Below is an action breakdown that’s not so much about action. This post is more about the spirit behind action. Our subject is Mr. Udaka, a Noh theater performer and mask-maker. Noh theater stems from the 1300s, and like any theatrical art form Noh is a precursor to modern action. If you want to understand Japanese action with its emphasis on poses and unique beats between action, study Noh.

In Noh theater the performer wears a mask, not to just pretend to be a character, but to “enter the realm of gods” (1:09), becoming possessed by the character represented by the mask. In Udaka’s own words (2:06), “The actors use a mask, a Noh mask, without fail, in order to reincarnate past occurrences in present times. In other words, the actor wearing a Noh mask is not acting as a modern-day person, but as a spirit or wraith.”

The sacred history of Noh stems from its origins as “monkey music” (Saragaku, 1:51), which shares a common origin in the monkey king legend that is prominant China and India. We might see Noh as a fun cosplay enterprise, but we should take Udaka’s own words more seriously than this. Cosplayers would never admit to being possessed by Iron Man, but Udaka-san’s an honest man and admits that, in Noh, the dedicated performer becomes totally compromised by the spirit world.

In The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis (trans. Eugene Webb, Stanford University Press, 1991) Jean Michel Oughourlian posits that possession rites aren’t simple entertainment affairs. While the audience watches the possession rite for recreation (“re-creation” is very telling here), all possession rituals imbibe the subject with a sort of “spiritual package” that transmits traditional cultural norms in one big download. The subject becomes the spirit for a moment in time.

Why would someone subject themselves to a possession rite? In Oughourlian’s analysis of the raw data of anthropologists like Frazer and Levi-Strauss, possession rites are no different than hypnosis. The subject has a problem, anything from an addiction to a spat of envy or whatever else might disrupt the community (and could contaminate them). These problems in Oughourlian’s view stem from the ego’s attempts to “backdate” the subject’s desires before his rival’s. For example, bouts of envy over a woman SHOULD be easily resolved by reminding the subject that the woman belonged to someone else first. In that fantasy world rationality reigns king and envy over money and success could be quickly eliminated. But our egos are tasked with reversing time to legitimize our desires starting around age 2. We become convinced that our desires came first. To correct this reversed timeline, clinical help is sought.

Jean Michel Oughourlian on desire

The doctor, usually a shaman, attaches the “resolving spirit” to the subject through music, dancing, and other contagious art forms. The subject receives the spirit mostly against their will, but the spirit, a new trusted model for the subject, has the effect of correcting the misaligned timeline during the possession. The cathartic effect is: hey buddy, look at your jacked up timeline. Your friend had the girl first, then you came in and messed things up. The subject believes for a moment that they’ve had a self-realization, repairing (at least in part) the desire timeline. A hypnotist functions the same way, as does EMDR, both of which reposition emotional issues into rational parts of the brain for proper processing. After a brief exorcism ritual, the spirit leaves, and the subject is left with the embarrassing realization that they messed up, but with some additional tools (and maybe a restraining order) they can now right their wrongs.

Possession ritual in Venezuela

Noh theater is a large-scale possession rite. Anybody who wants to imbibe themselves with the spirit of the ancients just has to follow Mr. Udaka’s methods. He uses couched, dramatic terms when describing the possession experience (6:30): “When you can perform without thinking and it surfaces naturally, once you reach that level, you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity.” Serendipity is the clarity of the possession experience. At least, it’s clarifying in the sense that you’re taking on a spirit that’s not your own. Imbibing spirits is also another term for getting drunk off your ass. Careful which spirits you drink.

The pacing of Noh gives us some insights into modern, Japanese physical art forms. When looking at the style of the Japan Action Club, founded by Sonny Chiba, you see an emphasis on poses and silhouettes. These are theatrical for a reason: the Japan Action Club is the film extension of Japanese theater. Beats between movements, called ma, are critical to the overall action design. Japan Action Club (now Japan Action Enterprise, JAE) members criticized undercranking, a standard feature of Hong Kong action cinema, claiming that it threatened to eliminate the ma in between movements1. The action in Junya Takagi’s Bad History (1989) epitomizes ma with lengthy, uncut, wide takes.

Takagi Junya
Bad History (1989)

Note the timing between movements (ma).

The ma between movements in Japanese action, epitomized by the Japan Action Club from its theatrical roots, gives Japanese action its distinct flavor. It’s something I never understood or appreciated until I worked as a motion capture stuntman on a Japanese game and developed the action understanding to even see it myself. Do the spiritual foundations of Noh theater permeate Japanese ma-based action? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Udaka ends the lesson as he talks to his ancestors at a cemetery. He rightly claims that as Noh disappears Japan is becoming a “robotic country driven solely by pure economics” (7:52). Removing the sacred from the people is the task of tyrants who destroy shared tradition to prop up their regime as the sole center of deferral. Even if you don’t defer to the same gods as Mr. Udaka, you can agree with his implication: the death of Noh is the death of Japanese ancestor-worship, the death of shared Japanese tradition.

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1:09 “I can enter the realm of gods.”
1:51 Started out as Saragaku “monkey music”, from the monkey king, deep ties to the sacred world
3:19 Making his own masks out of wood
5:20 “When you have to think while performing the Noh dance, for example when you start wondering what are the next lyrics, or shoudl I be dancing like this next… It’s not a good sign when your mind staerts wantering like that.
6:30 “When you can perform without thinking and it surfaces naturally, once you reach that level, you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity
7:11 Bisiting and speaking to ancestors
7:30 Desire to maintain sacred institutions like Noh, tea ceremony, flower arrangements (ikebana) and martial arts.

1. Interview, Yutaka Nozawa, Dec 10 2020. Many thanks to Yutaka for his insights.

John Salvitti, the Bostonian who’s been by Donnie Yen’s side since the late 80s, has just released a reel from his new Yen effort Special ID. The trailers gave us a hint as to what kind of action to expect, but this new reel is something else entirely. Salvitti (bald head or in hat) is mixing MMA and filmmaking in ways we’ve never seen – counters are dirtier, the grappling flows, and of course all the kicks connect. Salvitti is pushing hard this time to deliver the most badass action since, well… since Flashpoint, so we can officially credit the man with being on top of the game. Expect tons of homages and tributes to this style once Special ID is released.

I’m making action filmmaking tutorials now for indie action filmmakers, martial artists, and stuntmen and stuntwomen, a series I’m calling “Indie Action Essentials”. The first skill I’m tackling is the Hong Kong spin, or the “HK”. The video includes all the steps plus what padding I recommend when doing the stunt on hard surfaces.

If you have any requests for tutorials you’d like, comment below or at the video’s YouTube page. I’m always listening!

HK Spin Tutorial.mp4_snapshot_02.27_[2013.04.23_09.13.41] copy

After we spent a week at 87eleven, Alvin Hsing and I came away with this video to show what came of our efforts – a pre-viz (choroegraphed and shot rough version) for the final knife fight in A Good Day to Die Hard (that’s Die Hard #5). The scene called for McClane to face off against the film’s villain Alik on a rooftop, with Alik wielding a knife and using some combination of Krav Maga and some basic Silat. McClane is, of course, limited to his wits and left-handed haymakers, which was a lot of fun. Lock an artist in a room and he’ll build a city.

I play John McClane fighting the Alik character, played by Alvin. It’s an American-style fight with some Hong Kong flare, but done in a way to 1. take advantage of the fact that Willis is left-handed and 2. not overload the producers with “shoe leather”, or excessive martial artsy stuff. You know, that straight, industrial-grade action that we all drink by the gallon, the side effect being that we now require it on a daily basis.

But perhaps it was still too much, as the fight never made it into the film. I can’t say whether it was filmed and subsequently edited out, but judging by the structure of the finale of A Good Day it’s apparent that they never shot it at all.

So maybe we will.

All in all it was a huge joy primarily to work with JJ Perry in crafting the scene, with Chad Stahelski nearby. They would tell us when we were taking it too far in certain directions, since these guys know producers from an action standpoint like nobody else. We had some fun ideas that were just too Hong Kong-y, like a flying headbutt that was tied off so my body would stop mid-air when the contact line was hit, as well as a LOT more shoe leather. I love that stuff. Also working with Jeremy Marinas, who aside from being of the world’s best trickers is also a hell of a photographer, was straightforward and fun since we both knew the best angles for action, which tended to be the same. The Natural Law of Action shines through.

The Gold Rush


Having just been released in China yesterday (January 8th), The Grandmaster, which is based on wing chun master Yip Man – portrayed by Donnie Yen in the Ip Man movies and with a third installment ready to be shot in March this year – and starring top-class actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Bullet in the HeadHard Boiled, Infernal Affairs), is set to impress and attract audiences (especially martial arts movie fans) around the world. Read reviews below.

Shooting of The Iceman Cometh 3D has already started and been ongoing since December 17. Helmed by long-time Johnnie To/Milkyway Image associate Law Wing Cheong (Punished) and written as well as produced by original Iceman Cometh writer/producer Stephen Shiu, this remake puts Donnie in Yuen Biao’s role and is led by a cast consisting of principal cast members Wang Baoqiang (Assembly, The Fire of Conscience) in Yuen Wah’s villainous role, Simon Yam (Bullet in the Head, Full Contact, Election, Exiled), Eva Huang (Kung Fu Hustle), Mark Wu, Ava Yu, Shi Yongli, and Jacquelin Chong.

Donnie who also is the film’s action director describes the forthcoming action scenes as explosive and breath-taking, including a James Bond-like scene involving skiing while taking on the enemy and fighting the Hong Kong Special Duties Unit on top of the Hong Kong Police headquarters. On top of that, Donnie also praises co-star Wang Baoqiang highly –  who by the way is a legit martial artist and has had 6 years of intensive training in shaolin kung fu at the shaolin temple – joking that Wang’s martial arts skills are superior to all of his action choreographers’.

The Running Man

In The Running Man the future is depicted as an authoritarian police state with a broken economy. When our man Richards (Schwarzenegger) faces airport security and has no travel pass, he rummages through his bag until a line of anxious tourists forms behind him. “We got a plane to catch!” one yells, so the guard lets him go! Watching it today, we’re shocked at how stupid this is.

But airport security was like this in 1987, back when you boarded the plane on a staircase outside the airport, so we all believed the scene. Today, Richards would have been arrested after a DNA analysis of his dandruff, unless facial recognition software caught him first.

This depiction of the Orwellian Police State in The Running Man recalls the 80s when trust levels were so high that you could jump onto an airplane just by threatening to slow down business. They projected this sentiment into the dystopian future, which was complete with game shows, money spewing from every crack, and what in general seems like a lot of vibrant, happy people, a stark contrast to the 2010s’ Hunger Games or Looper.

TheTerminatorGb310311The Terminator searched for Sarah Connor’s address in a phonebook. Somehow he didn’t have a photo of her nor knew what she looked like. A mistake like this would not pass today, but did this bother anyone in 1984? I don’t think it did. Photos weren’t very important then – we took a few of them, they wore out, and we threw them away. We felt fine relying on personal memory or stories to recall information, so we comfortable forgetting things and letting them die. As I was watching The Terminator tonight, I remembered thinking this way too, and how long it’s been since I thought that way.

Technological innovation has allowed us to resist human forgetfulness and death. We take millions of photos, keep our files forever, and we seem convinced that immortality is not only possible, but that it’s a moral imperative. Cameron imagined a future where even robots let memories die, which is a window into seeing how people thought in 1984. Show this film to your children and grandchildren.