There are lots of mistakes to be made when learning the sword — beginning with picking one up without having had proper instruction. Here, though, I’ll talk about the mistakes we see in the handling of the katana on the silver screen. I’m sure you’ve seen
THE METALLIC ZIINNGG: You hear this when a character draws or sheathes a sword. In fact, it’s a sound that’s added in postproduction.
The saya, or scabbard of a Japanese sword, is made of wood. Properly constructed, the blade “�loats” in the scabbard, touching the wood only at the collar at the top of the hilt. If you hear a lot of noise when someone draws a sword, it indicates that the person is scraping the blade on the saya. It’s actually possible for such a swordsman to cut through the soft wood of the scabbard and into the hand that’s holding it.
When you draw or sheathe a katana, there’s usually just a faint rustle. It may not be as dramatic as a ziinngg, but it is the accurate sound. BRIEFCASE GRIP: Actors and models almost always hold a katana improperly. They clutch the hilt so it runs directly across their palms — much like you’d hold a briefcase handle. The correct temoto, or grip, has the hilt laid
at an angle across the palm with the hand looking much as it would if it was holding a pencil.
ou can see how inef�icient the briefcase grip (called gyakute) is by holding a wooden sword in front of you with the tip pointing straight out. Allow the sword to swing down vertically in front of your body, and you’ll �ind that even before the tip reaches knee level, your wrist must bend to keep the weapon moving downward. A bent wrist means loss of power.
Hold the sword in a diagonal grip across your palm (honte), and your swing will go lower easily — without “breaking” the wrist. GETTING IT BACKWARD: Moviemakers seem to have a fascination with characters holding the katana backward, so the blade protrudes from the bottom of the �ist. atoichi, the famous “blind swordsman,” used this, and it sure looks cool. To see how useful it would be, though, you should try pounding a nail with a hammer held the same way.
words, like hammers and other tools, are designed for speci�ic purposes and meant to be used in speci�ic ways. In blade battles, life and death could be determined by fractional advantages in length. Holding a sword backward reduces the weapon’s effective length.
If, perchance, your life ever depends on cutting with a sword, unless you’re a blind 18th-century masseur, don’t use a reverse grip. CHOKING UP: Another common mistake in cinematic swordsmanship is choking up too far on the hilt. Actors like to grip the katana so the top of their right hand touches the hand guard. The metal tsuba, or guard, that they’re touching usually has decorative carving. In real life, it quickly would scrape the skin off the user’s hand.
A correct grip entails keeping at least a �inger’s width between the guard and the top of the hand. DRAMATIC POSING: Actors — and many poorly trained martial artists — seem to think Japanese swordsmanship consists largely of striking dramatic poses. The most common is clutching the katana vertically by one’s head so the right elbow sticks out parallel to the ground. I call it “The Arnold” because it’s constantly used in sword-and-sorcery movies like Conan the Barbarian.
In real swordsmanship, this looks something like the posture of hasso. The difference between the real and the theatrical, however, is that in the former, the elbow hangs down naturally. Hasso kamae is just an adaptation of the way the sword would have been carried on a long march over one’s shoulder. It’s relaxed, easy to maintain. In contrast, the dramatic posture you see in movies would, if you had to maintain it for any length of time, have your shoulder aching miserably. CUTTING SWORDS: Blade choreographers often make the same mistake we see in empty-hand action sequencesǣ strike-block-strike-block. The swordsmen seem intent on cutting each other’s weapon in half.
A maxim in dojo where real sword skills are taught is “teel doesn’t bleed.” Another is “If you can block, you can strike.” It’s a losing strategy to respond to an attack by blocking it. Instead, make a counter that simultaneously deflects your opponent’s blade.
In classical kata training, wooden weapons do constantly clash. These, however, are training scenarios. The adept learns to leave a space in his attacks, one that would be closed in real combat. Instead of clacking against his opponent’s sword, he would be striking the body. This is only one of many misconceptions about kata-based training that lead to inaccurate conclusions based on a lack of knowledge as to what’s really going on. REAL EXPERT: Of course, movie swordsmanship has only one goal — and it isn’t combative effectiveness. The purpose of sword work in �ilms is to entertain. Real swordsmanship is not terribly exciting. Many years ago, Donn F. Draeger served as an adviser for a martial arts–related movie in Japan. The director excitedly explained that he’d found a “master” whose swordsmanship was incredible, �illed with all sorts of theatrical, exaggerated moves.
Draeger, who was among the most respected martial artists in the world at the time, agreed to review the master’s technique. They faced off. Draeger saw an immediate weakness. He took advantage of it, moving his wooden sword fractionally. It was subtle, but in a real �ight, he would have severely wounded the man. “Did you see thatǫ” he asked. The guy replied, “ee whatǫ”
uess who was eventually hired to be the �ight choreographer for the movieǫ
Masayuki Shimabukuro demonstrates the right way to use a sword.