Occasionally life takes a turn and one’s personal martial arts training gets moved to the back burner. The last couple of weeks have been like that as my wife and I have been engulfed in a seemingly unending move. It certainly could have been worse as on paper it was a just a short hop up the road to a new apartment complex. Still, one should never underestimate the utter devastation that is unleashed by a stack of cardboard boxes and a U-Haul van.
At times like this I find myself envying Buddhist monks and other individuals who have walked away from the concept of material possessions. My weakness, unsurprisingly, is books. And it seems that a very large percentage of these books feature images of martial artists on their covers.
Unfortunately, all of those books are still sitting in neatly labeled, identical, 12 inch by 12 inch moving boxes. It will be a couple of days before I get them set back up, and that is complicating my plans to take a deep dive into a few of key personalities of the Guoshu era. I am afraid that General Li Jing-Lin and the mysteries of Wudang sword will need to be patient.
But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking about the martial arts. As I sat down to watch some television last night I was once again struck by how many of the shows that I follow mention, portray or lampoon some aspect of the martial arts. In itself this is hardly a ground-breaking observation. Paul Bowman has spent the last few years attempting to remind students of Martial Arts Studies that you cannot really understand the spread, or even the social meaning, of these practices in the Western world without first accepting that almost all of us first learned about, and developed an interest in, these fighting systems through various types of media.
My own work on early ephemera and newspaper accounts can be understood in large part as an attempt to extend these same basic observations to the pre-television era. When you think about the number of newspapers that middle class Americans used to read, or the huge number of opera performances that individuals in southern China used to attend, it becomes doubtful that there was ever a time in which the martial arts existed in a pristine state of “pure practice,” apart from any sort of cultural representation. Nor can we ignore the ability of these second order discussions to frame and give meaning to what we often consider to be intensely personal experiences.
Certain aspects of this phenomenon have been well explored. Film studies students have discovered the cultural value of the Kung Fu and Wuxia genres. Students of cultural studies have taken these same films and asked how they inspired a generation (or more) of movie goers to think differently about questions of race, gender and resistance in the tumultuous 1970s. I literally cannot count the number of martial artists of my age or older who have told me in interviews that they were inspired to take up the practice of the Chinese martial arts (and Wing Chun) because of Bruce Lee.
There can be no doubt that we have made great progress in learning how to study martial arts in the media. But sometimes it is more fun to sit back and think about which shows students of martial arts studies should be paying attention to. I do worry that some of our discussions on this subject are not keeping up with what the youth are watching these days.
In fact, young people are causing a lot of consternation in the traditional martial arts community. They are just not showing up in as great a number as they used to. Some even assert that kids these days are just not interested in the martial arts.
I do not think that this is true. While fewer martial arts students under the age 30 talk about Bruce Lee as a major influence in their lives, most of the ones I deal with still watch films like Ip Man. It is also becoming increasingly clear that other mediums, specifically video games and animated TV shows, are providing these younger practitioners with their first exposure to the martial arts. These are media products that currently receive much less attention in Martial Arts Studies discussions.
To inspire increased engagement with this sort of material, the following post reviews my top five shows dealing with the martial arts. To be interesting any such list requires some ground rules. Contrary to what the title suggests I am not only interested in animated features coming from Japan . Yet I would like to explore the larger discussion of the martial arts that this specific genre seems to have inspired. Thus my list includes both animated TV programs and graphic novels produced in Asia and North America which draw at least some of their stylistic cues from anime.
I am, however, more serious about the title’s second clause. This genre features a vast number of stories that explore the martial arts in the context of supernatural adventures, historical political intrigue or battles of good versus evil (or maybe just good versus space aliens). Some of my personally favorite shows, like Dragon Ball Z or Cowboy Bebop, would fall into this group.
The current list is restricted to those projects that focus a notable amount of attention on the process of learning a martial art, or interacting with other martial artists in some sort of training environment. I also tried to pick shows that generated a decent fan following and avoided titles that were too obscure. Lastly, I tried to choose stories that were genuinely fun and enjoyable. That way we can all claim to be doing “serious research” as we binge watch some great TV! My hope is that a deeper exploration of these shows will reveal something about the evolving place of the martial arts in popular culture, as well as the subtle, often unspoken, expectations that young people bring to the training hall today.
- Hajime no Ippo
Like many Japanese anime, Hajime no Ippo exists in multiple formats. The long running story began life as a serialized manga in 1989. In 2000 (and again in 2009) it was transformed into an extremely popular animated television series. The narrative follows the transformation of Ippo Makunouchi from a shy, often bullied, high school student to a professional boxer vying for the title of best in Japan.
While most of the stories in this list focus on traditional (or even mythical) fighting systems, Hajime no Ippo is firmly grounded in the world of modern combat sports. The long running series explores many aspects of training and sparring, as well as working one’s way up the professional ladder to get progressively better fights. Of course, the cultural world of the boxing gym is also explored.
I have never had a chance to watch the entire series, but the few episodes that I have seen (released in North America under the title Fighting Spirit by Geneon) have been good. This is a series with a lot of heart and it routinely makes the “best/most popular anime” lists. It earns a place on my list as it reminds us that the modern combat sports have long had a serious presence in Japanese popular culture and are no longer an exclusively Western phenomenon.
- Samurai Champloo
I suspect that many readers will already be familiar with my pick for the number four slot. Samurai Champloo seems to have captured a huge fanbase in the West that largely eluded the hard working (and maybe too earnest) Ippo Makunouchi. But the contrasts do not end there. While Hajime no Ippo is almost epic in length, Samurai Champloo is (by design) a much shorter and self-contained story. First aired in Japan during March of 2004, the entire arc finds completion in only 26 episodes.
The story follows three characters, Mugen a violent and freedom loving self-taught swordsmen, Jin, a traditionally trained samurai turned ronin and Fuu, a female who enlists their aid in an attempt to resolve a personal quest. While the training in some of the series reviewed here focuses on dojos and gyms, these social structures (which are present), take a back seat to the Japanese concept of the musha shugyō meaning “training in warriorship” or, more poetically, “warriors pilgrimage.”
These journeys were typically undertaken by young samurai who would travel from place to place in search of a Daimyo who might employ them. Along the way they would hone their skills by visiting various schools, seek out personal duels, work as bodyguards and basically struggle to survive in a hostile landscape without the support of their previous schools or social networks. The musha shugyō was discussed as an element of a warrior’s education by the likes of Miyamoto Musashi and several other classic writers.
Samurai Champloo is a brilliant piece of work. If you are not familiar with the series, drop everything you are doing and watch it now. But don’t expect a stodgy costume drama. Set at the start of the Edo era, the show’s designers and producers drew upon a decidedly hip hop vibe to convey to the audience that this was a period of Japanese history characterized by immense change. It was an era when no one was sure what the future would hold for social life, or the martial arts. Indeed, the show’s larger story arc explores this moment of transformation as it is experienced by two apprentice swordsmen, the fiery Mugen and impassive Jin. I have nothing but love for the soundtrack.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender
While the fifth and fourth place picks were both Japanese productions, Avatar: The Last Airbender successfully blended elements of North American and Japanese animation. Originally aired over a three year period on Nicktoons, this show proved to be wildly popular with a wide range of viewers that transcended it’s intended audience.
The highly awarded show followed a group of young friends caught up in a world at war. Each of the major cultures portrayed in the show drew inspiration for various real world Asian and New World civilizations. Since the story takes place in a period of conflict there is plenty of martial arts action. But some of the main characters can also psychically command the classic elements (a skill called “bending”) through the mastery of esoteric fighting forms that are transparently based on real world Chinese martial arts. Much of the plot revolves around the search for teachers and new skills, as well as a healthy dose of family drama.
Why does Avatar make the list? As I have conducted interviews over the last few years I have run into an increasing number of martial arts students in their 20s who have claimed it as a deciding factor in their decision to take up the Chinese martial arts. In an era when “reality” seems to dominate most tastes, the heavy borrowing of imagery from the more esoteric aspects of the Chinese martial arts seems to have set a generation of viewers on a very different pathway. Increasingly I am running into younger individuals who were inspired to take up Bagua, Taiji or other forms of Kung Fu after being fans of this show. If you were wondering what sort of media you might want to share with the next generation of Chinese martial artists it might be this.
Also, be sure to check out the program’s sequel, Avatar: the Legends of Korra (aired between 2012 and 2014).
2. Boxers & Saints
While all of the other stories reviewed so far made the jump to the small screen, Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang, remains a two volume graphic novel. Still, it is mandatory reading for anyone interested in the intersection of the traditional Chinese martial arts and popular culture. In fact, most martial arts history buffs will find a lot to like in these stories. But don’t let the art style fool you. These are dark, violent, and at times disturbing stories better suited to adult readers than children.
Of the two volumes (both excellent) I suspect that Boxers will probably resonate more with the readers of Kung Fu Tea. This story follows the journey of Little Bao, a peasant youth from Shandong, as his family slips into poverty due to natural disasters and the growing reach of German imperialism. Eventually Bao discovers two martial arts teachers (one of whom is dedicated to spirit possession magic) and becomes the leader of his village chapter of the Yihi Boxers, just as northern China erupts in an orgy of anti-Christian and anti-foreign violence.
The nature of the Boxer Rebellion makes for difficult story telling. Students of Martial Arts Studies will immediately note that Yang places opera performances at the center of village life and fully explores the tripartite connections between the area’s martial arts, spirit possession techniques and theatrical stories. Yang’s characters experience spirit possession as an objectively real phenomenon, though not one which never fully delivers on its promises of invulnerability or power.
The story is also told in such a way as to make it relevant to events today. In truth, this is not a stretch as many of the events of the Boxer Rebellion seem incredibly familiar when read in the context of today’s headlines. Discussing this aspect of the work Yang noted “in a lot of ways, I was trying to write the story of a young man who was essentially a terrorist, and I wanted him to be sympathetic, but I also didn’t want the book to feel like I was condoning terrorism. So it was kind of a fine line.”
Boxers and Saints is a must read for anyone interested in the history of the Chinese martial arts. Yang deftly navigates historically and ethically challenging terrain. And while its clear from the outset that the Boxer narrative will ultimately end in tragedy, Little Bao’s story still manages to elicit a surprising degree of suspense and empathy.
- Bamboo Blade
After Boxers and Saints you will probably be ready to explore martial arts instruction in an environment that is both less dark and a little more contemporary. Might I suggest Bamboo Blade? While not as artistically brilliant as Samurai Champloo, the series has a lot going for it. It follows the lives of five female students who find themselves anchoring their high school’s kendo club under the leadership of their (somewhat hapless) coach, Toraji Ishida.
Kendo can seem like a daunting sport to outsiders. It is not always fun to watch a highly competitive event when the rules and principles of the match are unclear. But this is never a problem with Bamboo Blade as the story’s writers will have you up to speed and following the action in no time.
This story is a unique addition to the list as it explores the martial arts as one might encounter them in a Japanese high school club in a somewhat realistic fashion. These extra-curricular institutions are a very important aspect of the school experience for Japanese youngsters and their approach to the martial arts is often a bit different from what you might find in a commercial school in America or a more traditional dojo in Japan.
I have a soft spot for this series as my first exposure to Kendo came when I joined a small martial arts club at the Japanese university where I studied as an exchange student. It was an eye-opening experience and I made some incredible friends. Yet this anime clearly deserves the top spot as it succeeds in capturing the day to day texture of martial arts training. Think of it as a “process drama” for the dojo.
Well, that is my “top five” list. What have I left out? Do you have a favorite cartoon, graphic novel or anime that deals with the process of learning a martial art? If so tell us in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this you might also want to see: Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu