The Best Martial Arts for Action Cinema: Part 2 – Weapon styles

February 4th, 2010By Category: Uncategorized

So in the last blog entry, I wrote about which empty hand martial arts are most commonly used in action cinema and for this blog, I would like to explore which weapons martial arts are the most applicable. Much like in the case of empty hand martial arts, which weapon styles are the most useful may simply depend on where the film is being produced and/or where the story takes place. (I’ve yet to see a Japanese action film requiring the use of a western straight sword, for example). As one of the most natural and easiest weapons to integrate into a fight scene however, training in the staff is always a good way to start. Beyond that, as my Seishindo instructor once told me, this may also prove to be useful later on in one’s career as the staff is a ‘gateway’ weapon through which other weapons can also be learned.

Besidesthe staff, other Chinese weaponry (in particular Wushu weapons) have always represented the standard for ‘flash’ and weapons play, but outside of Hong Kong and China and the realm of the historical action films they routinely produce, they seem to have limited application on screen. Kali and Escrima (which were used in the Bourne Identity films) on the other hand generally hold their own as systems which exemplify modern street applicability, realism and no non-sense practicality.  I’m also sure that this is why (at least in part), the same style will be used for the gritty upcoming Denzel Washington film The Book of Eli. In American action films, it is not uncommon to use traditional western straight swords, (both for historical pieces and modern ones such as the Blade films), but Japanese Katanas, having a legendary reputation for being one of the most perfectly crafted weapons in history, and an almost mystical aura about them, are also widely popular. Unfortunately however, they are also widely misused. I would guess this is largely due to the fact that the aforementioned ‘standard’ is Chinese weaponry, most of the choreographers, and the stunt players using them have their background in Chinese swordsmanship. As such, much to the annoyance of many Katana choreographers here in Japan, they generally aren’t used the way they are supposed to be.  (A Commonly-quoted example being the following fight from DOA. [5:10-6:55]) ).

This is largely only even possible because
1) Katanas are single-bladed just like Chinese broadswords,
2) Traditional Japanese swordsmanship follows the same One-hit kill mentality of most other Japanese martial arts, and as such the flashier Chinese system lends itself more to the camera and
3) Action Katanas, which needn’t be used to actually cut anything, are made of light enough materials that they can actually be manipulated with a single hand in the same way that Chinese broadswords are.

As anyone who’s ever trained with a real one can tell you, real Katanas are quite heavy and such, most Japanese sword martial arts will train you to always wield it with two hands. As a function of that, except in the case of Japanese historical films, training in traditional Japanese sword martial arts such as Kendo or Iaido may not prove to provide you with the skills necessary to handle the present style of choreography. I’ve even heard some fight choreographer instructors speak against it. Aside from any sword, staff and stick work, knife work (or at least knife defense tactics such as those found in Aikido, or Hapkido) are also good to know for any realistically-based fight sequences.

Again however, as I stated in the last entry about empty hand martial arts, I do not entirely endorse the idea of giving up one’s weapon of choice to pursue one that is more popular. Oftentimes, knowledge of obscure weapons can make one just as marketable (or maybe even more so) than knowledge of the popular ones. The success of Gerald Okamura is a perfect example of that.

As my father once told me, “If you do what you like, you’ll get good at it. And if you get good at it, you can make money from it.”

Chuck Johnson is an internationally recognized action film actor. He currently teaches both action and taekwondo in Tokyo and Saitama, Japan, and his next film, Sukeban Hunters will be released this summer. Chuck’s Demo Reel

Author of this article

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson is a Martial Arts Instructor/ Action Film Actor based in Tokyo, Japan, and Michigan, USA. He has been teaching for 16 years, holds ranks in Taekwondo, Judo, Capoeira, and Karate, and is an experienced bodyguard. He is also a member of the Screen Action Stunt Association, and Society of American Fight Directors. Additionally, he has 10 years of ELT experience, and is the developer of Phat English, a system that uses specialized hip-hop music to teach the subtle nuances of GAm English pronunciation. For more information, visit or follow Chuck on twitter at chuck_n_action

Related articles that may interest you


  • .., martial arts are indeed not an ordinary sport.. this is nice to know that there are lots of weapons that can be associated with martial arts.. i am really hoping to learn…

  • sun_one says:

    I agree that Japanese sword-work is more often than not mis-represented in film. I shudder at so many films that have flashy choreography with the Katana. For a great representation of (my guess) what a Japanese sword fight would look like, watch the final scene of Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai: messy, bloody, and far from elegant. I can see why this style is not popular in cinema.