanted me to feel for Illya but because they gave me no time to appreciate her I didn’t care about her death.  Honestly I wish they just hadn’t developed her at all, I had more respect for her back in episode 3 when she showed her magic skills than I did after her dark but ultimately meaningless backstory.  Look don’t get me wrong I wish Illya had more time in the spotlight to get developed, I like her design and personality, but if she basically only had an entrance episode and an exit episode then they should have made both as awesome as possible and said screw development.  Developing a character we know next to nothing about on the same episode as their death is pointless.  If it’s character we already know, and you give them the finishing touches on their character as they die, that’s ok, it’s almost poetic in its own way.  But developing someone who barely exists and killing them seconds afterward is fucking stupid.  Anyway this is about fights so let’s get to that part of the episode.

Well frankly because the true focus of the episode is on Illya’s development, the fight is crippled.  It happens in quick bursts in-between periods of flashbacks, so it lacks cohesion.  But even with these stiff limitations you could pull together a decent fight, but UBW never even gives itself a chance.  Let’s look at the combat.  Gilgamesh is so awesome in Zero because every single shot he fires is like a goddamn missile, a single blow can be lethal.  In UBW some subtle changes have been made.  First off he no longer fights in his golden armor which I greatly prefer compared to his more everyday human clothes, second each of the gold discs, now given a more bronze color, where the weapons are fired from have gotten a bit smaller so each individual shot feels less intimidating, and thirdly, because he starts spamming large scale attacks out the gate, instead of  only busting out his biggest attacks as a consequence of getting angry, each of these large scale attacks feels pretty flat and it’s hard to get a sense of how bloody lethal Gilgamesh is, whereas Fate Zero made every blow from Gilgamesh a near-certain fatality if it connected.  And Hercules is in an even worse state.  In episode three, Hercules shrugged of Archer’s attacks and threw Saber all over the place with his tremendous strength and speed.  In his battle with Gilgamesh however, Hercules never goes on the offensive, you know that thing he’s really fucking good at.  He barely even moves, seriously he blocks, dodges and gets impaled by Gilgamesh’s attacks.  It looks like he is essentially pivoting on an axis, he’s technically moving but not actually going anywhere.  Most notably he never tries to make the best use of speed and strength, he never moves forward.  When Iskandar aka Alexander the Great fought Gilgamesh in Fate Zero the fight was equally one-sided but still managed to be epic.  Iskandar threw down his ace to start and end the fight and Gilgamesh trumped it with his joker, the ace being Ionian Hetairoi and the joker being Enuma Ellish, Gilgamesh’s strongest weapon.  But when Iskandar is put into a hopeless scenario he doesn’t just sit back and take hits, he charges forward, into Gilgamesh’s attacks, taking four hits and losing his horse during the valiant charge and just as he gets into striking range Gilgamesh traps him with magical chains and Rider makes an important realization about himself and dies at peace with dignity.  Hercules on the other hand basically just stands in place making half assed efforts to dodge Gilgamesh’s attacks and failing.  The only time there is anything awesome in the fight is when Hercules, now ensnared by magical chains fit to trap a god as he’s dying, break the chains from sheer force of will and rage, aiming to crush Gilgamesh’s skull before being impaled again and dying.  See the difference?  Iskandar had a full fight before a dignified end, Hercules just got pew-pewed by Gilgamesh before a single moment of awesome comeback.  If the whole fight between Hercules and Gilgamesh had been more like that moment of comeback, if they had actually made Hercules difficult for even Gilgamesh to kill, then it not only would it have been a good fight, it might have even surpassed Iskandar vs Gilgamesh.  Hercules vs Gilgamesh was a golden opportunity for UBW to get a big scene to match the famous parts of Fate Zero, and it was handled in the worst possible way.  Now fans have told me this is what goes down in the VN to which I say so fucking what, so what if this is how it plays out in the VN?  The anime is not the VN and this fight is a great example of that.  Carbon copying the VN into the anime gave us a shitty anime fight, I don’t care what the results of the battle were, that was never an issue as long the presentation was good, but the presentation fucking sucked.  Based on the way the fight played out it’s pretty easy visualize how it was constructed in the VN, because in a VN you would naturally turn a fight into a series of cool looking individual shots, but in animation those shots need actual flow and movement between them to be cohesive, and Berserker basically doesn’t move, certainly not in any meaningful way.  Ergo the fight doesn’t even feel like a fight at all because it was such a one way street, Gilgamesh took all the actions and Berserker only reacted, which is not how fights work.  You can showcase your fights that way in a VN because they happen through still frames but in animation both sides need to take action or the fight is over in seconds and it’s no fun for anyone.

This doesn’t just apply to anime either, in video games both sides need to take action or the fight is a cakewalk, can you imagine how lame it would be to fight a boss battle where the boss never attacked you and instead just sort twitched to dodge a few hits?  It’d be laughably bad, and the same goes for anime, when two sides are in a conflict both have to take action even if it’s not helpful.  When Madara first showed up in Naruto and takes on an entire army and steamrolls them, his opponents still took action, they tried to attack and failed to land to a blow, but they didn’t just sit there waiting to die because that would’ve been fucking boring.  Now this particular case, Hercules vs Gilgamesh, is an extreme example but I think it illustrates very clearly how adapting VNs and manga into anime without making changes can be extremely problematic for the anime.  Anyway I’ve hollered on about how the anime must stand on its own for long enough, time to switch gears.  You’ve all probably started to catch on to some common themes I bring up when it comes to good battles, thus far I’ve mentioned, choreography, dynamic movement, dramatic timing and so on, all the little things that make a fight great, which I keep under the umbrella term fight direction.  Music however is one I haven’t touched on enough so let the sounds ring out.

One of the main reasons I prefer anime to manga or VNs or light novels is sound, I like the sound of Japanese, I love good voice acting, I love battle noises and I love a good soundtrack.  Good music can make a fight and bad music can break one, or at least make it less impactful.  Going back the Erza vs Azuma duel, one of the many reasons it is so memorable to me is the fantastic battle theme playing in the background, something I’ve found Fairy Tail to be good at in general, and in particular how well the music meshes with the actual battle effects.  Unlike the more common battle themes of the series, this one feels like it was made specifically for that duel because of just how well the music and battle sounds complement each other and it’s also the first time we ever hear it.  Contrast that with SAO’s Gleam Eyes boss fight, where although the action is big and flashy, the music completely outshines it.  Now SAO has a lot of problems for a lot of reasons but giving a battle music that is too epic when compared to the action is a terrible idea and it’s one of the few dangers of employing big orchestral music.  The opposite can be problematic.  Jumping back to UBW, one person who I frequently argue with actually criticized the music of the Archer vs Lancer battle that aired about two weeks after the Gilgamesh vs Hercules fight.  Now that battle was easily one of the best in UBW and an outstanding fight overall, really it did a good job of bringing me back into the series after the failure with Berserker vs Gilgamesh.  But oddly enough when I sat to think about the music, I couldn’t remember it all, despite being able instantly recognize a handful of Fate Zero songs.  So I rewatched the episode and paid special attention to the music and while I thought it wasn’t bad and it was certainly going in the right direction, the fact that I couldn’t remember it all that first time probably should tell you that it wasn’t great.  Meanwhile I can remember some less impressive scenes based on their music alone.  Notable in this category was Susano’o’s entrance in Akame ga Kill, his entrance itself was pretty badass as far as the physical actions taking place but the killer riffs going on in the background when he made his entrance are what really made his entrance to me.  Likewise in Nanatsu no Taizai one of the scenes I remember best is the scene with all the shooting stars as the narrator brings up the ancient prophecy because the music that was playing at the time was my single favorite theme in the entire show and one the best individual soundtracks I’ve ever heard period.  Powerful or well implemented music can do wonders to a scene and fights are no different in that regard.

In the same vein, battle noises are very important.  Take Kingdom, a history anime set during the Warring States Period of China, not to be confused with the Sengoku Jidai which translates to the same thing, but happens in Japan during the 1500’s.  I like Kingdom for a number of reasons but one thing I love about the main character in particular are the sounds he makes when fights.  Aside from the battle cries and what not, the hero of the story, Xin, packs a serious punch and the battle noises reflect that.  His sword strikes make impressively heavy sounds, for example when his blows rip through some dude’s armor like it was paper, you can hear the heft of the blow ripping the armor to shreds.  It’s what makes him stand out in comparison to his top subordinate, the infinitely more deadly Qiang Lei, who is called Kyou Kai in Japanese.  Qiang Lei’s sword strikes have a distinctly airy and ephemeral sound effect, they actually sound otherworldly, which reflects her supernatural fighting style and background.  Likewise when she goes all out, having her chant the rhythm playing in the background music was a great touch.  But I love how you can instantly tell the two apart without even looking because the people making Kingdom gave them such distinctly different battle noises.  Similarly magic spells or ninjutsu that sound extra powerful when cast are always a lot more interesting than spells that look impressive but have less actual sound backing up the visuals.  But I think you guys get it by now, sound matters.

Now one problem I’ve seen people mention is fights where nothing actually happens, fights where no one dies and the story doesn’t move forward.  Now I understand the complaint but I don’t think it’s entirely correct.  Some of the early battles in Fate Zero for example, don’t end up accomplishing much.  But at the same time they are such a good spectacle and their action so memorable, that I have a hard time finding fault with them.  That is a personal taste issue really, for me I would rather sit through a good fight with no meaningful consequences than an ok one which was important to the plot.  Chunnibyou is another great example, all of the magical battles in Chuunibyou aren’t actually happening so I can see why people would call them dumb or pointless, I on the other hand enjoy them because they look awesome and help keep slower paced slice of life episodes more interesting.  And there isn’t really too much else to say on the matter, personal preference will naturally determine which fights each person finds most enjoyable and this whole video is only here to give you guys some context on what I think makes for good battles and just a bit info about the aspects of battles in general.  What I hope this does do is inspire some good discussions about particular battles and get people in touch with some good action series that they may not know about.  I want to hear some examples of what you guys think were good fights you have seen, especially if I can get some battles from outside the Big 3 and other battle shounen, I like finding obscure gems out there and if you guys have any suggestions, send them my way.  If there were any aspects of battles you think I didn’t elaborate on enough, leave a comment and I might be able to whip up another one of these kinds of posts.  Likewise if you want to just talk about specific battles or want me to break down specific battles that can be arranged.  Anyway I hope you guys enjoyed it, feel free to comment, and if you know anyone who might enjoy this please share, see you in the next one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s