136 Words per Second

An Eye

Sometimes I like to pay (ridiculously) close attention to short stretches of animation, an activity I call, half in jest, ‘close reading’. This is one of those times.

This particular slice of animation is the second fight scene from the third episode of Seirei no Moribito (also known as Guardian of the Sacred Spirit), though I’ve attempted to ensure that this will be of some interest regardless of whether you’ve seen the show or not: the entry is lavishly illustrated and contains no major spoilers. It just so happens that this is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of animated action ever to have crossed my laptop’s screen, for reasons which will hopefully become clear shortly.

A little context: an incapacitated boy, Chagum, is about to be dispatched by Jin, an assassin. The whole scene takes place in what looks to me like a partially dried-up riverbed, during rain.

I: Close Reading

There are actually nine ‘shots’ (though this being animated, there’s no camera) that make up these eleven seconds of action:

Shot 1

A very brief image of the undergrowth; the heroine of the show, Balsa, bursts out of it at great speed. Note that we only catch a very brief glimpse of her here, and it’s only her legs which are ‘in camera’. Of course, we can easily guess that it’s her, because we, the audience, have been dying for her to turn up and save Chagum from his imminent death for the last minute.

Shot 2

A brief ‘reaction shot’ – Jin turns, shock on his face. Just previously we’ve seen a flashback, revealing the fact that he actually feels affection for Chagum himself. I think there is a certain amount of viewer sympathy for him at this point, especially since we’ve an intimation that he’s about to get EdgarAllenPwned.

Shot 3

Jin’s-eye-view of Balsa – she’s a vague blur. Two shining shapes rush towards us, almost coming out of the screen, but before we can figure out what they are . . .

Shot 4

Jin has deflected the throwing knives. They are actually drawn here, but this happens so fast that you don’t see them properly unless you pause the action. The impacts throw up sparks. Note that this is the same ‘point of view’ as shot 2, although a little more zoomed out – so far, we’ve really had the camera following Jin’s experience; as such, shots 1-4 dovetail neatly with Jin’s flashback which preceeded them.

Shot 5(a)

Shot 5(b)

Shot 8(c)

We finally get a proper, though brief, view of Balsa, rather than just her legs or a vague blur – this begins, like shot 3, from Jin’s perspective, but the ‘camera’ zooms in on Balsa’s face as she launches her spear. The spear is missing its head (it was lost earlier in the episode). The camera shifts from following Balsa’s face to tracking the flight of her spear through the air, finally depicting it knocking Jin’s blade out of his hands. Although this shot began with a ‘Jin’s-eye-view’ of Balsa, it ends with a ‘Balsa’s-eye-view’ of Jin. This is the point at which the camera begins to follow Balsa’s experience instead of Jin’s.

Shot 6

A very brief slice of traditional anime ‘rapid movement’ showing Balsa, head only, as she makes a few swift running steps.

Shot 7

Balsa’s foot launching her off the ground, and her hand picking up a large stone. Just long enough for the viewers to grasp what she’s doing.

Shot 8(a)

Shot 8(b)

Balsa lands on top of Jin, simultaneously knocking him out with the stone. She begins to collapse on top of his body, propelled by her momentum. Her loose ponytail flows sinuously down the centre of the screen as the shot finishes, which is a neat contrast to the extremely jerky movement of Jin’s head from near the centre of the images to near the left-hand edge, as she smashes the stone sideways against his skull. The camera is now firmly following Balsa, as everything from the second part of shot 5 onwards has centred on her.

Shot 9

The final moment of collapse. Balsa has previously in the episode sustained a life-threatening gut wound, as well as a wound from a throwing knife. For this shot the ‘camera’ is pulled much further away than it has been at any time previously in the sequence, signalling the end of the very detailed depiction of action, and allowing us a moment’s breathing space to contemplate the immobile bodies. There is a crash of thunder in the background, before Balsa forces herself back up to attend to Chagum.

II: Commentary

There are four general points in this sequence’s composition that I would like to highlight, before I move onto why this scene is a particular favourite of mine.

Firstly, there is no music. This series has a rather fine (hardchoral, one might say) musical score, and Kawai Kenji is perfectly capable of summoning up an action tune: the first fight in this episode had an excellent, martial, drum-heavy piece going on in the background. However, this sequence refuses to musically signal its arrival – this would reduce the shock effect of the sequence’s brevity and suddenness – and it is of course too short to properly use a lengthy piece anyway.

The lack of music allows the ear to focus on the actual sounds – the impacts of weapons – and also the sounds that Jin and Balsa make. Jin grunts twice – once with surprise, once as he deflects her knives – but Balsa actually makes five distinct sounds. The third is a ferocious cry of rage, which echoes around the stony riverbed; I love the way this scene uses echoes to give us an aural sense of the space it’s set in. The lack of a musical score not only emphasises the shock of the action’s beginning, but it also emphasises the shock of its end, and the soundscape’s return to the sound of falling rain.

Because of that rain, every impact throws a spray of shaken water drops up into the air. This is very important in giving the fight’s movements their incredible visual force. For a good comparison, see the use of a very similar technique in the final confrontation between Spike and Vincent in the Cowboy Bebop movie.

Note also the interesting progression in Balsa’s weapons. In fact, this is a regression in technological terms. She initially launches two throwing knives – metal, fashioned objects which require a relatively high investment in time to produce – then proceeds to throw her spear shaft, which at this point in the story lacks its head and is thus basically a wooden stick – and finally seizes a stone and delivers the coup de grâce with it. The technological regression in Balsa’s weapons as the sequence goes on strikes me as an external indication of her exerting all her effort (and resources) to protect Chagum.

Another effect of the technological regression is to bring in the (familiar) theme of violence dehumanising its perpetrators. Thankfully Seirei no Moribito doesn’t beat us over the head with this idea, but it does bring it up in a more developed (and brilliant) way later in the series; in this sequence it is brought out by Balsa’s descent from the swift, elegant spearwoman of the episode’s previous fight scene to something very bestial – screaming and smashing someone over the head with a rock.

Finally, this sequence is an example of a very rare thing in anime – the female action heroine in a maternal role. I’ve no real conclusive evidence for this, but I feel that, with her shouts of rage, rapid onslaught and unsubtle brutality as she protects a child, there’s a strong sense of the archetypal ‘tigress protecting her cubs’ in Balsa during this scene. This is really by-the-by, but I feel it’s worth mentioning because such a portrayal is so rare.

III: Conclusion

Why then is this one of my favourite action sequences in anime?

I think that this scene typifies what I call ‘mature’ violence. Now, by ‘mature’ I don’t necessarily mean that the violence is graphic (though it can be) – after all, there’s actually no blood at all in this scene. What I mean by mature is much simpler – this scene has a grown-up attitude to violence.

This isn’t violence preceded by power-up sequences and peppered with catchphrases (though I do enjoy that kind on occasion too). It erupts suddenly, it’s rapid, brutal and shocking, and it’s over just as suddenly. Furthermore, note that while Balsa does win, it’s costly. She exerts all her strength to save Chagum, despite being wounded, in this onslaught. No one’s left standing when the sequence closes, and I feel that this is an important point.

This type of violence is realistic. Not realistic in specific terms; I doubt very much that it’s possible to block throwing knives using a sword, with an instant’s warning, and nor is it likely in real life that one could throw a spear shaft with the reasonable hope of knocking someone’s blade out of their hands. But it’s realistic in the general, and perhaps more important sense – it’s sudden and shocking, brief and brutal and it takes a very heavy toll on both parties. It feels violent, without being bloody, which is very impressive (at least in my book).

Blogiography

  • As a contrast to this study of how bevity and ‘impact’ can create shock, Nomad Otto recently wrote an interesting entry, on Drastic My Anime Blog, about the use of chaos, madness and incomprehensibility in action to create horror.
  • The grain of this entire exercise is probably contained in this entry from the Bateszi Anime Blog: ‘skirmishes that are often over within 10 seconds, but what a 10 seconds!’ [I must point out that I wrote this before I read Bateszi's post.]
  • Seirei no Moribito provided my Ninth Day of Christmas.
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11 responses to “136 Words per Second

  1. I should also point out that that’s very realistic to how real life sword fights like that usually were – swift, brutal, and usually over in ten seconds or less. Yet compacted within those ten seconds are all the training, all the skill, all the strategy, and all the technique of a lifetime of training.

    This is exactly why kendo doesn’t make for a very good spectator sport, most matches end surprisingly quickly, and usually to understand the brilliant coups and the subtle swordplay techniques you have to be somewhat knowledgeable yourself.

    A kendoka might step in for a head strike, and his more experienced opponent will have instantly read his intentions from his body language and be moving in to deliver a lightning quick forearm cut during the split second when his opponent is offguard. To an untrained viewer, all they see is two guys standing there, and then a sudden movement and one guy somehow hit the other one and its over.

    To be able to portray fights as realistically as this and still make them entertaining onscreen while also ensuring that the viewer understands what’s happening is no mean feat. Well done highlighting the genius of this sequence. :)

  2. Thankyou, Orion. I haven’t done any kendo myself, but I spent six years of my life fencing (mainly epee) and what you say is very reminiscent of that sport. As with kendo, it’s a boring sport to watch unless you understand the movements and their rapidity.

    Perhaps it’s the ability to convey this in an entertaining way that drew me to this action sequence, though I must admit I didn’t consciously think of kendo or epee when composing this.

  3. The maternal role inherent in Balsa’s character was one of the aspects of this show that I really liked. Many times we don’t see this type of characterization in our heroines. The usual way that a female lead is given “female” qualities in anime is through a love interest or by being the character in distress that needs saving.

    Above all else, I think your description of the series as “grown up” is exactly what they were shooting for. It isn’t only the violent aspect of the series that is more adult. Virtually every bit of the series is more mature than your average anime.

  4. Mmm. Wikipedia says (!) that while the original novel was published as children’s literature, it found favour with adult readers too, but I really don’t know enough about reading habits in Japan to tell whether that’s normal or not. I hear it’s getting an English translation, published by Scholastic, though.

  5. Honestly, I have to agree. Those first five episodes were some of the best fight scenes I’ve seen in anime in a long time. Both in how they dealt with the fight and in the choreography of some of the longer scenes.

    I do have some “issues” with the middle of the series, although hearing that it’s based of a YA fantasy book, kind of makes it a lot clearer.

  6. I read (somewhere in the vastness of the internet) that the middle section of the series is actually inflated considerably from what is in the original novel, but I don’t know how reliable that report is. Scholastic had better hurry up so I can find out.

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  8. Interesting commentary on the mature violence concept. I just watched this scene the other day, and was astounded. It is like real-world violence. it’s two people attempting to end the fight before the other one does. Thats what a real fight is…not intended to look good for the ladies or any of that shit…a last resort between two people that can’t work out their differences like logical human beings.

    this fight scene showed that. Also it was a visual feast

    nice post

  9. @ berkles: Thankyou. You’re spot on that there’s a real sense of urgency to Balsa’s actions (and I’m sure there would be in Jin’s too, if she let him get a blow in edgeways). It’s awesome.

    Though I like fighting which looks good for the ladies too.

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