Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
I have a big problem with the way Western movies do fight scenes now. Other people have said this, so I'm not the only one. Their fight scenes are usually done with quick cuts and, as of late, jitter cam. It is annoying as hell and you can barely see what is being done. As if the chaotic motion is supposed to replace or hide or enhance the chaos of the movement or make it look cooler more than it is. However, all it does is ruin a movie for me. Such was my experience watching the movie Snake Eyes.
I was very much looking forward to this movie because of the excellent actors in it; many of them are good martial artists. Of all the fight scenes though, I could only make out what was going on in one or two of them. It was very disappointing.
"Only death can repay the sin of murder! Writhe in agony and die in regret and despair!
That is the only wan you can atone!"
— Yukishiro Enishi
Story Through Violence
The reason why I'm saying this is because I recently watched a series of movies from Japan called Rurouni Kenshin based on the manga and anime character Himura Kenshin. He is a former assassin and soldier of the Meiji wars in Japan in the late 19th century. I have watched the anime and the way it presents Kenshin’s sword style, described as “godlike speed.” Because he is unusually fast, though small and physically weak. His speed and swordsmanship though more than makes up for his lack of physicality. Even more so is his conviction and ability to endure great pain. If he is convinced that something is right or needs to be done, then there is no stopping him.
Anyhow I saw the latest movie, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, where he is fighting against his brother-in-law, Enishi. The context is that years ago during the war, Kenshin had to go into hiding and did so with a woman named Tomoe. They had pretended to be married and were living in the outskirts near Kyoto.
They actually fall in love and she ended up being accidentally killed by Kenshin when it turned out that she was a spy. She was sent by the Tokugawa government to weaken his resolve because he had become infamous as Battosi the Man-Slayer, credited with killing over 100 men in over six months alone: one of them being Tomoe’s fiancée. And when he was weakened enough, he was to be killed.
However, she had a change of heart and no longer wanted to kill him, even though he had killed her fiancé. She saw a purity in him that the earlier franchise movies focus on, but at this chronologically early period, was submerged. Enishi was the younger brother of Tomoe and did not see things that way. Quite the contrary, he was enraged at her death and remained enraged even while going into hiding in China.
(This story is later expounded upon in the final movie of the franchise, Kenshin: The Beginning).
A Masterpiece of Emotion and Steel
So in the movie he comes back and presumes to cause chaos in Japan. His goal is to destroy Kenshin’s spirit. Because it was not enough for him to simply kill him. He had to kill or destroy anything and everything associated with him. So in the final battle, Enishi and Kenshin are finally ready to fight each other. And this duel is perhaps the best sword fighting duel I have ever seen. Because it is all done in silence and extremely personal.
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The engagement is just the two swords clashing with each other at fast pace and equally fast, but erratic movement. The sounds of the destruction echoing across the enclosed room and courtyard as they engage in a vicious, high-speed, and brutal duel.
The movements are crisp and clearly seen, though they're incredibly fast. And they tell the story and the character of each person. Kenshin shows a slight reservation, yet enough to where he can hold out against the Enishi. Meanwhile, Enishi is physically stronger and easily dominates Kenshin in close range, while still keeping up with Kenshin’s speed.
The fight is excellent because of the emotional gravitas that permeates the moment. It is two brothers engaging in a deathmatch over someone who died over a decade ago. Yet for each of them, it's still very much raw and has dramatically affected both their lives. Enishi is constantly trying to berate Kenshin into just giving up and dying while brutalizing him every chance he gets. Telling and reminding him that he needs to and deserves to die for what he's done. He completely ignores the fact that by this point he has killed even more people than Kenshin has.
Throughout all of this, Kenshin still manages to hold his resolve, while acknowledging Enishi’s rage and justification for his hatred of him. He condemns his brother-in-law for his hypocrisy.
The second half of the duel, which by this point has proceeded into the courtyard, tells a different story where Kenshin finally decides that Enishi must be stopped, regardless of how justified he is in his rage and his own guilt. At this point his sword style indicates this change in character.
He becomes the man-slayer he was, while at the same time not killing him. It is beautiful and yet disturbing to see the switch in personality. The movies do a good job of communicating the difference between Kenshin's pacifist and warlike styles and dual personality. In his pacifist style, Kenshin is still fast and his strikes are still strong. At the same time, it's clear that he's holding back and he can do that because he's just that damn good. His second best is easily superior to the average people that he fights.
However, his hitokiri nature is almost entirely different. When he is in his manslayer state, Kenshin is a ruthless swordsman. His attacks are short and more intense, his counters are quicker, and his movement much more concise and deliberate. Even when you land blows against him he is still striking at you. As was shown when at one point, Enishi had kicked Kenshin up into the air, yet Kenshin still has the mind to bring the sword down and cut Enishi’s leg, ignoring the pain that he is feeling from the powerful kick. By this point, Kenshin unleashes his signature finisher where he draws the sword from its scabbard at such high speeds, that if it was an actual sword designed to kill, he would have cut him in half very easily. It is too fast to predict and usually sends his opponents flying across a room of 10 ft or more. This usually ends his fights.
To Enishi's credit, not only does he endure Kenshin's full potential like a boss, but he is still driven to kill him despite the fact that by swords, he has lost the fight. In a final fit of rage, he cries out his assassin name, grabs a knife and with no flourish, fancy spin moves, or sword just runs at him and stabs him. In that moment of cathartic release for Enishi, the two brothers look at each other, Kenshin willingly accepting the blow and apologizes to him intimately, accepting that everything that has happened is his fault.
A Tale of Two Brothers and Two Paths
This match was beautiful because of that intimacy between the two brothers. Every detail adds to the story between the two men. The small, intimate room that is destroyed over the course of the fight that then extends into the larger courtyard that is also destroyed, representing how their blood feud engulfed Kyoto. The styles they both use with Kenshin’s being reserved but quick and Enishi’s being equally fast, but brutal and unhinged. Even the knife that he eventually stabs Kenshin with belonged to Tomoe. The relationship that they shared with one woman and how it has propelled and changed them throughout their lives. It shows that in many ways they are very similar, both driven by a sense of conviction that literally outweighs their rationale. It also communicates the different places where it is taking them, whereas Kenshin is no longer a killer and Enishi has become one, entirely committed to killing Kenshin whatever it takes.
It was entirely appropriate that the battle had no music. The silence with the cries of emotional anguish and the ringing of slashing steel tells the story by itself. No music was needed. A Western movie would have been some sort of high musical score climax of the rising drama. Would have used jitter cam to communicate the chaos of the fight. That would have accompanied the crescendos and moments of the battle.
In this movie, you very much get the feeling that any kind of music would have distracted from the story that the fight was trying to tell and the creators and actors wisely chose to avoid that. I wish that more Hollywood movies would follow this example. I wish that Western movies understood that if you have a strong story to communicate and are not focused on how much money you can make, trying to please a demographic, and have enough faith in the actors who have trained for years or months for this role for this moment, that it will pay off by itself. Music does have its place in cinematic fight scenes. But it also doesn’t have a place. And the trick of it is to know when that is happening.
© 2021 Jamal Smith