by Genevra Littlejohn
An apocryphal story about the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi tells that while he was staying at an inn, he chanced to overhear the man next door exploding in rage after receiving a letter and a peony from the city’s most skilled swordmaster. The message was a polite rejection of the man’s invitation to duel, accompanied by a flower to soften the blow, but incensed, he threw letter and flower into the garbage. Musashi claimed the flower, and realized instantly that the peony–a flower with a delicate stalk, easily bruised or mangled–had been cut with a single crisp sword stroke, so smoothly that the stem had kept its shape.
The man in the next room over did not have the knowledge to recognize what he had been given; unequivocal proof of the samurai’s mastery. All he saw was the story his own ego was telling him. He could not see the cut.
Upon seeing the teaser photos for Netflix’s new live action Iron Fist adaptation, my immediate thought was of the Japanese martial art of kendo. “Kendo without respect is just grown men playing with sticks.” Bow to shomen, bow to Sensei, bow to opponents, fight with sincerity, swing with 100-percent effort. Our kun, the dojo motto that we repeated after every practice, began with a phrase which translated to “Please cut me.” Please challenge me to grow, please cut away the parts of me that prevent me from being a better human being. Even if it stings.
Those first release photos show actor Finn Jones, the titular Iron Fist, to be using a shinai–the bamboo practice sword used for swinging and sparring, meant to represent a katana–which does not fit him. It is the size which would be handed to a ten-year-old child. Even though a practice sword is made of bamboo and leather it is held and swung like the real thing. There’s a dedicated “cutting” edge. Jones is holding his child-sized shinai upside-down, with the edge pointed at his own face.
These are the first-release photos for this show, meant to court potential audiences and raise a buzz. They are supposed to show Jones’ character in his mastery, the intimidating martial arts superhero, but what I see is a grown man playing with a stick.
A new shinai is bound tight with red cotton string. The very first thing done upon receipt of it is that the string is cut to allow the separate bamboo staves to have room to flex on impact. A tied shinai is too dangerous to use against another human being. The four staves are locked together into one solid piece, which in sparring could cause a concussion or shatter a wrist. Every shinai visible in any of the photos is still tied with its little red strings.
It’s jarring to witness, this thing which is obvious to a kendoka, invisible to someone with no cultural or personal martial arts experience. It’s like a secret story being whispered inside the presented narrative. Because untying a shinai is such a simple thing, the work of thirty seconds, and in a show purportedly about martial arts the studio didn’t care enough to get it right–and now every shinai in that supposed dojo is a tool it would be disrespectful to use in an actual practice, if not straight-up murderous. We want to play with your toys, but we don’t want to have to work to understand them, the whisper goes. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you what it all means.
Iron Fist was an opportunity to challenge American audiences to believe that Asian people are individuals, capable of the full complement of human emotions and motivations. It was a chance to show that the Asian-American experience is as valid and real as the white American one, even if that made viewers a little uncomfortable. Whether through ignorance, or laziness, or greed, the showrunners transformed what could have been subtle strikes into the blows of blunt instruments good only for causing injury. I can’t help but wonder what other elements of the show will display the same lack of care, the same double story of congratulation when seen through white eyes and disrespect through Asian ones.
My second thought, upon seeing those photos, was “Wait. Is he doing kung fu?”
I consulted an instructor with twenty years of practice behind him, and he agreed that what we were looking at was an attempt at wushu or kung fu. In particular, Finn is performing a straight sword form. The Chinese straight sword is a double-edged weapon, unlike the single-edged Japanese katana; it is used for horizontal motions, figure-eight cuts, slashes and wicked flicks with the thinner and more flexible blade. A comparably stiffer katana would recoil or, worse, twist in its wielder’s hands and lodge in muscle or bone if used in this form. In an emergency, against great need, it could be done, as my instructor friend demonstrated for me with my own shinai. But even with his decades of practice, it was easy to see that the form was not well-matched to the weapon. His usual fluidity took on a subtle cramping, the motion of his wrist lost its suppleness due to the length of the hilt.
Iron Fist is only the most recent example of a mismatch that can be seen across many movies and television shows down the years. Forbidden Kingdom, The Last Samurai, David Carradine made more famous by a role designed for Bruce Lee. Filmmakers who would never confuse German culture with French casually demand Korean actors to show up to auditions in kimono, or only invite popular Chinese actresses to audition for the roles of Japanese historical figures.
Our Asian and Asian-American religious traditions, our architecture, our cuisine, are all indistinguishable from one another in the stories being told about us. You’d think that we’d get used to it. But when I heard that Netflix was doing an Iron Fist adaptation, I thought about everything that they got right, first with Jessica Jones, and then with Luke Cage almost immediately afterward. A show about a woman where she behaved like an actual woman might do, right or wrong, conflicted and angry and real; a show about a black man where the character was allowed nuance and depth and an authentically black upbringing that white viewers might find a little out of their experience. I thought that at last we might get to see an Asian-American character portrayed like a human being instead of an incense-scented, silk-clad set piece there to dispense black tea and opaque wisdoms only understood in retrospect. There was such potential!
Instead, we are commanded to cheer for the same weary tale we’ve always been handed, about a white man who goes off to learn from Asian masters and then outpaces them. A man who takes just a little time off from his real life and becomes adept at someone else’s life’s art. We see the main character standing in his street shoes on a Japanese dojo floor, making a very poor attempt at a Chinese fighting stance with a weapon that cannot possibly belong to him.
The show’s creators expect us to see only the flower, not the cut.
Kendo is a little different from many other martial arts in that it is always practiced with a partner. A kendoka can swing on their own, practice footwork on their own, but all kata is paired. All active striking is against another person. Even though they go into every sparring match striving to do the very best that they can, to win, to strike and not be hit, the philosophy of the art demands unselfishness. As development in the art matures a practitioner will begin to see a difference in how others practice. They might begin to overhear the Sensei referring to one practitioner’s kendo as “selfish,” or another’s as “generous.” The phrase isn’t discussing making it easy on one’s opponent, it’s about sincerity, about respecting one’s opponent as a human being inside the armor. About not sparring lazily, about giving good effort no matter whether fighting a stranger or a friend. Part of respectful practice is to think about what is being provided to the other person; a young student hears over and over that if they are on the attack, they must show the respect of striking cleanly, and if they are acting as the receiver of strikes, they must still challenge their opponent, remembering that it is only because there is another person present that improvement can be made. When they drift off and daydream about striking during the time to be struck, when they selfishly begin to think of people just as targets, their kendo becomes weak.
Everything I am seeing about this production demonstrates selfishness. They are simply not even thinking about huge portions of their potential audience, and because they have that little respect for the cultures they are drawing from–and presumably that little respect for their own martial artist stuntfolk, so many years of experience dismissed, knowledge of their own heritage dismissed, treated as useful bodies with no mouths.
It’s not merely the purposeful racism of “we should probably hire an Asian actor to play this role, but we’ll hire a white guy anyway,” it’s an ignorance with no desire to become educated. Since it all looks the same anyway, why bother spending the time and effort on legitimacy? Throw a dojo in there and fill it with people who can’t tie their belts, nobody important is going to know the difference. Make sure the soundtrack has an erhu in it, that’ll make it other enough to be exciting. A sword is a sword, and the portrait of one bearded old Asian man on the dojo wall is the same as any other. And the result is this: the white man walks to the middle of the dojo floor in his street shoes, not caring that his barefooted practicemates will now have to navigate the debris he strews behind him. He picks up a sword meant for a child, and without preparing it for use he clumsily demonstrates a form from the wrong culture with it. And though the show is not yet released, I’d be willing to bet money that we, and everyone standing in that school, are supposed to be impressed.
What kind of story do these showrunners want to tell? Without respect, a story they are telling about a culture not their own becomes nothing but grown adults acting out old racist games, and demanding we applaud.
Genevra Littlejohn is a queer, Filipino-American martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and a cuddlesome cat. If she’s not at practice or reading, she’s probably in the garden, crooning at her tomatoes.