We all love a good fight scene. But what, exactly, constitutes a fight scene as “good”? It seems like a simple enough question, right?
Yeah, it’s not. And, really, the complexity of the question primarily comes from the overwhelming fact that there are just so many different kinds of fight scenes. After all, characters fight for different reasons, in different settings, with different rules, and so-on. There are so many elements that go into a fight scene that it can be difficult to really determine what category a fight scene falls into. And knowing how to define a fight scene is integral to figuring out if it’s actually any good or not. So let’s see what we can come up wi-
(Disclaimer: I am including “fights” in which characters don’t necessarily beat the snot out of each other, and may just battle wits)
One of the first things anyone wants to talk about when it comes to a fight scene is the flashy stuff. Powers, weapons, special moves, all that good stuff. And why not? It’s a reasonable ask. A show like Pokemon has been playing in this camp for decades, with each generation adding new monsters and a crap ton of new moves that the anime is free to get creative with… until it remembers that it still has to be the Pokemon anime and shunts all that creativity when people start to catch on that they do know the meaning of the word effort. C’est la vie, I guess.
Powers, special moves, and weapons have become a staple of action anime, especially in the Shonen genre and certain sections of the Magical Girl camp. Just tell me you don’t get a goofy smile on your face whenever you see those hands cupped together and hear the slow buildup of “Kame…Hame…” But then…
It’s specifically because of those giants that it always comes as a surprise when a wildly different show like Kobayashi-san chi no Maid Dragon shows up. A show that actually manages to pull off equally flashy action sequences that seem otherwise completely off-genre. It blows people’s minds. But then there are other types of fight scenes that don’t rely on flare at all, or at least they rely on it to a far lesser extent.
Shows like Overlord, for example, don’t really choose to make a spectacle out of most of the action sequences. And even when they do, there’s always a layer of complexity beneath things. Then there are shows like No Game, No Life, where there’s obviously little actual fighting, but characters still wind up combating one another, purely with their minds (and their cheating skills, let’s be honest). There are also shows like DanMachi which, while positively beautiful, uses a very limited pool of flashy techniques and abilities, despite them definitely being there.
Does that necessarily make them worse, however? Of course not. But that’s honestly where I think the next point comes in.
Obviously, this is a tricky subject because there are several elements in any given show that can inform how it’ll handle its fight scenes. The genre, the tone, the setting, the main premise, all of it heavily influences what you’re going to get out of the action. Usually, anyway. Let’s just all remember that it’ll still ultimately come down to the studio. Alas, not all studios are created equal. And sometimes a good one just… well…
Some shows don’t have inherently action-y premises or maybe they do, but their narrative doesn’t lend itself to incredibly over-the-top action scenes. So faulting them for having lackluster fights (when they happen) when compared to something intended to have amazing action can be bit unfair. It’d be like comparing a fight scene in, say, Cowboy Bebop to Hunter x Hunter. What the two series are going for is completely different.
However, shows that do have a more action-oriented premise or narrative do draw ire for lackluster action that doesn’t manage to deliver on some other basic elements. A show with action as a focus but a greater emphasis on tactics over bombastic shows of spectacle can still drop the ball if the tactical elements aren’t satisfying enough. If you never feel like the exchange is delivering those twists and turns that strategy battles are known to make strong use of.
Fate is a good example of this, with as many flash action sequences as purely tactical ones. The first season of the aforementioned Overlord plays this out as well (not so much the second season). The majority of its action sequences are much slower as Momonga takes a methodical approach to… well… everything. However, it’s still satisfying to watch because of how he manipulates the battle. And there are some scenes where his tactical mind is playing off of characters with a bit more spectacle to them. Characters like Shalltear in the final battle of season 1. But then… then there’s the way he dealt with Clementine, which, uh…
Taking the type of show into consideration allows you to compare to similar works, forming a better understanding of how effectively the scene plays out. To beat a dead horse into a fine powder, take Black Clover. On a basic level, it’s just another stock Shonen battle anime. But the thing that helps you determine that the fight scenes are so weak is that you have plenty of other things to compare to. For all its faults, Naruto’s action scenes are superior because of the creativity, animation, storytelling, and overall care put into them. And the reason that comparison works is because the two series are almost identical, save for a few core differences that ultimately aren’t significant enough to matter.
And that’s me being merciful enough to not compare it to Boku no Hero Academia, Fairy Tail, or anything like that. All of which house action scenes that’d just blow it out of the water.
However, speaking of Hero Aca…
Story (The Characters)
Another of the important elements in classifying a fight is why the fight is happening. What is the story you want your fight to tell or enhance? And this is something that the second season of Hero Aca managed to do brilliantly not once, not twice, but three times, and hopefully season 3 will continue the trend.
The example I’ll settle on – because I’m sure people are tired of hearing me talk about Todoroki by now – is Uraraka. And in case anyone is unaware, she is by far my favorite character in the thing. At least in terms of her character arc. Obviously, the plot relevance of her fight against Bakugo was unimportant. What mattered most was the fact that it was her, not Deku. And I’m plenty happy with that. Because it began her course down a character arc that was positively wonderful.
Her trying to beat Bakugo with her own plan, refusing Deku’s help, leads to her heartbreaking loss. Everything that happens after that was amazing as well, but what we’re here to talk about is her fight. She undoubtedly had an awesome fight scene and while it may not have been the prettiest one in the show (figuratively or literally, mind you, because she got positively rekt), it was amazingly effective and hit all the right notes. But the reason it was so effective is the character’s history, up to that point.
All throughout season 1, Uraraka built up a sort of reliance upon Midoriya. One that wasn’t ultimately going to help her come into her own. And she recognized this. He saved her during the entrance exam, he was the one who came up with the plan in their tag team test, and now here he is offering her a plan to help beat Bakugo, the most violent character in the entire school. Yet she refuses his help. This is something she intends to do alone. And the result is… well…
The characters involved in the fight inform the context of the fight to an extreme degree. Things like Stella vs. Ikki in Rakudai Kishi no Cavalry, wherein we learn basically all of the important information about both fighters in just the one episode, making the fight that much more impactful. Stella’s being lauded for her “natural talent” and Ikki’s being overlooked because of his lack of power. It’s all these little details of a character’s background and/or show history that help really give a fight scene that added edge.
One of the reasons people have a problem with Jiren in Dragon Ball Super is that he really doesn’t have any character in the anime. So while his fights are visually impressive, they just lack the impact that a lot of the franchise’s classic battles – Goku vs. Vegeta, Goku vs. Frieza, Gohan vs. Cell – have. But what about instances where one side of the fight isn’t an enemy with a face? What if they’re something like…
Well, this can be just as effective. Though it’s significantly more difficult to pull off. Making the adversary of the fight a faceless entity like Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru‘s Vertex is tricky. YuYuYu manages to pull this off because it really isn’t about the fight, to begin with. And by that point, are you even watching it for the fighting anymore? Furthermore, can we really even call these fight scenes if the enemy is some formless entity that isn’t really fighting back in the traditional sense? Possibly. I’ll leave that one up to you because I genuinely don’t know how I’d classify something like this and I think an argument could be made either way. But…
I think if you were going to make an argument for YuYuYu’s action being fight scenes and not just big action set pieces, then this is where you’ll find the strongest claim. The plot leading to the fight generally establishes the stakes. Mind you, the stakes don’t necessarily have to be all that intense. But this category does usually springboard off of the others since plot is just a sequence of events through which your story is realized by having the characters respond to it.
The fact of the matter is that most fight scenes involve some semblance of risk. Either the characters are in direct peril or the fights have consequences that will affect themselves and others. In the most extreme circumstances, the outcome may determine the fate of worlds, even reality itself. But in other cases, the stakes can be far more mundane.
As much as Vegeta wants to surpass Goku, if every story arc was just him trying to one-up his rival for the sake of his pride, Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super would be significantly less entertaining. There is the obvious counter being that pretty much every major fight since the beginning of DBZ has been for the fate of the world. But it’s a formula that works. When in doubt, threaten the planet. There are several series out there that manage to introduce significantly deeper stakes, though. Most of the best ones do tend to revolve around character motivations.
Take, for example, the original story arc of Yu-Gi-Oh. One might not think it high art, and they’d be right. But it’s still a good example of establishing stakes and using them to add meaningful impact to a conflict between characters. Best friends, Yugi and Joey, both enter the tournament with goals of their own, intending to save someone they love. And they know, going in, that this will bring them into conflict with one another by the end. The result is a tense scene wherein the fates of two characters not even seen in the fight are on the line. But you feel those stakes because the people involved also feel them.
This is what YuYuYu does so marvelously well, albeit on a far less specifically personal level. It certainly does get personal at one point. Especially for sisters, Fu and Itsuki. And that is a moment that plays out in devastatingly effective fashion. It’s just a unique example because, in this case, the stakes come into effect whether they lose or not. A rare example of a lose-lose situation.
As idiot obvious as this sounds… the fight should probably have a point in terms of power and should definitely make sense. One of the biggest problems with many Shonen battle anime is the failure to incorporate a power structure overall. As a result, power scales just go up and up and up and up and slowly, but surely, characters not on that train fall by the wayside. Many people in the anime community have taken to calling this “The Piccolo Effect.”
One of the most popular characters in the Dragon Ball franchise, Piccolo has long since fallen behind in terms of power. His strength was once enough to rival that of a Super Saiyan. And later he could compare to the likes of Super Saiyan 2. But after Zenkai boosts and transformations galore, Piccolo slowly became less and less relevant, leaving Goku and Vegeta to do all of the growing.
A fight scene won’t be exciting if it’s so one-sided that there’s no reason it should happen at all. But at the same time, the power scaling of a series needs to be consistent. One of the biggest issues in Dragon Ball Super’s Universal Survival Arc is that the power scales are all over the place. Apparently, Android 17 is able to compete with Super Saiyan Blue? Well, why didn’t he help out during the Buu saga? Or Resurrection F?
This kind of stuff is clearly the case of them putting the fights, themselves, ahead of having them make any real logical sense. But in a series where fighting is the point, much like Dragon Ball, you can’t really get away with that. Because then the fights can and will be picked apart. As amazing as a fight scene can look, it needs to make sense in the context of the show and what’s been established so far. Take Goku vs. Kefla, for example.
But as cool as it looks, there’s a reason Kale and Caulifla are such a touchy subject. They just dismiss a lot of what the franchise had built up around the Super Saiyan mythos. They simply shouldn’t have been as powerful as they were, to the point of forcing Ultra Instinct out of Goku. As awesome as it is to finally get some female Super Saiyans (or female Saiyans at all, for that matter, and no, we’re not counting Pan or Bulla), the cost was just too great. Pulling something like this runs the risk of breaking immersion. And the last thing you want a fight to do is take you out of what you’re watching.
So What Makes A Good Fight Scene?
Now. Are all those things absolutely always necessary? I remind you… this:
When it is there, it can help elevate a fight to be much greater than just an excuse for the animators to flex their muscles a bit. Still, sometimes that’s really all that’s required – flashy images for us to drool over. Honestly, all I think any fight scene truly needs is to be aware of what it’s trying to do. If all it wants is to show off, that’s cool. If it wants to tell a compelling story with the conflict between characters, that’s awesome too. Awareness goes a long way.
Action enhances a series. Be it flashy spectacle battles or slow and tactical duels, people like to see people competing against one another to some end. On friendly terms or as sworn enemies. Superpowers, environmental shifts and destruction, elaborate games of figurative chess, blink-and-you-miss-it decisive battles, all ways to give a series some personality. But I think we call all agree on one thing. The one thing that every action scene needs to be the best thing ever… is to play You Say Run over it. Kidding, kidding… Mostly. Are there any elements you think I missed? Maybe you’d like to see me make a series of this, breaking down all the elements further? Share your own thoughts below.
That’s all for me, folks. As always, thanks for reading. Keep up the awesome.