Violence > Action

One of my favourite Japanese movies is a film by former comedian, now actor/director, Kitano Takeshi, entitled Hana-bi. Hana-bi is a gritty, minimalist cop drama about a broken down detective who takes revenge on the yakuza while his wife dies from leukemia. Hana-bi is, in my opinion, the best of Kitano’s minimalist crime dramas that he made in the ’90s, and the difference in tone between them and the manzai comedy he did at the beginning of his career, when he performed with the stage name “Beat Takeshi”, is the size of a chasm. I find Kitano an absolutely fascinating and creative human being: many of the ideas in Hana-bi‘s script were inspired by a near fatal motorcycle accident Kitano was involved in, and his subsequent rehabilitation. In his career, he’s done slapstick comedy, morose yakuza thrillers, sex comedies, sword fighting historical set pieces, romance fantasies, coming-of-age stories, cop movies, etc. The range in incredible. He once said in an interview that he never wants to be pigeonholed. I daresay he’s on track. (This post contains major spoilers for the tagged titles.)

The action sequences in Hana-bi are surprising because they’re so sudden, and contrast sharply with the otherwise serene atmosphere. Characters from the yakuza sit next to Nishi, the sullen detective that Kitano plays, at a bar to discuss his outstanding debts and midway through the conversation the mildest of verbal provocations results in Nishi stabbing one of one of the men in the eye with a chopstick, then kicking the other in the guts before calmly walking away. A flashback to a key event in the movie sees Nishi shoot a perpetrator he and some fellow officers were pursuing in the head… he walks up, inspects the carnage, and then proceeds to empty the rest of his clip into the already dead body. Nishi says what feels like five lines in the whole movie (OK, I’m exaggerating, but it’s only slightly more than that), but we get such a grasp of his despair from his actions. Everything is careful and deliberate and even Nishi’s most horrifically violent acts seem to be performed with a lucid sense of restraint and control. From a storytelling point of view, the portrayal of violence in Hana-bi speaks loudly.

Kitano Takeshi in Hana-bi

I have issues with the way action is often presented in anime. Too often, too much emphasis is placed on scale, rather than impact. Fight scenes are often repetitive and drawn out, as reused frames and blur effects are used to portray lengthy exchanges of rapid-fire punching or sword slashing, while the characters themselves barely move position. Shots cut upwards to show the full range of a set of explosions, rather than what happens at the core which is significantly more interesting, but also more difficult to render. Giant summon beasts, or monsters, or dragons or robots lumber and smash each other in slow, stilted motion. Opposing beams collide into each other, but then remain in a locked equilibrium, nudging only slightly one way, then the other, for an unbelievable amount of time. Then there’s the old cliched technique of two swordsmen sweeping past each other, giving both of them several seconds to strike a cool pose, raising the tension before it’s finally revealed just who won the exchange.

A lot of the techniques used in action anime are done so out of (for lack of a better word) laziness, as a cost effective way to create the illusion of chaos and intensity without actually having to portray much detail. The details, as well as the stakes, are instead told to us… which is why anime action scenes are often drenched in exposition, where neutral or static observers explain abilities, power levels and tactics. Fortunately, there are a few examples of anime that understand that it’s the violence which is more shocking, more moving or more meaningful than just standard action, which all too often feels like it’s there just to fill up minutes.

A sudden, unexpected moment that defined the entire series.

One particularly memorable moment came with by far the most shocking plot twist of Claymore. This is an anime which, when it comes to action, does a lot of the things I’ve already complained about. However, when the moment calls for it, it fortunately realizes that if you want to make an impact, it’s more effective to be sudden and graphic. When the show tells us Clare’s backstory, it gives us the important revelation that Priscilla killed Teresa when she released too much Yoki and became an Awakened Being. The moment was so surprising because, for much of the two episode long fight between these two, Teresa had the upper hand. Just as Priscilla had conceded defeat, she finally lost the last vestige of her humanity and attacked Teresa with a suddenness and intensity that she couldn’t anticipate or defend against. The moment was gruesome… we first see the look of hopelessness on Teresa’s face when Priscilla cuts off her hands, leaving her with no way to defend herself. Second later, Teresa’s head flies through the air which leaves us in no doubt as to what happened. The entire two episode fight was building up to this moment… the climax is over in mere seconds. It was a single event that defined the direction of the rest of the story.

Higurashi is a horror anime, which means its more interested in shock and impact than it is in scope. There’s not much in it that can be called “action” in the sense that Claymore subscribes to… the scenes of graphic brutality and torture are much more accurately describe as “violence”. There’s one scene that’s particularly resonant with the idea that, with execution and the right atmosphere, you can create just as much impact and tension with something small as with something large. From one point of view, the “Distinction” shown in ep 17 is simply Shion having her nails removed which, while painful, is much less damaging than being shot in the head or caught in the middle of an explosion (something anime characters seem to often survive *cough* Nunnally *cough* Code Geass R2 *cough*). However, the way the event is shown, from the threats against Kasai and Satoshi to the intimidating demeanor of her own sister, Mion, fills the moment with suspense. The act itself is thoroughly disturbing because you can’t help but imagine what it’d be like to be in Shion’s situation, forced to use a device of torture to remove her own fingernails. I always cringe when she gets to the second one and misses… her diminished fortitude from the intense pain of having removed the first one makes it difficult for her to perform the task. The build up and believability of the moment, and the graphic portrayal and psychological intensity makes the scene so shocking and cringe-worthy.

To sympathize with Shion while watching this makes it a torturous scene.

Action in anime tends to be about elaborate set pieces that aren’t all too carefully choreographed. The moments where a graphic or psychological aspect is emphasized, and the scope is scaled down and given a clear focus are often the more memorable. Impact is incredibly important in action, and the irony is that you can often increase impact by making events simpler, and also making the consequences of a given action clear and significant. The shounen action genre in particular is afflicted with fight sequences that last multiple episodes, caught in the same stalemate. This isn’t the way to go… it gets to a point where it becomes obvious that some fights leading to no result are, themselves, filler. If you want to move an action story along and do it with impact, it’s often best when the action sequences are short, consequential and bloody. A moment of graphic violence with clear consequences is almost always more memorable than just mere, drawn-out action.

6 Responses to “Violence > Action”

  1. I can agree with the idea that big flashy lights can be detrimental to overall impact, but I also think that at times the cool poses we see during a sword fight fall under a distinctly Japanese aesthetic taste. Because of this, I think the use of still images (seishiga; admittedly, I’m unsure of the English terminology, but am familiar with the term in Japanese) is both a boon and a bane at times.

    Action any do tend to draw out needlessly battle scenes, but I think that’s separate from a sort cinematic technique that I feel is distinctively Japanese in taste: namely the obliqueness involved in portraying scenes. Take for example a heated battle scene in which one decisive moment decides the winner and loser among two samurai. If all we see is a flash, some sound affects and two cool poses at the end, the end effect is not a lessening of impact, but rather a heightening of it.

    I give two reasons. First, the tension at the end and the moment of uncertainty draws the viewer’s attention. A technique used in film and animation across the world, this is obvious. Second, by insinuating what happened (as opposed to actually showing it), the viewer focuses on the emotions of the characters and by connection image what occurred at the height of battle, allowing the mind to bring what was a fictitious portrayal of a sword fight to the next level (in this case, animation exists on a non-referential world where the limits rest on human imagination). This second element is what I consider to be noticeably Japanese about Japanese animation.

    I guess the most obvious example to take from film would be Ozu. He doesn’t show us a rock or a vase during tense moments in his films just for fun, he does it to subtly imply the emotions of the characters on stage. Likewise, I feel animation can do this quite well at times (for example, many sports-related anime are absolutely excellent at employing repetitive moments and still images to produce a scene of considerable impact).

    In the end, I suppose the main question is how violence is related to action, and whether action is confined to physical action and the genre of “action anime”. Perhaps in the strictest terms, action anime too often draw out their battle scenes as you say. However, in another sense, action in anime can overall benefit from the “lazy” techniques you’ve pointed out.

  2. When I read this article, I can’t help but be reminded of Shiki’s episode 14. Yes, I’m talking about that scene.

  3. @Kylaran
    Unfortunately I’m not familiar with Ozu’s work. I’m willing to accept that the technique of showing two swordsman sweep past each other to strike cool poses and create a moment of tension is distinctly Japanese. I mean, it was a cool thing the first time I saw it… and even the second. But anime overuses it, IMO. I’ve seen it too many times, so it just doesn’t have the same impact anymore. I just about rolled my eyes when I saw it used in the FSN:UBW movie (although that movie was hurt significantly more by its terrible script, so I can’t say I was invested in what was happening).

    I was actually going to mention that scene, but this article was starting to get a bit long. It is a good example of an act of violence having more impact than any other scene in a given anime, IMO.

  4. Claymore? Higurashi? You have my attention.

    Something I love about Claymore (anime/manga) is its willingness to kill anyone, and I mean anyone (except Raki and Clare I guess) at any time with little fanfare, and it still manages to build a strong plot.

  5. I would say that anime often tends to have it both ways, in all honesty, even within the limited running length of the same episode, series or movie.

    Claymore’s a good example of this. And curiously enough, one of those nail scenes from Higurashi did have more of an impact on me than any of the other sequences that left behind horribly mutilated corpses.

    But, at the same time, I also tend to prefer scenes that deal with the dramatic or emotional aftermath of an event, period, regardless of what was its lasting impact in terms of violence and death. Even if the characters involved happened to survive in plausible or implausible ways that detract from the original visceral impact, there can still be interesting or at least exciting consequences.

    One might feel compelled to mention the regularly high body counts found in most of the works by Yoshiyuki Tomino as an example of how you can create memorable scenes of violence and death (or, occasionally, ridiculous scenes of violence and death that are nevertheless iconic), but it is worth pointing out that he wasn’t above and beyond creating or exploiting situations where people survived with little or no elaboration provided after the fact…and yet, further down the line, this wasn’t always entirely gratuitous (death awaited them anyway or they lived to play some other role in the story). Should he have always done otherwise and stuck to his “Kill ‘Em All” reputation all the way through?

  6. A part of me wonders if you’ve given action an unfair shake since you’ve taken the worst aspects of the genre and pitted against some of the best examples of violence available in Japanese media. I think the background story, presentation, and emotional context provided to the act of violence is what causes the strong reaction, and the violence is merely an aid to draw it out.

    Violence can be as wanton and pointless as action like a random decapitation in Fist of the North Star, the excessively cruel deaths in Ninja Scroll, or more recently, the maimings in Freezing. Action can be just as emotional and striking as violence like in the second duel between Griffith and Guts in Berserk, the final showdown between Amuro and Char in Char’s Counterattack, or the final fight scene in Voices of a Distant Star

    I admit that exactly how these two agents work are different. Violence unsettles the mind and pushes things into focus as one almost internalizes the acts unfolding on-screen. Action is more of a “rush” created by fancy spectacle. I don’t think neither is inherently superior to the other, but I admit that violence has a higher batting average but only because action is skewed towards a younger and overall more general/less discerning audience.

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