there is a character by the name of Saito Hajime in Rurouni Kenshin (or Samurai X) (also the author is terrible person) who is notable for having a single move with minor variation depending on the situation, that being a highly exaggerated charging sword thrust, and supposedly based on a technique practiced by the actual Saito Hajime in real life where you take an extra step and let go of the right hand to extend your reach during a stab. This got me wondering, when and how should one blur the line between realistic and stylistic? And is there a merit to “master one technique to perfection” ala “I fear the man who trained one kick a thousand times”?
Bruce Lee’s line, “I fear the man who trained one kick a thousand times” isn’t actually related to one trick ponies or people who practice and master one technique. What it actually means is, “I fear the person who has mastered the basics more than the person who went out and learned all the flashy, superficial shit.” People who come from a martial arts backgrounds and have been in martial arts schools all know the kind of person Lee is referring to. In the real world, you can’t create a workable fighting style off one single technique, no matter how good that technique is. Lee’s quote doesn’t exist to validate Shounen anime’s obsession with the one trick pony. (There’s a reason why One Punch Man is brilliant and hilarious satire.)
That said, the Signature Technique has it’s place, every martial arts practitioner is going to have techniques they gravitate towards, like better, and, as a result, practice more than others. This becomes the best technique in their arsenal because they put the most effort into it, and, in the end, they can become over reliant on it. They might even neglect other, crucial techniques they need to be successful.
You see this one all the time in real life with martial artists from different schools. A good example is Taekwondo practitioners who spar regularly, most of them can’t guard their face for the life of them because TKD sparring is almost totally kick based. (This is because you get 2 points if you land with a kick to the body versus one with hands. Hands to the head is 2, but with a kick is 3.) Instead, their hands will gravitate down or they’ll grab their pant legs and hike them up to lift the hem out of the way of their feet. This is bad, they know its bad, and they do it anyway.
As for when to blur the line between reality and fiction, you answered your own question when you were looking into the real Saito Hajime and a technique he was said to practice. It’s right here, from your question, of what made Saito’s technique unique, “an extra step and let go of the right hand to extend your reach during a stab.“
This, right here, is the reality that justifies the fiction. The justification isn’t actually that this technique was real. The detail alone justifies every artistic decision built off of it. Realism is in the ability to explain what is happening and why in detail.
Part of what makes Saito Hajime feel so real as a character is his ability to explain his technique, his methodology, and his beliefs to the audience. The details of Saito’s technique elevate it and these details resonate with our understanding of reality. As we, the audience, gain understanding, the technique feels more plausible. More importantly, we, the audience, see Saito’s singularly focused, unrelenting, determined personality reflected in his technique and this helps us understand his character better. Our newly formed understanding further cements the character as a “real” person in the context of the narrative.
Saito is a master class in how to marry a character’s identity to their martial combat style and an excellent example of how to manifest that philosophy through the techniques they practice.
Saito is the only character in Rurouni Kenshin who singularly practices one simple technique. The other characters have specialties and preferences, but they all practice a range of different attacks or use different body parts to execute variations on a technique. Not Saito, Saito has one technique with extremely minor variation and he would not be believable at all if his character did not support this decision 110%. Saito’s technique represents his black and white worldview, his religious adherence to the Shinsengumi code, “Aku Soku Zan” or “Slay Evil Immediately.” The thrust itself is beautiful poetry for Saito because the thrust requires total, unflinching commitment without reservation or hesitation. By putting his whole life on the line for one brilliant strike, Saito slays evil immediately.
Saito’s extreme specialization is the artistic rendition of “show, don’t tell” or “exposit, don’t explain.”
You can’t get to where Saito is without understanding the risks involved with certain techniques and building a character’s personality around their decision to take those risks. This is why reality is important because real world applications for techniques inform their meaning and that meaning travels into fiction. You don’t need a background in iaijutsu or kenjutsu to grasp the risks involved in Saito’s thrust. However, understanding can be helpful to recognize the way he commits his whole body into the strike means any mistake or miscalculation will get him fucked. This plays into the high risk, high reward nature of his combat style. That high risk approach is where the narrative builds tension into his fights. Rurouni Kenshin’s narrative never forgets extremes have their costs.
You can go a long way with detail and a functional martial philosophy to justify a character’s actions/beliefs within the story. You need reality to provide the little technical details to make your stylistic desires functional and believable. Saito’s technique enhances his believability but only because the technique itself can be drawn so realistically from the historical record. This is to say, you need to understand violence to effectively write violence, or, at the very least, be able to draw from the experiences of others in your own research to effectively create the simulacra.
TLDR: A detailed lie is better than incoherent gibberish.
Remember, though, One Trick Ponies aren’t believable alone. They can be made believable by a narrative that supports them. Kenshin’s Saito can get away with a lot because he isn’t the narrative’s main character, he doesn’t have to bear the burden of consistently facing new challenges, coming up with new approaches, or revealing new techniques to keep audience engagement. He can show up, do his thing, fight a couple of enemies, make a few small changes, and leave. This gives Saito more freedom to have a singular focus than a character who has to shoulder multiple story arcs across two hundred or three hundred chapters.
While it’s not a discussion I want to get into right now, there’s a larger conversation to be had about marrying a character’s martial combat style, techniques, and perspective to the culture within the narrative. (If you’re looking for inspiration to snarf, Saito is not a character who is going to travel well outside of Japan because the details supporting his approach to violence are uniquely Japanese, including his “one holy technique” approach. The Japanese have a very ceremonial, very formalized, almost religious approach to combat that you don’t see outside of Japan.)
The real Saito’s technique had actual practical applications within the sphere of the Japanese sword arts. The goal of his technique was to gain greater reach over his opponent. Saito sacrificed power by losing the second hand but gained reach, meaning that in a head to head he could hit his opponent sooner while his opponent came up short or he’d have more mobility in his upper body to turn sideways and avoid taking their sword strike to his upper body. Basically, he sacrificed power for reach and upper body flexibility/mobility much like a rapier duelist. He likely utilized the second step as a way to gain momentum and minimize the power lost by giving up the second hand. Sacrificing the second hand also freed it up for maintaining balance, meaning he could move more quickly. A body on a 45 degree angle maintains balance better than a body that’s forward facing. (He also didn’t have to puncture or punch through armor, so that’s there too.)
This strike demonstrates a mentality of someone looking to gain an extreme advantage over their opponent and, given his reputation, probably did exactly that. It’s a battlefield mentality, a survival calculus, “how can I do the most damage to my enemy while taking the least amount of damage possible (preferably no damage.)” This is the mindset of a real person who wants to live. As you can see, that’s a very different application than the fictional Saito but the real world usually requires more cunning and flexibility. You’re also seeing the reasoning for why the rapier overtook the longsword. The stronger attack doesn’t equal the more effective one. What matters is what your power does to your opponent rather than the simple factor of power you possess.
If you want to see a Japanese creator whose characters do get approximated and successfully adapted into Western media (in part because they were adapted from Western media), I’d suggest looking at the Hollywood adaptations of Kurosawa’s work.
Everyone blends style and reality from formalism to realism. You find the place between the two lines that fits your narrative and works for you and you live there. The only way to figure out where you fall on the spectrum is through trial and error. Failure is part of learning.
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