My anime of the year for 2023 is Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End. I don’t watch much anime these days, but I had been looking out for this anime adaptation of one of the best manga I’ve read in recent years. Not only does it have a compelling premise, but it also has lots of juicy ideas in it. The writing of Kanehito Yamada and the animation of Madhouse combined make for one of the best anime series for even non-weebs. For my first post on this show, I’d like to talk about a specific episode that briefly gets into an important martial arts concept.
To summarize this story, Frieren is an elf mage who was a part of the hero party that killed the Demon King half a century ago. Due to her long lifespan, she doesn’t perceive the passage of time the same way humans do, making her seem socially cold and aloof. But when she returned to fulfill a promise to her former partymates to reunite and watch the return passage of a comet from their last meeting, the party leader passed away and she realized that she barely knew him. The show is about her journey to connect more with her companions and other humans.
She would be joined by two human companions — Fern, who becomes her apprentice; and Stark, the pupil of her dwarven partymate Eisen. The focus for this blog post is the latter, a young axe-wielding warrior who has yet to become confident with his abilities. Throughout this season, with every fight he partakes in, he learns more and more about how strong he can truly be. His most important fight thus far has been his showdown against the demon Linie, who copied his master’s fighting style to go up against him.
This blog post goes into the one thing that makes technique effective — what separates “fake” martial arts from “real” martial arts.
Stark, the Boy Warrior
This kid is the classic case of untapped potential that just needed a bit more work. When adults put down children for not immediately showing promise, they fail to fulfill their duty as mentors. Some kids just get it right away, but they tend to not think more deeply about what they’re doing.
Meanwhile, some kids take more time to get it, but that delay gives them opportunity to think about what they’re doing. In the end, it’s not just about proficiency, but also intent and context.
Or as Bruce Lee liked to call it — emotional content.
Then again, maybe I’m just saying this as a sore loser because I was also one of those not-so-sharp kids that needed more time and work to “get it.”
I relate to Stark because of this. I would only discover that I actually had some talent much later in life, so I wasn’t able to cultivate it earlier. Having to play catch-up is a bit of a drag, but at least I have the opportunity to work on it now. It’s better late than never, and continuing to stew in resentment for my elders who misled me and weighed me down won’t help me now.
Stark had to go through the same process. The end of his fight against the dragon showed that. As he hurled insults at Frieren in the heat of the moment for seemingly not jumping in to help him, he didn’t realize that he had already killed the big, bad dragon.
Despite being called an “old hag,” Frieren paid no heed to that subtext and praised Stark for winning the battle on his own. He just needed some encouragement.
Frieren Episode 9: Stark vs. Linie
This is the fight in question. While his companion Fern confronted the demon blood mage Lugner, Stark battled the demon fighter Linie. The placid demeanor and petite frame of the demon girl belied her ability to swing an axe. Having to contend with a mirror image of his master made the fight difficult for Stark, but he soon realized one weakness in his opponent.
While she could indeed move and fight like Eisen, she didn’t have the physicality of the great dwarf warrior. Once Stark understood that as he kept getting back up, he knew that he just had to land one clean blow. Despite the demon’s proficiency, she didn’t have what Stark had.
Linie couldn’t get past her own superiority complex and didn’t see the obvious, which was that the human warrior kept getting back up after getting hit by her axe. If an axe blow can’t kill a lowly human, one of two things may be wrong — the axe itself or the one swinging the axe.
Her weakness was her weakness.
He tanked one blow, had Linie stay in place, and landed the killing blow. Before he hit the lightning strike, he pointed out what turned out to be painfully obvious — her attacks didn’t have weight behind them. They didn’t have power. That was why he could keep getting back up. No amount of gloating or insults Linie did was going to keep him down.
That’s also why judging in MMA should prioritize damage over control.
Power is the Last and Most Important Thing
I previously talked about the stupidity of the debate between technique and physical strength. Saying technique should not need the application of strength is like saying food should not have to be delicious as long as it provides nutrients. It’s dumb and you should be ashamed of believing such a logical fallacy. Unfortunately, way too many people in martial arts believe that.
As Mark Bell of Super Training Gym likes to say, “Strength is never a weakness; weakness is never a strength.”
Fighting technique is about two main things — addressing the problems presented by the opponent, and the optimal application of physicality. Martial arts is not magic; it’s a physical endeavor. Therefore, it’s stupid to suggest that physical strength is not necessary in the practice of martial arts. But half-hearted practitioners all around the world feel a need to perpetuate the folly of building muscles because they need to keep rationalizing their laziness.
However, even with the absence of detractors, the requirements for effective fighting still persist. Thus, one who wishes to become proficient must follow through the progression of technique. In Jeet Kune Do, I was taught the following:
- Basic mechanics — The fundamentals of the technique
- Non-telegraphic movement — Removing tells and preparatory motion
- Economy of motion — Further whittling down excess movement
- Speed — Start going faster and putting more snap to it
- Power — Finally going hard and putting your body into it
One of the very first things you’re taught is to not put power into it. This is a half-truth that’s meant to guide your learning process, not a gospel truth that must be followed for all of time. That’s because when you’re a beginner, you have to learn movements that don’t yet come naturally to you. It takes years to truly master the techniques, then blending them together, and finally properly applying them in actual combat.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets this, so they become technique nazis and make loud monkey noises whenever they see someone “muscling it.”
After becoming proficient with the execution and application, that’s when you have to make it effective in combat application. Of course, accuracy is implied — actually hitting the target. You then add speed to it and put more snap to it as the penultimate point of progression.
This is contrary to what most people tend to do, which is to focus on speed and power first, then tweak the mechanics later on. It’s more immediately rewarding, but it can also foster bad habits that become incredibly difficult to correct. It’s not to say that technique won’t work, but it won’t be the best possible execution of that technique. But hey, you do you.
I remember hearing a classmate shit on Jeet Kune Do’s focus on non-telegraphic movement because the Muay Thai roundhouse kick is “too fast for the eye anyway.” Meanwhile, kicks get blocked, dodged, and caught all the time in Muay Thai. That was just dumb.
And Finally, Power
When all of those boxes have been checked, that’s when power really comes in. That’s when you start imposing your physicality. Even pencilnecks who spout garbage about needing only technique and not paying any heed to strength and conditioning will eventually have their minds changed once they’re made to eat their words by a superior opponent.
Royce Gracie, the early poster boy of the UFC, ended up doing Deca to gain ten more pounds of muscle for his rematch against Kazushi Sakuraba, who famously defeated him in their 90-minute barn-cooler in Pride Fighting Championships. While cemented as the man who brought Brazilian jiu jitsu to mainstream consciousness, he’s also known to be a hypocrite.
This is true in combat as a whole, whether it’s for sport or for real-life application. When technique is taken at the highest level possible for human beings, the difference maker becomes the amount of damage it can inflict on the target, either by raw output or sheer volume.
When you have to use a knife, only a fool would take a dull blade and claim it can cut as well as a sharp knife. Only a bumbling moron would take a butter knife to go up against a trained killer holding a machete unless he’s fantasizing being Mr. Miyagi with a pair of chopsticks.
But while you can indeed overwhelm with volume and aggression, each attack needs to have the capacity to end the fight on its own. Without that level of commitment, it only opens you up to being attacked in return. It’s why the Internet is full of videos showing “fake” martial arts gurus getting their clocks cleaned by a regular gym-goer in rash guards.
It’s not just muscle, but emotional content, that adds real power to technique.
Whenever I see even a hint of a link between media and combat, I’ll always take the opportunity to write about it. Perhaps this got a bit too long for the simple message I’m trying to convey, especially since I’ve talked about the importance of physical strength in martial arts before, I couldn’t help myself. It’s a topic I’m quite passionate about, after all.
If you’re interested in reading more about the application of power in technique, please check out this post on what I think is the real source of punching power.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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