Story Beats: The Fight Scene
Can you feel it? The tension? The hits? The drama? No? No to all of them? Then what you have before you is probably a poorly written, poorly executed and poorly thought out fight scene. Or just the Star Wars Prequels.
Hate it or love it, there’s a reason why Attack on Titan is so beloved by many anime fans. Sure, spreadable bite sized gifs with slick animation and cool designs in them are probably what got people to watch the show (same with One Punch Man). But while the cool gifs and videos of Eren, Mikasa, and Levi fighting the Titans were what piqued people’s interests—it was the underlying tension and drama in the show that really kept people tuning in for more.
Was Attack on Titan slow at times? I don’t know. You tell me. How long is too long for anyone to move a rock to patch up a hole in a wall? Regardless of the show’s short-comings, it’s hard to deny that Attack on Titan does do a pretty great job of making good action sequences and worthwhile fights. And I think I know why.
CAUTION: Minor to major spoilers for Gintama, Bleach, Sword Art Online and others.
How much pressure is our protagonist under? How likely is he or she going to fail (or die)? What’s at stake? What will happen if our protagonist loses or if they simply run away? These are just some of the things that add weight and tension into a fight scene, and without pressures or stakes involved a fight could become pointless.
Let’s look at Sword Art On—yes, yes I know what you’re thinking. Kirito’s an overpowered twat and the fights in the show’s latter seasons are relatively pointless. But here’s the thing, back when there were actual stakes in Sword Art Online, back when Kirito and Asuna would die in the real world if they do in the game, the show had weight to it.
Think back to the final episode of the first season of SAO (sometimes I like to pretend that it’s the last episode of the entire series), think back to when Kirito faced off against Kayaba Akihiko. Kirito, Asuna and the others had just cleared yet another near-impossible dungeon, but rather than being cool and smirking and scoffing at how badass they all were, everyone including our protagonist was beat down. They lost 14 people and everyone was running on fumes.
Kirito makes an important discovery at this very moment and was given a choice. Should he fall back as Asuna suggested and possibly endanger even more players? Or should he take a risk and gamble his own life? Potentially saving everyone from the game should he succeed. Of course, if he failed, he would have died. These are stakes, things that our protagonist is fighting for and care for and the risks that their willing to face. And when the fight eventually happened, Kirito wasn’t healed or anything, he was still exhausted and what’s worst is that he was fighting an enemy who knew every combo he could throw at him, had better gear and was at a higher level than Kirito. If he makes a wrong move, he could die. The fight itself was visceral, tough and pretty intense. And it was amazing.
Now let’s take a look at another fight/action sequence from the same show. During the Mother Rosario arc, Kirito shows up to help Asuna and the Sleeping Knights when a group of players was trying to attack them. Kirito appears right in the knick of time and faces off against dozens of other players and with a smirk on his face, goes up against them like it’s no big deal. In this scene, Kirito is a badass and a badass that doesn’t take crap from anyone or backs down from any challenge… but this scene also shows Kirito as being almost perfect and untouchable.
Of course a character can be cocky, they can be brave and they can even be amazing at what they do—they can even do what Kirito does in this scene, kick ass. A protagonist beating up a bunch of low-level thugs is fine, it can show off how cool and badass our protagonist is and it can even be pretty exciting. However, this can’t be the norm. There must always be a Kayaba Akihiko for our protagonist to encounter; there must always be someone stronger, smarter or more skilled than him or her. Someone who can push our protagonists’ buttons. If all fights in Sword Art Online features Kirito just being badass and destroying waves of low-level thugs one after the other, then it all becomes pointless. The story might reach a point when there’s barely any reason left to watch the fight (and show) other than to see cool stuff happen, but even then you might get sick of seeing the same thing over and over again because there’s no longer a fear of Kirito possibly failing as he almost did against Kayaba Akihiko. You can just fast-forward and go like, “Oh look there you go, girls are flocking all over Kirito again cuz the fight’s over now I guess. Not really a shocker right there.”
Now you might be thinking, “Of course the protagonist is going to win, this isn’t The Sopranos you fuck!” Well yeah, of course, it’s not! In most stories the protagonist is most certainly going to triumph over whatever adversity they’re facing, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t see them crawling on the floor, facing a low point in which all hope appears to have been lost before getting back up onto their feet and defeating the enemy.
Just imagine playing Pokémon with an overpowered team of legendaries the whole way through, each time you fight someone it’s just going to be annoying because your team’s just going to one-hit the enemy anyway so what’s the point? And even if you did have fun, how long’s that fun going to last without a challenge? You beat the Pokémon League and maybe even beat your friend who didn’t use cheats to get a team of all level 100 shiny legendaries. But I guarantee you that while you were annoyed blazing through the game and beating up weaker enemies that just got in your way, your friend was going through a roller coaster of emotions. You never got to experience the thrilling sensation of what it’s like to go up against a Gym Leader and only have one Pokémon left that’s a few levels lower than the Gym Leader’s strongest and last Pokémon. Which also means that you’ve never experienced the dramatic moment where your last Pokémon, your Charizard, takes a full blast of Hydro Pump to the face from Gary’s Blastoise and actually survive long enough to deal the final blow. It’s a different kind of high and it’s the same thing as when Kirito or any other protagonist, anime or otherwise, summons the last ounce of their strength to endure the enemy’s attack and ultimately triumph over them. It’s exciting and just straight up satisfying.
Impact and Flow
In live-action films, the execution of a fight scene relies on great camera work, stunt work and fight choreography. Are we seeing the full fight take place in a way that convinces us that our actors can actually fight and feel each hit? Or are we just experiencing it in a very muddled and messy kind of way where the camera is always shaking and there’s like twenty sporadic cuts that jar the mind? And is the fight too much like a dance where no one seems to be worried or concerned about taking a sword to the chest or a punch to the face? The length of a fight also matters. Too short? You might leave audiences disappointed (like I did). Too long? Then you might bore the audience and annoy them.
Obviously, in anime, it doesn’t quite work like that because anime is an animated medium. In anime and other animated mediums, it’s the framing of the fight scene, the fluidity (and quality) of the animation and the impact of each hit that helps make a visually impressive fight scene—this of course doesn’t even include the tension built by the narrative (as mentioned earlier) and the score (or lack of score) playing in the background. All of these visual qualities can be seen pretty well in Attack on Titan. It’s fast, slick and the quality of the animation never seems to dip despite how many frames characters move per action. And tying back to Weight, barely any fight in Attack on Titan lacks tension and punch to it. Every time any character gets hit or bit by a Titan, you feel it. They’re sent flying, their limbs are torn off and you hear them cry out in pain. Likewise, when characters are pulling off moves and are cutting down Titans, there’s a certain kind of visceral impact that the show exudes the moment a character’s swords cut through the nape of a Titan. It’s exhilarating and because of the air of tension surrounding the whole fight, even more satisfying.
During his final battle against Sousuke Aizen, Ichigo Kurosaki gets a power up through a Deus Ex Machina type thing that puts him leagues above Aizen in terms of power and hair length. At this point, even the big bad Aizen himself is overwhelmed by Ichigo’s power and our protagonist doesn’t even break a sweat as he trashes Aizen in the battlefield. Aizen would pull off a move and Ichigo would barely flinch, let alone dodge or care. This lack of tension already kills any kind of buzz or excitement in the fight. Sure there’s an excitement that comes from seeing our protagonist be very strong (I guess), but when the fight has no rawness to it, no intensity to it and just no physicality or even action going on in it then it gets boring. Especially when Aizen or Ichigo or other characters take the time to be impressed by Ichigo’s power or explain how he’s going to destroy Ichigo or how he can still be even stronger, then the fight not only becomes boring but also annoying because there’s too much talking going on on top of the lackluster action sequences.
Both characters have immense power and yet instead of going at it and amping up the tension, the fight is instead riddled with pointless yammering and attacks that only serves to show off how powerful one character is over the other. One Punch Man is a show that doesn’t really have any tension whenever it’s protagonist Saitama is on the screen, but when he fights people you just feel it. You feel the power of the punch through the animation, through the nonstop pace of the fight and the UMPF of every attack. Ironic in Bleach as both characters show off explosive attacks, yet neither ever deals any blows with that certain UMPF that Attack on Titan or Gintama possesses. And say what you will about Sword Art Online and Kirito, but at least, when the boy attacks and cuts at his enemies you can feel it as a viewer. In Aizen and Ichigo’s fight, explosions and giant beams destroy the Earth but it just feels flashy. It’s like that one episode of SpongeBob Square Pants where SpongeBob buys those fake muscly arms. Yeah, he looks good and strong with them on, but it’s all just for show.
Now compare this to Sakata Gintoki’s fight against Takasugi Shinsuke during Gintama’s Shogun Assassination Arc. Neither character has any kind of special powers or techniques that they’re pulling out and showing off, it’s just two dudes brutally duking it out, one with a normal samurai sword and the other a wooden one. Each hit has a BOOM. Each slash has a CRUNCH and splash of blood and, what’s more, is that they’re both taking damage. They’re both slowly dying in the process of their fighting, there’s the tension I mentioned earlier and then there’s that UMPF that each swing and hit just radiates. You feel the characters’ hate, their sorrow, their desperate need to win and their resolve to fight and again, it’s just two samurais fighting with swords, fists and whatever they can use to put the other one down.
It’s not about the blood or the power that a character possesses, it’s the rawness of a fight that matters. At least to me. Flashiness can be amazing and entertaining, but there’s just more of an emotional pull that comes from a fight with weight and UMPF. Going back to the realm of live-action films and looking at the final battle in Revenge of the Sith between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker—the two had an epic duel that spanned for several minutes, they jumped around on lava and swung on ropes and made fancy light saber twirls… but it felt too choreographed, it felt too much like a dance and it felt hollow. And the sad part is that their fight could have been great and dramatic. Too bad that it boiled down to mindless fighting and flashy dancing. Compared to when Luke faced off against Vader in Jedi, there was anger, hate and each strike of the saber could be felt through Mark Hamill’s acting and real attacks. Sure it was slow and non-ninja like but it felt intense.
Don’t know what I’m talking about here? Just go and play a competitive sport. Or have a fist fight with your best friend. It’s about adrenaline. It about the hits you take and give, the blood pumping from excitement and that very feral and base warrior instinct that plenty of us have. Go ahead and have it with a friend, you’ll know exactly what I mean because you’ll feel strangely energized. And that’s something I look for in a show’s fight scene. Am I getting up and jumping around like an overly excited idiot? No? Then the fight scene probably sucked.
One of my favorite anime fights of all time is the fight between Luffy and Usopp from One Piece. Right from the start, everyone in the show and audience knew that there was no way that Usopp was going to win against Luffy, that Luffy could punch Usopp once and our pointy nosed sniper was going to go down easily. But no, when that fight happened, there were a lot of emotions going on in it. Usopp had a disagreement with his captain and he was willing to put his place in the Straw Hat crew on the line to defend his decision, even if it means defying Luffy and fighting him one-on-one. There was the tension previously mentioned, the ferocity and impact displayed by every trap, trick and shot Usopp dishes out onto Luffy and Luffy unleashes onto Usopp that I’ve already talked about as well. And shattering along the bones and organs of our two fighters was their friendship, the brotherhood they’ve forged over the course of their lengthy journey—this all then results into a fight that’s not only intense but also a rather sad one.
Now of course not every fight needs to have this level of drama to it, but there is undeniable fact that a fight between friends, friends who don’t even really want to fight each other but feel like they have to, has an impact to it that the flashiest laser beams or most explosive punch could compare to in terms of intensity and exhilaration. A non-anime/manga example of this is the final battle between Captain America and Ironman in the Civil War comic from a while ago—(might be spoiler-ish for the movie, but I’m not sure if it’ll play out like this so here it goes anyway). Towards the end of the decisive battle between Cap’s team of heroes and Stark’s group, Cap manages to beat his friend down to the ground. There was already a lot going on in this fight between these two characters, these two friends, but as Captain America delivers blow after blow to a nearly defeated Ironman, American civilians tackle Cap and attempt to drag him away from Tony Stark. Cap tells the civilians that he’s fighting for freedom and for them, but the civilians beg for him to stop anyway, as their city is laid to waste in this pointless Hero Vs. Hero grudge match. It was then that Cap calls an end to all the fighting and surrendered. It wasn’t a Repulsor Blast or a powerful K.O. punch that defeated Cap, it was the realization that he was in the wrong and the subsequent heartbreak he felt as the civilians begged him to stop. He could have recovered from a physical attack, but this hit home. And it hit hard. Again, it wasn’t flashy or anything, it was just sad and Cap couldn’t take it anymore and allowed a police officer to handcuff him.
Now I don’t have any exact parallels of this in anime, and the drama stirred by two friends fighting or family members duking it out might be overplayed but done well, it really does leave an impression. The tension is not only heightened even more when we like the characters that we’re watching, or if the show properly established their past relationship with each other before (sometimes even during) the fight. And of course, friends or family fighting isn’t the only way to create drama in a fight, going along with tension and weight, the fear of failure is not a bad emotion to play with as well. An impending sense of doom or just about anything that triggers an emotional response from the audience could work really well.
A battle between ideologies between two well meaning people could work as a similar point of drama as well, because a fight doesn’t just have to be about beating the other person in a contest of strength and skill, it can also be about something less physical. Another non-anime/manga example is seen in The Dark Knight (and pretty much any good Batman Vs. Joker storyline). Batman could beat The Joker up in a fight any day of the week, but what makes their fights so intense is that Joker knows that he can’t physically overcome the Bat, and so what he does is target who Batman is as a person. He knows that killing against Batman’s code, and so he purposely performs the most heinous acts just to break him down to his level, to force him to kill. Because if The Joker could break Batman’s code, he would have won a more important battle. Batman could break The Joker’s bones mercilessly but if The Joker breaks his code, his sense of morality, The Joker destroys Batman as a person.
Just because there’s two people fighting and being animals, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be something deeper going on inside them either from a character perspective or story telling perspective. Again, going back to Gintama, Gintoki and Takasugi’s fight wasn’t just about the two of them fighting because Gintoki wanted to protect the Shogun, it was also about how they’ve hated what the other has become. Gintoki and Takasugi lost their teacher in the most heart breaking way, but while Gintoki has decided to live a life of peace, following their teacher’s lessons, Takasugi has gone down a violent path of destruction and revenge. Gintoki hates Takasugi becomes sometimes I have a feeling that Gintoki wishes that he too could just exact revenge the same way his old friend is doing and Takasugi hates Gintoki for not doing anything about their teacher’s death. And that right there is drama.
I think that tension, flow, impact and drama are elements that make a good fight scene, but as stated earlier not every fight scene needs to have these things. One Punch Man is a great example of showing off fun and exciting scenes—though it is rather formulaic in that every fight begins with Genos or other heroes fighting an overpowered villain and ends with Saitama showing up to one punch the enemy to oblivion—is that good writing? No, it’s really not if you think about it. But the animation, the fun music, and the impact (and UMPF) are there to create something fun. And sometimes that’s all a show needs.
What I talked about here are just some of the things that make for writing effective fight scenes. Use them how ever you will. You want to write something dramatic intense and picked something up from what I wrote? Have at it. You just wanted to read analytic stuff that involves anime? You’re welcome I guess. Point is, I really like anime and as someone who went to school to study literature and story-telling instead of just being a Cinema Major and figuring out how to use a camera and edit video stuff, I really enjoy picking apart anime and stories and such.
Non-anime people may laugh and scoff at the thought of analyzing something as childish as anime and fans might crucify me for looking at their favorite animes through a critical lens while telling me to stop taking anime too seriously (right before they tell non-anime people that anime isn’t just for kids and that it’s serious adult stuff too), but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I like what I do. And I might do another analysis type thing, maybe harems or the laughable genre that is the shounen romance.