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Echo Station: Exploring Star Wars Beyond The Daily News


Virtual Edition's take on Yoda using two lightsabers A New Style?
Cultural Influences on Jedi Style Sword Fighting

by N.P. Jamilla
Published 6/11/00

Where will sword fighting go in Episode II? We explore the various cultural influences that will and must have a profound influence on Jedi sword work.

When director George Lucas approves the Jedi Style for the next movie, he will be drawing from fighting and fencing traditions that are decidedly Terran. At the forefront is Stunt Coordinator Nick Gillard, who composed and directed the fight scenes for Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He's at it again in Australia reportedly looking at martial arts clubs and kendo dojos for stunt people and swordsmen and women. The choice of who gets to train and perform for the fight scenes in Episode II will have a major impact on the style movie-goers see in Lucas' next installation of the Star Wars saga.

When Gillard created the sword fight scenes in Episode I, he had to combine fighting from many fighting arts and transform them into a novel and cinematically dramatic expression of Jedi sword fighting. Not only did he squash the pre-release skepticism among professional martial artists about the quality of the sword fighting, but he also created what most viewers regard as probably the most memorable scenes from The Phantom Menace.

Ray Park with Nick Gillard
Ray Park and Nick Gillard

Breaking from the kendo-based sword fighting already established in Episodes IV, V, & VI, Gillard created a faster, more refined style which was meant to establish the competence and plausibility of Jedi swordsmen in the futuristic, pseudo-fantastic world of the Star Wars. Lucas' final approval of Ray Park to play Darth Maul would guarantee a Chinese influence which is most notably demonstrated in the flying leaps found in Chinese martial arts and the fluid twirls of the double-edged lightsaber.

Where will sword fighting go in Episode II? Several rumors as well as statements made by George Lucas himself, producer Rick McCallum, and, most recently, by Hayden Christensen's tae kwon do instructor, have indicated cultural influences that will and must have a profound influence on Jedi sword work.

Most actors have little or no training in sword work or martial arts, and when they do, they usually take roles that best demonstrate the cultural history of their art. Jackie Chan and Jet Li create films that include Chinese cultural themes, Chuck Norris's films were thematically related to Japan and Okinawa, while Jean-Claude Van Damme films reflect international kick boxing. These martial artist actors reflect the culture of their art, while untrained actors, especially in traditional cutlass and broadsword films, learn choreographic routines, not martial arts -- which require years of training and a life-long pursuit.

With Hayden Christensen chosen to be the new Anakin, fans will be able to see glimpses of the perfect candidate for the role of a young Jedi in training. A recent article in the Ottawa Sun with 1992 Olympic silver medallist Sayed Najem gives some background of the martial arts crash course Christensen has taken to prepare himself before heading to Australia when shooting begins this summer. According to Rick McCallum, Christensen will be sent to what a Chicago Sun-Times reporter calls "Jedi boot camp."

One other rumor that compliments information on training for the upcoming film is talk about Makiya Yamaguchi, a student of Shorinji Kempo, a Japanese martial art that is both a fighting style and a religion. Here, as Ray Park did with Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and stunt doubles, another experienced martial artist may have a profound influence on what is seen on the silver screen.

Four Cultures

Gossip on the internet has revolved around four possible cultural influences -- Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Japanese. The first three may, in the end, have only a minor impact on Episode II Jedi fencing, while Japanese influences will probably get the rubber stamp from George Lucas, who made statements to Japanese audiences during the premiere of The Phantom Menace regarding the influence of Japanese culture on the next film. Specific references seemed to indicate his desire to employ Japanese actors. Into this fans and the media read "Japanese kendoists or swordsmen." Lucas has always admitted his indebtedness to the samurai films of the late director Akira Kurosawa, and he promises more of a Nipponese influence in his next two installments.


No practicing martial artist can deny the profound influence Ray Park's wu shu background has had in Episode I. An experienced martial artist can see it in his stance, his precision, and acrobatic movements. Chinese staff, whose closest influence on Ray Park can be seen in Mortal Combat, gave significant inspiration to fighting in Episode I. Similarly, Chinese broadsword stances and movement will remain an indelible mark on the apprentice Sith Lord.

But what happens in Episode II may be light years apart from the fighting we saw in Episode I. Darth Maul represented a sort of rogue training in lightsaber fighting, a style which Qui-Gon Jinn ascribes to that of a Sith Lord. Did Maul begin training at the Jedi Temple? Or did he go through training with a secret master? What has his role been before his climactic demise? [If Darth Maul's "Journal," a children's book, is to be believed, Maul was found as a boy and brought up by Sidious who taught him in secret. -Ed.]

So will Chinese martial arts have an influence on the next film? Possibly a good deal more than was previously thought. Rumors have vacillated back and forth on whether Park will return. Definitely not as Darth Maul, Lucas insists. Will he help train? Could he become a Jedi? Or will it be a cameo? One thing Lucas would want to avoid is upstaging a new villain with a familiar face. With Ray Park, many skills and talents were added to the Sith Lord's choreographic repertoire, but unless another Chinese martial arts instructor of his caliber joins the training team for Christensen and the reportedly hundreds of stunt actors, the imprint of the Middle Kingdom will probably be limited to The Phantom Menace. Given Ray Park's performance, that's not such a bad legacy, and certainly he makes Gillard's job in Episode II that much more difficult.


It is in this area of sword fighting that the most interesting rumors have begun to beguile fans looking forward to seeing Yoda participating in sword fight scenes. has credited a source who has seen conceptual art of Yoda wielding not a single lightsaber, but two shorter versions. The same post then gives a short description of the Filipino martial art called arnis, also referred to as escrima or kali.

Many, prima facie, would not even entertain the idea that such a diminutive creature imbued with the Force such as Yoda would rely on physical prowess, but there is little physical prohibition on a person of Yoda's stature from fighting either with or without a lightsaber. Smaller fighters are generally faster, have a stronger center of gravity, and can easily slip under arms, even legs. Targets to groin, knee caps, ankles, and the throat are open -- targets a taller person is not used to protecting. In regard to weapons, it is not the physical stature of the person that determines victory as much as it is his or her skill -- the precise reason that swords have remained the principle combat weapon for millennia. A person of Yoda's size holding a regular length lightsaber could wield it as human armies once used halberds, spears, and war hammers against horsemen.

And yet the countervailing theory exists that perhaps Yoda, as he showed when he lifted Luke's X-wing from the swamp with minor prestidigitation, might choose not to use a weapon in favor of bolts of energy as the Emperor did in Return of the Jedi. This hypothesis has a good rationale behind it, but from a cinematic point of view it would be much more visually exciting to see Yoda in combat mano a mano than to see him standing on the sidelines directing Jedi into battle. Besides, Yoda does indeed have a lightsaber (as, presumably, do all Jedi), which logically leads to the conclusion that he knows how to use it.

A muppet and a rich guy
Lucas with Yoda

So could Yoda use techniques similar to arnis? Not a difficult idea to imagine. The arnis martial artist is known as the escrimador. He or she holds either one or two sticks a little more than three feet long in front of the body. Movement of the weapons is done in a circular figure-eight motion that requires strong and flexible wrists, much resembling the flowing motion seen in nunchakus. In order to hit an opponent, the hand guides the stick to the target in rapid and successive strikes that can either inflict sharp pain on muscle or can break smaller or more delicate bones. Strikes to the wrist can disable a fighting arm, hits to the head can cause trauma, bloody lacerations, and psychologically break an opponent's fighting spirit.

Proponents of the art make the assertion that with advanced practice, the basic movement from armed arnis to empty-handed or sword armed techniques can be effectively bridged. This is a characteristic of a complete martial art system. Effectiveness in transferring skills, however, comes from an equal amount of practice in the variant style. Therefore, being able to fight arnis-style by simply taking away the sticks would not be effective without extensive training. Similarly, replacing the sticks with swords requires additional training because the escrimador has to learn to cut with the sharp edges of the blades.

So would it be possible for Yoda to fight arnis-style? Absolutely. Combined with telekinetic powers, Yoda could easily fly through the air, make parries, beat-attacks, and then cut into an opponent. A digitized Yoda combined with puppeteering skills remains the greatest obstacle. The technology is there, and yet there is still the question in purists' minds whether the scene in The Phantom Menace where Yoda walks as he talks to Obi-Wan was convincing. Magicians at ILM have recently finished test footage, and if George has his way, Yoda will do more than hobble on a gimer stick.


A new spotlight of news comes from an interview with Lebanon-born Canadian Sayed Najem, who tells about the training he's given to Hayden Christensen. Christensen isn't leaving anything to chance, training for a week with the 1992 Olympic silver medallist in "blocks, punches, and kicks." While no amount of training in one week will make the future Anakin by any means proficient in tae kwon do, it is an easier task to teach fighting competence than it is to train a heart, spirit, and mind into a seasoned veteran, no matter how great Christensen's genuine eagerness.

Najem fauns over his student, waxing that Christensen is "focused" and "learns fast." What else would an instructor say? But probably most encouraging to martial artists is Najem's declaration that Christensen is both "humble and quiet." Whether it comes from a fighting insecurity or a true personality trait, there's nothing like sincerity when it comes to training a student. Perhaps this is an element that estranges Anakin from Obi-Wan.

And what about tae kwon do? How will that affect sword fighting in the next movie? Probably in movement and stances. Tae kwon do is a competitive sport in which participants wear body armor. Stances are openly aggressive, sparring on the mat is a competitive exchange of punches, blocks, and kicks. Especially kicks, which seem the trademark of Korean martial arts. It requires umpteen hours of stretching and repetitive practice to make high kicks an effective weapon against the chest or head. Definitely a young man's (or woman's) sport, employing the best of youth's speed and reflexes for confrontation on the mat.

I don't care what martial arts discipline you're from, that's gotta hurt!
Maul's kick

One drawback is that kicks readily leave a cultural mark on film. Ray Park's kick to Obi-Wan's face is trademark wu shu. And when it comes to fists and kicks in Jedi style fighting, an open hand, telekinesis, and a lightsaber make for effective weapons against laser blasts. Ben's pause before he sacrificed his life on the Death Star and Qui-Gon Jinn's moment of serene contemplation as he awaits the power shield to open are both a far cry from a curt bow and tae kwon do stance.

Will Korean styles have an impact? Probably not on the sword work Christensen will be learning from Najem. There is no official tae kwon do sword in the competitive art's curricula, though there is a weapons tradition that is taught infrequently. And how much double-edged lightsaber fighting will a Jedi Padawan get from the Temple? Christensen's training will undoubtedly be a boot camp in regards to sword work. And even if he doesn't look that good, he's supposed to be a Jedi Knight in training.

Upon seeing stills of McGregor's lightsaber stances released before the premiere of Episode I, martial artists were highly critical. But how they (we) were all put to shame, and gladly at that, when the doors opened up for Lord Darth Maul at the Theed hangar bay. There will not be the same skepticism this time.


Probably the most significant development in Jedi sword fighting to date is the re-infusion of Japanese sword arts into the Star Wars universe. At the front of these rumors are three significant facts: 1) Lucas said in Japan that he was going to use more Japanese in the next film, 2) a rumor that Shorinji Kempo practitioner Makiya Yamaguchi may be a new Sith apprentice, and 3) McCallum's statement that Gillard and/or his people are checking out training halls in Australia for stunt people and kendoists.

During pre-Episode I rumor-mongering, there was unsubstantiated talk of possible pitched battles between Jedi and Mandalorian (i.e. Boba Fett) commandos. In the end, it turned out to be Federation Droids against Gungans. Again, in the pre-Episode II time period, there is rumor of Jedi fighting taking place. And this time there will be Mandalorian commandos.

From a chronological perspective, the manner in which the Jedi are "exterminated" is yet to be seen. For an order of knights that numbers into the thousands, how will they be destroyed by the Emperor? Swordsmen and women all over the world wait in anticipation. Sadly, they are to be wiped out by Darth Sidious and his forces, probably by a combination of political machination, deception, and mass executions. One would hate to see the Republic's elite defenders fall to opponents simply because they lacked sword fighting skills.

Three Estates

In discussing possible Japanese influences on Episode II, three different traditions fall neatly into a historical delimitation established by Europeans -- the Three Estates. Europeans historically divided their societies (especially France) into the First Estate -- the clergy, the Second Estate -- the nobility, and the Third Estate -- the commoners. In regards to Japanese martial arts, three fighting traditions fit neatly into this structure. Shorinji Kempo works well for the First Estate, kenjutsu (kendo) for the Second Estate, and karate for the Third Estate.

Karate -- Third Estate

Japan has always been organized into an enforced, stratified society. At the bottom were the commoners who were obligated by birth to raise food for the upper echelons of society. Theirs was an essential role in society which the upper classes understood; the nobility either went hungry if the farmers refused to produce, or they would be forced to deal with rebellions, which are numerous in Japanese history, when farmers felt their suffering and toil outweighed the threat of military suppression.

Historically speaking, the island people of Okinawa found themselves in a doubly difficult predicament. First, they were mostly farmers that lived in a subsistence society. Second, they were not of the Yamato blood stock from which high Japanese culture identifies itself as a unique race. When the Yamato clans of Honshu moved south, invading the island, the northern, battle-hardened armies strategically captured the island. Under tight military control, the Yamato banned weapons as a way to suppress Okinawan rebellion. The Ryukyu islanders, however, found creative ways to fight against their overlords by developing fighting skills based on farming implements. The bo, the Terran form of a double-edged lightsaber, was made from a common long staff.

Though it is now known that Christensen's training is actually in a Korean style, there are some similarities between the Korean and Okinawan styles that deserve consideration. Both are categorized as a "hard" style of fighting, employing powerful punches and kicks as a way to physically break the body of the opponent. Intensive training includes hardening the body to take repeated punishing blows as well as long hours of repetitive forms. Will Christensen go through long arduous training sessions? Perhaps he will, as Najem has supposedly signed on to train Christensen during filming in Australia.

If Anakin is trained in a Jedi tradition that follows a hard style, he might have to go through physical ordeals -- placing hands on burning surfaces, carrying massive weights, withstanding grueling blows to the body. The Empire Strikes Back gives us a diluted version of this kind of training in which stamina and conditioning are as important as developing telekinetic powers. But will Obi-Wan have to survive physical ordeals?

Obi-Wan already makes vague reference to the "trials" when he stood before the Council, but we do not know whether they are physical or mental tests. One example of a Jedi trial is Luke's entry into the cave on Dagobah. But that experience raises more questions than it answers. Is it a mental test? Is it a test every Jedi goes through? Is it a psychological confrontation? Or simply a convention Lucas uses to foreshadow the fact that Luke is the son of Darth Vader?

Shorinji Kempo -- First Estate

Makiya Yamaguchi
Makiya Yamaguchi

The development of this rumor is probably the most interesting from a cultural perspective. A "trusted" source from online magazine Aint It Cool News says that Makiya Yamaguchi may become the next Sith apprentice. There is no official confirmation, and the fact that Ray Park, with his almost absent acting experience, became Darth Maul leads most, in the very least, to entertain the possibility that Yamaguchi, with no known acting experience and even questionable English speaking skills, could be the next villain in Episode II.

The only reference to Yamaguchi as a martial artist is a statement that he is a student of Shorinji Kempo. "Shorinji" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Shaolin -- as in the Shaolin Temple style of fighting developed by Buddhist monks in China. "Kempo" refers to rules regarding the hand (or fist), roughly translated as "hand art" of fighting. Shorinji Kempo is the array of techniques established by So Doshin, the founder of the Japanese fighting art and religion.

Shorinji Kempo has a physical aspect (training a vigorous body), a martial aspect (self-defense techniques), and an ethical aspect (epistemology). According to Shorinji Kempo's homepage, the goal of training is to become "self-reliant" and to use the art's techniques for protection against aggressors by limiting injury to an opponent.

The organization of Shorinji Kempo is done according to rank and title, and students who dedicate and commit themselves to the art learn and accept responsibility to continue training in the physical as well as organizational aspects of the religion. Historically, Asian governments have developed a political suspicion toward self-defense trained orders of monks. Because of their religious fervor and cultural impact on society, governments have often suppressed religious orders by brutal means. Both Japan and China have had anti-clerical policies that did exactly this. Despite attempts to restrain, even exterminate, these religious orders, their zeal has allowed them to survive.

In terms of the physical activity of the Shorinji Kempo, practitioners wear a white practice uniform which generally has the reversed swastika on its lapel during training. For demonstrations, a black, sleeveless garment tied by a thick fabric rope is also worn. Members bring hands together with a bow that closely resembles what an American would consider an Indian greeting. In practice, they take a strong stance with a closed fist held back and an open hand held forward. Fighting consists of punches, kicks, and arm locks given in a very rapid and fluid manner. What distinguished Shorinji Kempo from most throwing arts is the fact that training is ideally done on a wooden floor, not a padded mat. There is also weapons training with staff, the traditional walking stick with a rings attached to one end. It is not taught in the regular curriculum though there are groups that train with it.

Shorinji Kempo - who needs weapons?
Shorinji Kempo

Shorinji Kempo has a very stylized fighting form both in stances and execution of attacks. It has a strong rhythm of movement, and if it used in its pure form in Episode II, it would give a cinematic endorsement to a single style of fighting. The fighting would be dynamic and entertaining, and from a philosophical standpoint the religious trappings of the art most closely resembles the monk-like characteristics of the Jedi order. If Yamaguchi were to become a Sith apprentice, acrobatic feats and an energetic style would give him an unprecedented opportunity to show off Shorinji Kempo skills. The single most basic quality lacking in this style is the dearth of weapons techniques.

Still, the fact that organized monks can become a threat to monolithic human governments falls right in line with the political rise of the Emperor on Coruscant -- who would use the propaganda of the Jedi knights as a threat to the New Order of the Empire to gain allies and then institute a policy of Jedi annihilation. Similar repression befell the Knights Templar and even the purely religious order of Jesuits for a short time in their history. Not only would an arsenal of Shorinji Kempo techniques give a new Sith nemesis a unique martial repertoire, the history of an order of fighting monks lends some credibility to Lucas' Jedi order.

Kenjutsu -- Second Estate

Of the three Estates, the most purely utilitarian warrior tradition was that of the samurai, the bushi, who used soldiers for the purpose of defending their political regime, a policy at the heart of every government. Samurai weapons were that of their class, the katana, or long sword, which is the cultural symbol of the Japanese aristocracy after the rise of the Feudal Lords, the daimyo. The cultural and visual influence on Lucas' universe is unmistakable in the silhouette of Darth Vader.

The skills of the sword are called kenjutsu, but in the late 19th century during the Meiji era, the usefulness of the sword as a weapon began to devolve into the sport which is today known as kendo. Kenjutsu refers to the sword used as a killing instrument; kendo refers to the skills of the sword used for both competition and character development. Kendoists wear armor to protect the head, chest, and upper legs, and hold a straight staff of four bamboo slats as an imitation sword. They wear a practice uniform, but over it is the hakama, the traditional garb of the samurai class.

It is from this tradition that Star Wars sword fighting is most influenced. The style is most clearly seen in Star Wars: A New Hope, and has evolved through the second and third movies. Its influence, because of Ray Park's background, was diminished in Episode I so much that even Sean Diamond, stunt coordinator for the first three movies, was surprised and taken aback when he saw The Phantom Menace. He clearly expresses his dissatisfaction by saying that he didn't understand why Lucas did not follow the style already established in the first three films.

So what will sword fighting in Episode II be like? If it is true that kendoists are being chosen to play the part of Jedi in the new movie, there is more of a chance that fighting will resemble those from Japanese samurai films. There will be fights with more than just two Jedi and a Sith Lord. One can easily imagine training scenes at the Jedi Temple on Coruscant and battles against stormtroopers, if they make their appearance in the next movie. And, of course, there is the hopeful yearning of many fans for more background on the true origins of Boba Fett, a minor character that has inspired so much enthusiasm simply because he wears cool armor.

The movement of kendo makes for a dramatic performance, especially when done by skilled men and women. It is, like all of the other martial arts, a series of movements that come from decades of practice. Classical movements bear the Japanese characteristic of strong, rigid stances, and there is considerably less movement in Japanese martial arts both with weapons and empty-handed styles which may be attributed to a subtle economy of movement associated with the samurai class -- a more sober activity than the dynamic and powerful movement of Okinawan and Korean martial arts.

Would using kendo make for good cinematic sword fighting? Watch any Kurosawa film and you will understand why Lucas pays so much homage to the Japanese director. What makes the potential of Episode II different from previous films is the fact that Lucas will be using real swordsmen, or at least their competitive brothers, to play the roles of Jedi knights, bringing about a new level of authenticity to Jedi sword fighting. In Episode I, Ray Park brought his individual skill to the screen. In Episode II, we will see sword fighting on a larger scale.

The Hard Road of Training

How will training for Hayden Christensen take place? That is not certain yet, but surely he will be in good company, and he follows the impressive work of Ray Park. Around him will be experienced kendoists and stunt men. Christensen is new to the arts, but in a way it makes him the perfect learner, one with little or no training at all. He's young, and in training with Najem, Christensen will become a Jedi. It is his first step into a larger world.

How much the sword fighting will take center stage is still in the making, and as fans have given near universal approval to the lightsaber fight scenes in The Phantom Menace, it is patently clear that the action and presence of the sword fight is still alive and well in the hearts of new generations. No one can forget the profound sense of presence when Qui-Gon Jinn dropped to his knees in the Japanese form of sitting called seiza. It was the lull before the storm, a prelude to the tragedy that can befall a heroic swordsman.

If the fall of one Jedi Master has such a profound effect on a single apprentice, one can only imagine how the story will unfold when the very Jedi Council is threatened with extinction at the hands of a rising Emperor. While stories of old last because of their inherent universality, Star Wars fans all over the world await with bated breath the ultimate fall of the Jedi.


Christensen's Training:
     Ottawa Sun
     Chicago Sun-Times
     Aint-It-Cool News
Other Related Links:
     "On Becoming a Jedi" by N.P. Jamilla
     "Jedi Style: Swordfighting in SW and TPM" by N.P. Jamilla
     Star Wars Lightsabres, Robert Brown (AUS)
Photo Credits
     Yoda with double lightsabers -- Roderick Vonhögen
     Shorinji Kempo -- Shorinji Kempo HQ Homepage
     Yamaguchi -- Aint-It-Cool News
     All others -- LFL

(N.P. Jamilla is a novelist and teacher at the Newport School in Kensington, MD. In November 1997, he was approved by Lucasfilm Licensing to submit stories to the now defunct West End Games. He has just completed his most recent fantasy novel, Montani Chronicles, about a Roman tribe that survives into the Renaissance. He graduated from Georgetown University and competed in the 1987 World University Games and the World Fencing Championships and holds dan ranking in aikido, jodo, and kendo. He is presently working on a script for a feature-length independent film that will cast this fall and film the summer of 2001. It will include cross-cultural sword fighting. This summer he will teach two novel-based 2-week summer camps combining research paper writing (am) and fencing (pm) for 5th - 12th grades. The first camp will read Hamlet, the second The Phantom Menace.)

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