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Top 5 Martial Arts Fights of Animation

by on May 11, 2010

Hit with emotional content! Below, we’ve selected our picks for the Top 5 Animated Martial Arts Fights. Our main standard for judgment was that these fights had to work as both “Animation” and “Martial Arts.” It wasn’t enough for a bout to be well-choreographed and well-animated if it could have been done as well or better in live-action. This was enough to disqualify many excellent animated battles like Snake Eyes vs. Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: Resolute or Sokka vs. Master Piandao the Avatar the Last Airbender episode “Sokka’s Master,” but the strengths of animation as a medium still left us with lots of hard choices to make. We also imposed a limit of one fight per TV show or movie to ensure enough variety in our picks.

The observant may notice that most of our picks are quite recent, with the oldest made in 2004. The reason for it is that is probably rooted in the America-centric cartoons we were selecting from. Since “cartoons were for kids” until relatively recently, the idea of showing realistic martial arts moves in a cartoon (or at least realistic martial arts movie moves) was anathema to movie studios and TV Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The long drought of bad animation from the 70’s and early 80’s didn’t help things any. It was only recently that a cartoon could be created/imported and aired in America with martial arts fights comparable to live-action movies. I’m sure there are probably numerous examples of good martial arts fights in Japanese anime earlier than this, and we’d love to hear about them on the forums.

Ordered largely by the number of combatants, our Top 5 Fights are:

Leonardo vs. Raphael

TMNT (2007)

Directed by Kevin Munroe

Considering that “ninja” is part of the basic concept, it’s a little surprising that the screen versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have never been characterized by very good martial arts. The live-action movies may have had some skilled stuntmen and the decent fight choreographer Pat Johnson, but it’s hard to do any martial arts moves well when you’re hobbled by a heavy foam-rubber and latex suit. Until recently, the animated TV shows have never had very good fight scenes, constantly hobbled by budgetary restrictions, broadcast standards & practices, or both. Luckily, the 2007 CGI movie TMNT was not constrained by any of the problems in the earlier incarnations of the Turtles, and this excellent fight showcases the results. The turtles move with far more speed and seriousness than they ever have in past on-screen incarnations, and while the choreography doesn’t incorporate their unusual body shapes too heavily (I’d like to have seen a block with a shell), the fight still stages a battle between two bizarre amphibians quite convincingly.

Martial arts films share a lot in common with movie musicals: the best ones are filmed in long takes with few cuts, the choreography is easy to follow even with complex movements, and characters will explode into song and dance or violence (as appropriate) because it’s the only outlet that can fully express their emotions at that moment. This scene is a perfect example of all three elements in action. By this point in the movie, the Turtles have been splintered and Leonardo and Raphael are both fully convinced of the correctness of their actions. It’s a fight that’s tragic but inevitable, and the fact that the pair are brothers probably only increases the intensity of their battle. When they finally do go at each other, they go much harder than they would against any of their traditional enemies.

Jin vs. Mugen

Samurai Champloo: “Tempestuous Temperaments/Shippū Dotō” (2004)

Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe

One of the reasons why martial arts masters in their 60’s and 70’s can move faster than students a third their age is because there is no excess movement in their actions. Their students will be slowed down by a wobble in the knees, a loose elbow coming away from the body too early, a hip joint out of sync with the body, or excess tension in their upper body. The masters perform their techniques with absolutely none of that extraneous movement. Happily, the perfect economy of motion in martial arts masters gels nicely with comparable needs in animation, since excess movement in animation leads to tons of extra pencil mileage (and cost) for the in-betweens. We see this effect in action in this duel between the master swordsmen Jin and Mugen in the opening episode of Samurai Champloo. Note how there is no wasted effort or excess motion in Jin’s smooth, effective sword strokes. Even when Mugen manages to break Jin’s balance early in the fight, Jin’s recovery uses his off-balance momentum to load up his recovering leg, allowing him to push off and spring back into action more quickly. Like the best martial arts scenes, Jin’s fighting style communicates information about his character; we learn things about Jin just from watching the way he fights.

In contrast, his opponent Mugen is nothing BUT excess motion, with a flamboyant fighting style to match his arrogant, untamed personality. While it might be possible to find a live-action master swordsman able to fight with the same precision and economy as Jin on screen, it’s unbelievable that you could find anyone capable of melding budo and break-dancing the way Mugen does, especially with a live blade or even a realistic enough stage prop to survive this pair’s kinetic duel. Add in the impossibly tight quarters of the sake house where the two go at each other and Mugen’s freewheeling use of the scenery to attack in bizarre directions and you get the kind of scene that would take months to choreograph, rehearse, and shoot in a live-action movie, and the results still wouldn’t look as good as they do here.

Aang vs. Zuko vs. Azula

Avatar the Last Airbender: “The Chase” (2006)

Directed by Giancarlo Volpe

Selecting one animated martial arts fight from Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender is an exercise in frustration. If not for our self-imposed limit of one fight on the list per show/movie, Avatar could have produced all five fights on this list with more to spare. The bending battle of the season 2 finale was already on our Top 5 Power Fights list in the Toonzone Throwdown, so instead we’ve selected this three-way battle between Prince Zuko, Princess Azula, and Avatar Aang. A two-person duel is a challenging but limited choreography problem, while a multi-person brawl often becomes more of an exercise in crowd control centering on one or two main fighters. Doing a really good three-way duel is deceptively challenging, since it requires enough motivation for each fighter to battle the other two while ensuring that no one fighter hogs too much screen time or gets ganged up on too much by the other two opponents.

This battle does quite nicely on all dimensions. Listening to the commentary track on the DVD reveals that this fight was carefully thought out from beginning to end, right from the decision on who strikes first and why they pick their first target. The fight is constantly in motion, ebbing and flowing beautifully to create a sense of barely controlled chaos. Each fighter really is trying to battle the other two at the same time; even if one fighter is taking attacks from the other two, it never feels like the other combatants have entered into any kind of alliance of convenience. And again, the way a character fights communicates character traits about them: Azula’s cold, tightly controlled precision contrasts strongly to Zuko’s wilder, less refined style (as seen later in the duel in how they deal with one of Aang’s surprises). Aang’s style diverts and avoids rather than confronting head-on, reflecting his fundamentally non-violent, peacemaking nature. The show also ensures that Azula’s hotter blue flames set off her attacks from Zuko’s visually, while also subtly communicating her deep mastery of firebending. It’s a duel that has surprising depth and lots of things to discover on close examination.

The Furious Five vs. Tai Lung

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson

Many Chinese kung-fu styles are based on animals, so it was a fairly obvious step to animate a style’s namesake to depict the Furious Five in Kung Fu Panda. However, just because this is an obvious step doesn’t mean it was an easy one. Tiger, Monkey, and the villainous Tai Lung seem relatively easy: other than their slightly longer arms and stubbier legs, their shapes are still bipedal enough to map human kung-fu movements to their bodies. Despite his six legs and three-sectioned body, Praying Mantis was probably even easier to do, since the filmmakers chose to recycle the Atom Ant gag of an invisible fighter manhandling much larger opponents. Crane gets significantly harder, since his legs are wildly out of proportion to his body for a human, and his wings are not very good analogs for hands. Finally, Snake must have driven the animators crazy: a body with no arms or legs or any bodily features to speak of at all other than the head. The animators deserve accolades just for being able to animate these kung-fu fighters at all, let alone as successfully as they do.

The Five really only cut loose in this scene of Kung Fu Panda, where they battle Tai Lung over an impossibly long rope bridge suspended over an enormous chasm. While we’ve seen the Five beating on the title character throughout the movie, this is the first scene where they fight together, showcasing how the five’s body shapes and kung-fu styles affect the way they fight and how they reinforce each other (although, admittedly, Mantis’ role is pretty limited). Moreover, the fight is staged in a setting that would be difficult or impossible to do believably for live actors-a nice benefit to doing this fight in animation. Storyboarding this sequence and choreographing it must have been a colossal chore, but all the work more than paid off in the end. It’s a spectacular sequence, and one of the quintessential animated martial arts scenes in animation history.

Mace Windu vs. a Million Billion Zillion Attack Droids

Star Wars: Clone Wars: “Episode 13” (2005)

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

In martial arts movies, there is never strength in numbers. In any fight between a few fighters and a gang, never bet on the gang because the few are just going to hand out serious lessons in ass-kicking. Think of Bruce Lee vs. a dojo of karateka in The Chinese Connection, Jackie Chan’s drunken boxing brawls in Legend of Drunken Master, Zhang Ziyi demolishing a pack of fighters (and a restaurant) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the previous selection on this list. Leave it to Genndy Tartakovsky to overdo it in his inimitable style in this battle during season 1 of Star Wars: Clone Wars (the hand-drawn animated series, not the current CGI series). Surrounded by a huge army of attack droids and without his lightsaber, Jedi Master Mace Windu again demonstrates that a fighter’s chances of success are inversely proportional to the number of people on his side, dishing out galaxies of hurt on the attack droids in a marvelous demonstration of Jedi-fu. This series was also a lot more effective in creating a more unified world than the prequel movies. This is Mace Windu fighting robots, while a comparable fight in the movies would have been Samuel L. Jackson pantomiming against a lot of CGI effects.

These micro-episodes are a marvel of storytelling economy. While this fight is very short, it does a terrific job of finding creative ways that a Jedi Knight would use the Force to augment a hand-to-hand fighting style. Punches and kicks are speeded up and augmented by telekinesis and Force pushes are used as a tremendous offensive weapon. There are even tricks like dismantling a droid to Force-throw the pieces as small missiles. Windu also uses pretty smart tactics when facing a numerically superior enemy, always keeping room to maneuver, using the enemy’s numbers against them to block off their avenues of attack, and dispatching the ones that get too close with fast, simple, and efficient strikes. Once he gets his lightsaber back, it’s all over; his casual blocking of enemy fire is a classic “character moment through fighting” to demonstrate that the outcome of this battle is not in any doubt. It’s a shame that Lucasfilm seems intent on forgetting that this series existed (it’s not available on DVD or on the iTunes store any more), since it was marvelously fun animation and is a nice way to wrap up this list.

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