A love for weaponry is sometimes seen as quirky but it isn't exactly a social taboo. Whether it is an armoury full of firearms or a wall covered in blades and staffs, you can probably recall at least one acquaintance that collects or collected armaments. Cars, weapons, power tools: boys will always love their toys. Most treat a collection purely as a hobby and a passion, but you will run into the occasional collector who is convinced he is preparing for something bigger. That one friend who jokes about how well they would do in the zombie apocalypse but brings it up often enough to make it clear that they actually do dream of becoming the saviour of the wasteland. No single item of weaponry has developed quite the same peculiar cult around it that the katana has. It is a rare week on the internet, particularly the martial arts side of it, that you don't see a photo of a doughy teenager, possibly wearing a trilby or fedora, holding a katana and glaring at the camera. Thanks to anime the katana has become the weapon of choice for what is colloquially termed the 'neckbeard'.
Perhaps the hoping for 'barbarians at the gate' or the zombie apocalypse can be explained quite simply: when else are you going to get away with carrying around a sword outside of your house? This question cuts straight to the kokoro of the issue with the cult of anime swordsmanship: no matter how good you get at cutting through water bottles (or rolled up tatami if you're going authentic) no problem you ever encounter will occur while you are wearing a replica Edo era sword at your waist.
At least… that is what the normies would have you think. As it turns out, there have been numerous cases of the katana actually changing the course of real life altercations in the 21st century. For instance, in April 2015 a man in Cordoba repelled three home invaders, one allegedly armed with a pistol, by seizing a decorative sword from his wall and going berserk. In 2009, a John Hopkins student killed a suspected burglar with a katana. And perhaps most famously there is the story of Kairo Seijuro.
One night in 2012, a standard World Star recording was turned into a Kurosawa movie when a bystander drew a katana and defused the situation. Showing a lack of self-awareness that would make Tony Ferguson do a double take, Kairo Seijuro gave this legendary interview in the aftermath:
Four years later the 30-year-old Seijuro died after his kayak capsized while he was taking his 16-year-old female disciple to practice swordsmanship on 'Sunflower Island'. I wish that any part of that were a joke, but sadly it is not.
At any rate, the sword bros may have a point. If you happen to be carrying a katana when the muck hits the fan, or within reach of a katana when your home is broken into, you will be better off for it. It is hard to dispute that a long-bladed weapon that can be swung or thrusted wildly from half a metre away isn't handy to have in a life or death altercation. Frankly, if you have a sword and zero training with it – even if it isn't good quality or sharp – you are at a tremendous advantage in defending yourself from everything but a gun, held by a decent shot, at a range beyond sprinting distance. And for those who like knights more than samurais, getting angry about this concession to katanas, yes that is equally true of a longsword.
A stranger fascination is the one which exists among real, trained, career long martial artists. I am referring to the endearing fetish that martial artists have for the nunchaku or 'nunchucks'. Part of this must be the taboo: there are plenty of places in the Western world where two bits of wood joined by a string are illegal. Norway, Spain, Canada – the UK even censored out Michelangelo's use of nunchucks in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Why? Ten seconds of nunchaku twirling in Enter the Dragon most often receives the blame. Bruce Lee's small segment of nunchaku use caused an army of children to whip either themselves or their siblings in the eye with improvised 'chucks'.
More of the nunchaku's appeal has to be that you can do neat tricks with them. They were the original fidget spinners for weird kids. Bruce Lee did them and they looked super cool. Nick Diaz used them between bong rips on a Strikeforce conference call and he's too cool for school. And just to be clear to those who don't own a set of chucks, they are fun. Well, they are fun if you use a foam set. If you use a wooden set it is essentially self-harm.
The origins of the nunchaku are murky at best. Some say they used to be a rice flail, others say they were 'clappers' used by officials to gain the attention of crowds. Either way the belief is that they started out as something inconspicuous and evolved into a weapon. And that's the beauty of the nunchaku when you consider them in the context of say, Okinawa, where weapons were prohibited but crime was as common as any society without street lighting or a police force. Joe Average could pick up a set of nunchucks without ever having seen them before, start swinging, and have a good chance of hurting whoever gets in the way. That is the genius of a flail after all – all you have to do is swing it.
But to a traditional martial artist a flail is more than a flail, it is as versatile as the human hand. The simple bit of string (or occasionally chain) that binds the two pieces of wood has become an obsession to chuckers. Every book or video you encounter on nunchucks has someone demonstrating how to parry a straight punch – it's always a stepping straight punch with these people and if you read Wushu Watch on the regular you know why that is – and entwine it.
Then the opponent is thrown down by the wrist, somehow, as if his other hand isn't entirely free to do whatever he feels like in the meantime. This stupidity reaches its height when knives come into the equation.
Once again, if you happen to be attacked in your home and you have a set of nunchucks handy, they might help you. If you have a knife, or a baseball bat, or almost anything else, they will probably work better. The downside of flails is that they need a bit more space and as soon as they clatter off a wall or doorway, that swing is worthless. That is why passing your nunchucks all the way around someone's wrist or neck in a single smooth motion is so far-fetched. Fortunately few teachers are advocating taking your nunchucks with you, though in Nunchaku for the 21st Century, George Dillman insists that you take your chucks in your bag with you at all times.
In Nunchaku for the 21st Century, G-Dilly also lays out some of the more unorthodox strikes available to the chuck-master. Defeating the point of holding a flail, Dillman insists that throwing the butt of one of the sticks into the opponent's face, while holding the other, is a great surprise technique. But is it better than actually swinging at someone with a flail?
Fumio Demura's classic text Nunchaku: Karate Weapon of Self Defence contains a whole heap of silly stuff. For instance, using the area of the nunchucks with the most slack to catch that mythical overhead knife strike, entwining it, and throwing a perfect high kick.
Where Demura's book is at its best from a strategic stand point is encouraging the nunchuck user to simply swing at what is available. Clip yourself with a wooden nunchuck and it hurts. Take a full swing at someone's arm or leg and you're going to do some damage. Overwhelmingly, material on nunchucks focuses on defend and counter, which is all well and good from a chivalrous stand point, but if you have a weapon in hand, any time the opponent is close enough to attack you and they don't have a weapon, you have undermined the main reason to have a weapon. As with almost everything we discuss in Wushu Watch, nunchuckistadors focus on overcomplicated responses to oversimplified problems. A guy is coming at you with a stepping straight punch? Give him one of these!
If the stories about the origins of the nunchucks are true, they made sense at one point. The purpose of most weapons in most martial arts is to make use of what was permitted or available. The Shaolin monastery developed a reputation for its spear techniques, but to a single monk travelling on the road, who will likely run into trouble if he is waltzing around with a spear, the staff is far more useful because it makes use of what is ostensibly a walking stick. Similarly the weapons of Okinawan kobudo all seem reasonably discreet. The tonfa, which is essentially a night stick, is reckoned to be the handle from a grindstone. The kama is simply a sickle used for farmwork. The kuwa is just a hoe, and the eku is just an oar. The bo and jo are just plain old sticks. Other traditional weapons from the 'weaponless kingdom' include unnecessarily sturdy and sharp hair pins. Much like carrying a baseball in your car to justify the baseball bat in the trunk, all of these things can be justified in their context. If you carry around a sickle or sword or nunchuck today you'll draw a lot of questions and look like a tit.
The interesting thought is that there are tons of things that you carry around or encounter every day that can comfortably be weaponised almost as effectively as the stuff that we suspect Okinawan peasants had to make do with. The most obvious example that almost everyone will have in their pocket right now is a sturdy, jagged key.
Though this grip has often been criticised for the damage it can do to your hand if your connection is messy or your grip isn't sturdy.
Might be a door key, might be a car key. Better if it's a car key because it has a nice plastic pommel on it that you can clench in your fist, projecting the metal part from between your fingers like a low budget Wolverine cosplay.
Here's a fun thing to think about though: in 20 years time we might have moved away from car keys and towards the cards or contactless fobs that many new cars use now. Will martial artists in a hundred years' time reflect on the key as a weapon of circumstance with limited and simple application, or will they find a thousand ways to entangle a stepping straight punch between the key and the key ring?
Still, after taking a dump all over nunchucks it is well worth mentioning this video that made the rounds this week. It's a chap at a Dog Brothers meet-up, successfully using a three section staff (essentially giant nunchucks) to fight at range, ensnare and close on his opponent, and apply a stick choke for the finish! Events like this always look painful, but they allow martial artists who train with weapons to combat test their skills in an open environment. Of course, he's unlikely to carry that bad boy around with him all the time hidden down his trouser leg, but you can't fault a guy for playing with new techniques and applying them against resisting opponents, rather than slowly walking a class through how he would disarm a knife-wielding attacker.