$1 000 000 question (first person to get it right gets a cookie): of all martial arts manga in publication during the time of 2001 to 2010, why was History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi the only one to get an animated adaptation?
The answer is mind blowing in its simplicity and infuriating in its implications: because its fight scenes were (and still are, to this very day) complete shit!
The uncomfortable truth is that no good martial arts manga in this day and age will ever get animated because animating even a decent (not a GOOD) fight sequence takes stupid amounts of work hours and money. Nowadays, when the only people who purchase anime DVDs in Japan are sociopaths, chronically overweight women and male pedophiles (since, for some odd reason, they are the only swaths of people that can afford doing so), an anime series of true quality earning success in its homeland might as well be considered an utter miracle. And even then people don’t buy it for what makes it good. How many people in Japan do you think bought Bakemonogatari not because of its impeccable writing, but to masturbate over its female characters? (Answer: all of them. (Here’s another cookie.))(Things are kind of sort of similarly as bad in the west, except not to Japan’s extent.)
I’m saying all this to lament the fact that even though it will never be, nothing in the world would look as good as Change 123 in animated form. The reason for this being that no martial arts manga ever made, and probably ever to be made, is and will ever be better than Change 123.
Let’s talk about fight choreography for a moment, and how it relates to the kind of powers characters in works of fiction have.
No, scratch that, let’s talk about what a fight, as in two or more people engaging in combat, is. (DEEP discussion incoming.)
Combat is the act of two or more opposing wills attempting to force their own will down on each other. The will that successfully forces itself on all others is the victor. And in order to make as sure as possible that a will gets forced upon another; those with specific wills will go to great lengths to ensure the superiority of their own will above the wills of others. Some create weapons to use in battle, some use others people/animals as weapons in battle, some decide to use their own body as a weapon in battle. When the latter is only taken to the level of strengthening bodily physique, it is referred to as body building. When it is taken to the level of extensively studying and practicing specific combat maneuvers and tactics, specific close combat scenarios, it is commonly referred to as practicing a “martial art”.
They are funny things, martial arts. The most common thing associated with those who practice them is great physical strength in lieu of all other personal merits, but they are some of the most brainpower-intensive activities out there. You see, optimally, the potential of the human body is unanimous across the board. Not accounting for differences in sex and age, extensive martial arts training will yield similar results for just about everybody. That’s why in combat between similarly trained individuals, the amount of combat training combatants went through takes a backseat as a deciding factor in the outcome of the battle to the inherent traits of the combatants: willpower, intelligence, courage, that kind of stuff. It’s not enough to be strong and skilled; you need to have the brains to know what you should do and when you should do it, the willpower to bear with things until you can, and the courage to pull it off.
It is when all combatants possess these attributes when the most thrilling, most amazing, most entertaining fights occur. And if you’re creating a story, it’s probable that you don’t have what it takes to translate the visceral thrills of a really good fight into your chosen medium. After all, you’re supposed to be a storyteller, not a fight choreographer.
Though if you’re making a story with lots of action it sure helps.
(This is the point where we talk about fight choreography, and how it relates to the kind of powers characters in works of fiction have.)
One of the bigger problems of manga that put a huge emphasis on their action scenes is that most of the time they are made by people who have the imagination to think up very interesting powers for their characters, but at the same time, believe that the mere fact that their characters are using these cool and awesome powers automatically makes the fights they participate in interesting.
But a fight is nothing without choreography.
You need to make a fight interesting. You need to make a fight visceral. You need to have characters take punches. But most of all:
YOU NEED TO HAVE THE EVENTS THAT TAKE PLACE DURING A FIGHT MATTER FOR ITS OUTCOME!
It can be excused if a story fails at the first three. Not everybody has talent for this type of thing. But when the conclusion of the fight is not derived from the actual contents of that fight, you ruin the pathos of the whole shebang, effectively robbing the sequence of any purpose whatsoever.
You end up creating what I like to call a shonen battle.
I’m now going to illustrate what I mean by a shonen battle with a few examples.
In Naruto, the character Uchiha Sasuke wishes to become stronger. He therefore allows himself to be kidnapped by the four minions of the (at that time) central evil character of the story, since he was promised that that character would indeed, make him stronger. The four minions set off with Sasuke to the villain’s hideout. Naturally, titular character Naruto gathers up some of his merry ninja friends to go and try to stop Sasuke’s “kidnapping”. When they meet up with the minions on the way, one of those merry friends stays behind to battle the specific minion.
One of these battles concerns one Naruto-friend Hyuuga Neii and main villain minion Kidomaru. Hyuuga Neji has an ability called Byakugan. Not only does this allow him to see the flow of chakra (the special substance/force of the Naruto universe that is found in everything), it also grants him full 360 degree vision. Well, not exactly. There is a small hole behind his back that his vision does not cover. The story takes a long time to go out of its way to explain this.
Kidomaru is a spider-like guy that has four hands, can create lethal webbings out of chakra, and can also turn the material used for the webbings solid and fire arrows out of his mouth.
The battle takes place inside a forest, on a circular plane surrounded by trees. Neji is in the center, while Kidomaru hides in the treetops.
The entire battle consists of Kidomaru torturing Neji with his arrows, essentially playing around with his prey. At the climax of the battle, Kidomaru successfully fires an arrow from his mouth into the small vision-hole behind Neji. Neji in turn infuses the arrow (all of Kidomaru’s arrows are –until he lets go- tied to Kidomaru directly via webbing at the arrow’s end) with chakra, which reaches Kidomaru through the webbing and kills him. This is never explained. Neji survives just barely.
Another example: In Deadman Wonderland, in a prison designed as an amusement park, in an event called Carnival Corpse which pits people who can use their own blood as makeshift weapons against each other in combat, main character Igarashi Ganta fights a young girl named Minatsuki Takami. Ganta has the ability to fire his blood like a gun fires bullets. Minatsuki can use her blood as you would use a whip. Except it is sharp and it cuts. The fight takes place in an open ring you’d find in a boxing match or an MMA tournament.
Long story short (to only emphasize the battle itself): Minatsuki first stuns Ganta with her blood whip, crippling him for a short while. Ganta tries to fire at Minatsuki, but she always uses her blood to block the attacks. Ganta finally does a ricochet shot from one of the ring’s corners and hits Minatsuki in the back. In retaliation, Minatsuki user her blood-whip to tie Ganta up, hands and feet.
Ganta then hops over to Minatsuki and head-butts her into unconsciousness.
What’s wrong with the above mentioned fight scenes? Well, to begin with, notice how, even though the fights took a considerable amount of time to describe, there was not actually a lot going on in them. Notice also that the injuries the characters suffered during the course of battle are largely superfluous. But most importantly:
Notice how the outcome of the battle, the way the battle ended had nothing to do with anything that previously happened in the fight.
This is a serious problem, and it is a detriment to every single fight sequence in which it occurs. We understand that the creators believe these types of resolutions are “humorous” and/or “ironic”, but in practice, it just makes the consumer feel like he/she has been just wasting his/her time with the whole shebang.
Let it be said: a good fight MUST have its ending derived from the events that occurred during the fight itself.
However, there is another thing that is common with these two examples and a lot of other stories too: they are not choreographed well. At all.
Why is that? Why can’t most manga authors (and for the record, people who create fiction in general) create well (or at least adequately) choreographed fight scenes?
The answer: because their characters have supernatural powers!
This might sound odd, but it makes complete sense. Remember when we talked about the potential of the human body? When we talked about how that potential is pretty much the same for just about everybody? It’s precisely THAT fact that forces people’s inherent traits to be deciding factors in battle. And in a work of fiction, it’s that kind of realism, that adhering to the fact that there is only so much the human body can do that NECESSERALY produces outstanding combat sequences. Just look at Kung-Fu movies: the ones with the best fights will always be the ones in which characters don’t have any sort of supernatural powers at all.
So what exactly happens when characters have supernatural powers?
Consider a situation where you’re writing/directing a fight sequence, and your characters don’t have supernatural powers. That doesn’t leave you much to work with. Or does it? Yes, there’s only so much a human body can do, but that much is still MUCH. Sure it requires a metric ton of creativity to make a realistic combat sequence (from the perspective of the kind of powers participants use –it’s not who/what are fighting, it’s how they fight) interesting, but if you can pull it off, you’ll basically always create something outstanding and memorable.
But what if characters can do more than a human can? How about much more?
The thing is, once you give characters supernatural powers, you’ve broken through the limit of the natural abilities of the human body. Your characters are now given carte blanche to do physically impossible things.
You also give your imagination carte blanche to do whatever the hell it wants. Sky’s the limit with superpowers!
But why, then, are super powered fights just not as interesting as martial arts combat?
Two things are at work here: one is the internal logic of the story; the other is what superpowers do to the way a fight looks.
For one thing, it’s completely logical for super powered beings to see no point in close quarters combat. They are capable of stuff that is impossible in real life, so why limit their selves to only what their body can do in a fight?
But the most important reason realistic martial arts combat is always more interesting than super powered combat is this: it takes far less effort to make super powered combat look interesting.
Super powered characters can do all kinds of stuff. And since those powers are the product of the author’s imagination, which he/she undoubtedly wants to show off, the focus in these battles turns to the attacks themselves, not to their execution – in complete opposite with depictions of realistic combat, where, since both audience and author are well acquainted with the workings and capabilities of the human body, it’s up to the author to make the best out of those capabilities. In super powered combat, it takes only a small amount of imagination to come up with new powers to give to characters so they can turn the tables in the narrative, whereas you need far more creativity for a realistic fight sequence to stay exciting all the way through.
Yes, we went there: CREATING A SINGLE WELL CHOREOGRAPHED REALISTIC FIGHT SEQUENCE TAKES FAR MORE EFFORT AND CREATIVITY THAN COMING UP WITH A MYRIAD OF SUPERPOWERS!
This is why even in self-proclaimed “martial arts” manga, manhwa and manhua you can see fights that are
-filled with barely intelligible bullshit phlebotinum babble and pointless special ki attacks (Veritas)
-made with amateuristic, embarrassing blurry lines with almost no thought given to make the events on page seem even the tiniest bit thrilling (Aiki) (Don’t even get me started on character behavior in that manga.)
-just plain boring and uninteresting (History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi)
But this isn’t exclusive to “martial arts” manga: take the magical girl genre for example. Two notable recent entries in the genre are Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and the Pretty Cure franchise. While both properties kick the door down for their respective genre, it’s fascinating to examine the differences between the methods of the two and to compare how different an impression they leave on the discerning viewer.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is the more “adult oriented” of the two, yet its combat, consisting of endless waves of uninteresting beam spam (or in the case of the last episode of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s: a prototype of the summoning sequence of the most powerful Guardian Force of Final Fantasy XXVII) leaves neither the characters with any sense of immdediate danger or actual sense of struggle, and also the viewer in a near-constant state of boredom.
Pretty Cure on the other hand, while obviously created for a young audience, wows just about everybody with how it turns its own magical girls into martial arts ass-kicking machines. Yes, the cures are inhumanly strong, but the directing makes up for it by making their enemies also similarly strong, and the many, many seasons don’t shy away from introducing close quarters combat choreography that put many “adult” “martial arts” manga and their ilk to shame.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is often referred to as a mecha anime with magical girls. We believe this says pretty much everything needed to be said about fans of mecha anime.
Tangentially related but relevant: every scene in the animated version of Death Note in which the directing gives dramatic camera angles, special graphic and sound effects usually reserved for vampire resurrections, epic magic spells, Michael Bay explosions and Zack Snyder fight scenes to the most mundane of everyday tasks, such as looking at people, eating a potato chip and writing in a notebook. Once again, it takes huge amounts of creativity and effort, and until a good outcome is reached, it doesn’t even look good, but when pulled off well, the impression it leaves on the viewer is far more profound than any supernatural power presented in the same way would.
We’ll say it again, this time in simplified form for easier understanding:
SUPERNATURAL POWERS ARE THE DEATH OF FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY!
Actually talking about the manga now.
Change 123 comes in guns blazing, screaming “I’m here to fuck shit up, I’m here to show you all how it’s done, and I’m all about chicks kicking ass!” at the top of its lungs. Change 123 is idea storytelling at its finest, the likes of which the literary scene hasn’t seen since the original nine volumes of GUNNM. In fact, remember the awesomeness and badassery it took the main character in GUNNM an entire volume to achieve? The main (female) character in Change 123 reaches it in just one chapter! That’s a mere fifty pages! In fact, the first chapter of Change 123 might just be the best opening chapter any manga ever had, ever!
Not only for its action, but also due to how well it sets up what Change 123 is about: half showing the world how women in fights should be portrayed, and half the development of a very complicated relationship.
The main male character of the story is one Hideo Kosukegawa. The highs cool kid is a nerd, a huge Kamen Raider fan, meek but a pure, kind soul. The kind of person total assholes would call a moralfag.
The story begins with him witnessing the attepted rape of one of his female classmates in an alley. One Gettou Motoko, she is extremely shy and prone to passing out at the slightest of things, so naturally she faints at the rape attempt.
Except, right after that, her personality completely changes and send the rapist flying into his car with a single kick.
Knowing that her classmate witnessed this, Kosukegawa gets called home by “Motoko”, asking him to swear secrecy in exchange for an explanation.
It’s at this point that the brilliance of Change 123 first shines: at her home, Motoko explains that she can fight so well because it’s not actually her fighting. The twist is that she was raised by three different people calling themselves her father. Incidentally, all three of those men are expert martial artists: one is a mercenary, one is Jiu-jitsu master, and the third is a karateka. The thing is, all three of the girl’s “fathers” have trained Motoko in their own method of combat, and this is where the uniqueness of Change 123 comes in: Since Motoko is so shy, in order to cope with all the training, she developed Dissociative Personality Disorder: in effect, she unconsciously created three distinct personalities inside of her mind to protect her from the hardships of the training of her fathers.
The title of the manga, in fact, references Motoko’s three personalities: The correct Japanese pronounciation is chenji hifumi, or Hi-Fu-Mi: Hibiki (a japanese form of count one: HItotsu), the first personality, is hotheaded, brash, loves to fight, as is proficient in Karate. Fujiko (two: FUtotsu) is calm, collected, mature, and excels at armed combat of all kind, while Mikiri (three, MItsu) is childlike, innocent, well-meaning and is an expert in jiu-jitsu.
Already Change 123 succeeds in effortlessly overcoming the biggest challenge of the story in a unique and interesting way: why on Earth would a high school girl be so proficient in combat? By explaining that the training Motoko underwent during her childhood was not exactly to her liking, and by also explaining that Motoko’s three alternate personalities were created specifically in retaliation to the aforementioned training, the reader believes that her alternate personalities would actually enjoy combat and would willingly partake in training.
Kosukegawa evidently swears to help Motoko overcome her condition at all costs. The two quickly become friends, and in the second half of the chapter they dicide to go to a beach.
Recursiveness: the guy that tried to rape Motoko earlier in the chapter has been spying on her, and now comes back to seek revenge on the girl for beating him up. He promptly ambushes the two on the beach. It’s important to note that, the wimp that he is, Kosukegawa actually stands up to the guy (inspiration all gained from Kamen Raider), tries to buy some time so Motoko can get away. Alas, Motoko faints, and her alternate personalities emerge to save the day.
This is the point where Change 123 truly lives up to and exceeds its purpose with flying colors: look far and wide, all over the medium, but you will never, ever find one other manga that has action sequences as good as those of Change 123. For one thing, the art is flawless, beautiful, and sublime: every image is perfectly clear, not a single blur in sight when it isn’t stylistically uncalled for. It is one thing that the artist can draw incredibly beautiful women realistically and diversely (and, as a true rarity amongst this type of manga, equally diversely drawn and handsome men), but what truly benefits from the skill of the artist is how every action is perfectly understandable: the images are so clearly drawn and the angles from which the action is shown is always so perfect that I don’t think it is possible even for people with mental issues not to be able to understand what goes on during a fight sequence. (Shin Angyo Onshi, with its overly detailed drawings at the expense of visibility comes to mind as the polar opposite.)
But as previously established a fight is nothing without choreography, and this is where Change 123 truly outshines the competition: it has the best fight choreography of any manga ever made! Not merely martial arts manga – I mean everything in the medium! The people who make Change 123 understand absolutely everything about fights and what makes them interesting:
-They understand that watching a woman kick ass is inherently more gratifying than watching a man kick ass
- They understand that not making the opposing sides sexually equal (or at least close to it) – in other words, being too cowardly/pandering to have your female characters fight male characters - will result in the reader’s inability to take the fights seriously (notice how History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi shoots its own self in the foot in this regard – although that presupposes that the creator of History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi is capable of drawing a good fight sequence, so forget I said anything)
-They understand that what happens during a fight must matter for its outcome
-They understand that if you want to create not only amusement at the fight choreography but also genuine tension in the fight, you need to have your characters take hits, and take them hard
-They understand that in order to produce good fight choreography; you must keep the combat realistic, free of any sort of supernatural or over the top bullshit
The fights in Change 123 are perfect. Characters are varied, their methods of combat well fleshed out, they hit hard, they take hits, they suffer damage, they fight variedly, they are dangerous, they aren’t afraid to hit a girl, they fight realistically. Not to say that it never goes over the top, but when it does, it always does it to comedic effect, and never in the longer, important fight scenes. And even when it introduces its own special terminology for battle, it never feels like tacked on bullshit.
And there’s so much variety to the fights. I simply refuse to spoil anything about that; you’ll just have to believe me when I say that when it comes to combat, Change 123 trumps everything.
What really makes it so good is that the creators adhere to no particular desire of anybody: they simply make what they would want to read. “I got it, how about three girls storming an American military outpost, kidnapping one of the commandos to teach him a lesson, and fighting his allies on the way out?” As crazy as it sounds, it makes complete sense in context, and actually ends up as one of the most memorable points in the entire series!
And what about the times when there isn’t any action? Almost miraculously, Change 123 is interesting even without any action. The story itself largely revolves around Kosukegawa trying to help Motoko overcome her disorder, the developing relationship between the two over the years, their day to day lives, the many adventures of Motoko’s alternate personalities, those of the friends she gains along the way, and the unraveling of Motoko’s past (which she does not remember – fitting, I suppose). It is portrayed in a completely plausible light, with both the kids coming closer to each other and the secrets of the past of Motoko having an effect on her present – one of those secrets which will become a focal point of the story later on.
Another thing to note is that Change 123 can be gut-busting hilarious. The creators are not only unrivaled master in depictions of close quarters combat, but are also outstanding humorists.
And lastly, the one remaining important factor in the equation of Change 123 is the fan service: truly, no manga does it like Change 123. It’s one thing that most of the main fighting character are purposefully female (they really know how to show off the female form during combat – heck, the fact that they know that combat is the perfect opportunity to show off the female form is the very reason they have made this manga in the first place), but what Change 123 gets away with in terms of full frontal female nudity, and the way in contextualizes each and every one of these occasions to make perfect sense and not feel superfluous at all is truly a master class of originality and creativity. This stuff should be taught in schools, is what I’m saying.
(Change 123 is also filled with references to Getter Robo. Ironic then, that the people who would make the best action sequences of manga to date would be inspired by the one genre notorious for its boring, uncreative, tension-free battle scenes.)
And that’s Change 123: a manga where women kick ass in a completely plausible and incomparably entertaining way, a manga about the developing romantic relationship between two people, a manga of which every single page shines through with the pure love its creators put into it, and a manga that has the guts to end when it has told its story. An unrivaled piece of both wild entertainment and high art, Change 123 sets the bar for martial arts manga, and is right now the universal comparison against all fictional combat.
*As of June 2011, the only manga to come to Change 123 in terms of visceral combat and outstanding fight choreography are Holyland and Wrestle the Underground!