Fight scenes are awesome. They’re what define an entire genre of story and many media lives or dies entirely based on how well it is. It’s worth noting, I’m no expert in the field. I didn’t go to college and get a relevant degree, but whether or not one agrees with my assessment doesn’t make it right or wrong. That’s the beauty of storytelling though; we all react and interpret the same ‘data’ in our own unique and deeply personal ways. While there is no objective right or wrong answer to the question, “what makes a fight scene great,” I feel confident that I can convince many of you to agree with the points I make. I also hope I can help you understand why you like certain fight scenes so much even if you couldn’t really figure out why. Also, that my discussion leads to you seeking out your own answers and thinking more critically about what makes a scene great.
Choreography, spectacle and direction all play a big factor into making a fight scene *look* good, but that’s not really what I find that makes one so compelling. After all, whether or not these are done well in any individual scene can be entirely subjective. It’s also not the most important part of making a great fight scene funnily enough. There are three main factors that make a fight good beyond the superficial: Buildup, Character, and Themes. I’ll use examples that are beloved and repeatedly praised for being great fights to help explain each of them. These examples will also help show that while a lot of subjectivity is involved in enjoying a scene, certain traits objectively make a fight better. This article will contain spoilers from the following shows: Tokyo Ghoul, Naruto, and My Hero Academia. If you wanna read the article without spoilers, I’ll mark each paragraph that contains spoilers with bolding the first word so you can skip them.
Buildup, anticipation, hype; the act of foreshadowing, hinting at and setting up a fight well before the fight itself takes place plays a massive role in making a fight scene more enjoyable. Spontaneity can be great for shaking things up and keeping the audience on their toes, however it’s hard to have a battle between a faceless assassin have the sense of urgency and scale as when they finally show down with a character the plot has been giving significance for several arcs. If your protagonist has been hearing stories of ‘Ivard the Skull-splitter,’ a mercenary renowned for their brutality and for being the greatest swordsman in all the land, the audience will begin to hunger for the two to fight. Even better can be having a scene where the two do meet but a fight doesn’t take place; perhaps they are fighting the same enemy and the protagonist reluctantly has to work with them but sees how powerful they are. Perhaps they have a tense conversation that nearly comes to blows, but then an outside influence separates them. The more you make your audience want a fight to happen, the more satisfaction they feel when it finally happens.
To help paint a picture of why this makes a fight so satisfying, I’d like to use an example from Tokyo Ghoul, specifically the anime. One of my all time favorite fight scenes, even if on the surface it seems to be a pretty straight forward, simple, and even one sided, is the fight between Kaneki and Jason. In the first season of Tokyo Ghoul, Kaneki was a normal human before unexpected events turned him into a ghoul. Ghouls look exactly like humans but are much stronger, tougher, and can only get sustenance from human flesh. Kaneki gains these ghoul powers but is much weaker than almost everyone else we see. He is a pacifist at his heart that is suddenly thrust into a violent world and oftentimes cries over the awful situation he has suddenly been thrust into. In contrast, we hear stories about a ghoul that is a terror to both the humans and the ghouls of the story. He’s a massive and imposing figure that is known for his brutality, that people are afraid to even talk about. We even see scenes that back up his reputation, including him fighting two previously established strong characters quite leisurely before getting bored and leaving. Later, he arrives at the place Kaneki resides in and captures him, however not before he brutalizes him for an uncomfortable amount of time, impaling him repeatedly and smashing his face over every surface in the coffee shop.
This however was only the beginning of the brutality Kaneki would experience. I will not go into the graphic details fully, but Jason takes Kaneki to his personal torture chamber and proceeds to brutally torture him for 10 days straight. He takes advantage of the regenerative powers ghouls have to repeatedly do awful things to him for fun and also psychologically tortures him over these ten days. This torture leads Kaneki to finally accept his ghoul half, which he had been rejecting because he was clinging to his humanity and becomes much stronger. Jason returns on the 10th day to kill Kaneki, but Kaneki breaks free and a fight ensues, with all the hype built up for this. Not only was time spent to build up anticipation, but the absolutely horrific acts Jason committed made us want to see him get his comeuppance and Kaneki has been too nice of a person to ever fully fight someone before to the point of us getting irritated with him. Seeing him fully throw himself into a fight, against the strongest character we’ve seen no less and absolutely crush someone is deeply satisfying. The fight is an absolute slaughter in Kaneki’s favor, one that I and many others absolutely love. There isn’t really any back and forth, Kaneki dominates the fight from start to finish, yet the fight is made even more rewarding for that. We see the fearless Jason terrified and completely break down, we see the weak and terrified Kaneki fearless and powerful. This is the pay off for dozens of scenes that made us want to see Kaneki both grow a spine and Jason get his comeuppance. It is not only an amazing fight, but an amazing end to the first season as Kaneki killing him closes out the episode.
Every story revolves around characters. It should come as no surprise then that good characters make for good fight scenes. However it goes beyond simply having interesting characters fight making a good fight. It’s about not just the characters but the journey they are taking and what the fight means for both parties. Rarely does a truly memorable fight have stakes only pertaining to the immediate physical act of the fight. It’s not just “if I lose I’ll get beat up, if I win I beat them up.” Memorable fights make us care about the outcome because it means so much for the story and the character. Victory can mean proving one’s philosophy or ideals, it can mean the protection of loved ones or even the saving of the world, and thus defeat often means the inverse for our protagonist. That the world is doomed, that a belief they hold dear is wrong, that their loved ones will pay the price for their defeat. Having stakes that pertain to the characters makes us invested in the outcome because we care about what is at stake.
Uniquely, one of the greatest fights in Naruto was a fight that didn’t involve any of the main cast. It is a fight you will find on any list discussing the best fights in anime with neither character having main character status. This fight is of course “Rock Lee vs Gaara” during the Chunin exams of Naruto. What’s so great about this fight is just how different both combatants are. In fighting style, in the way they are presented to the audience and story, in their motivations and personalities, and even in the way they look. Rock Lee has been set up almost as a joke character up to this point. Naruto’s world is full of Ninjas that manipulate a special internal energy called chakra, which allows them to do incredible feats like shooting massive balls of fire from one’s mouth (Ninjutsu), advanced martial arts techniques (Taijutsu), and trapping a person’s brain in a trance where they perceive an illusory scenario until they can snap out of it (Genjutsu). Rock Lee is only capable of Taijutsu, which puts him at a severe disadvantage against 99% of ninjas, and this makes him the laughing stock of many. He has had to train his body well beyond that of his peers in order to keep up and is still not taken seriously by most of them. His appearance is also absolutely ridiculous and the source of humor and nicknames as well (like Bushy Brow) and his attempts to hit on the lead female in the series is also met with ridicule and played off as a joke. That’s not to say that’s all his character was up to this point, he had moments where he showed off his prowess and even bested one of the main characters, but his overall presentation is that this isn’t a character to take seriously.
Juxtaposed to that we have his opponent Gaara. A mysterious ninja from a neighboring village that is truly terrifying. Every scene we see him in has an ominous feel to it, like something terrible is on the verge of happening, and many times we see him act in terrifying and horrific ways. He expresses a deep love of killing, stating it’s the entire reason for his existence, and has been seen several times completely overwhelming and killing his opponents. Not only that but he’s so powerful that he doesn’t even move when he fights, instead sand from the gourd he carries on his back that overwhelms and crushes his opponents. Not only does it attack his foes but it also provides him omni-directional protection from attacks, even if he’s completely unaware of it. He has never even been touched by an opponent in a fight, should an attack land his entire body is covered in a layer of dense sand that forms like a second layer of skin and protects him from injury. The only movement he is shown doing is tightening his fist to cause sand wrapped around an individual to crush them. He’s presented as the last person you’d want to run into alone; extremely unstable and extremely dangerous. He travels with his brother and sister, who’re both terrified of him and fear that if they misspeak or misstep that he’ll kill them.
Before the fight even begins you feel worried and even pity Rock Lee. Someone with no special abilities is forced to fight the scariest student in the show, how can this possibly be fair? And as the start fights, everything Rock Lee tries is effortlessly deflected and it seems impossible for him to even touch Gaara. Gaara even begins toying with him and saying there hasn’t been enough blood for him to be satisfied. That is until Rock Lees mentor gives him permission to ‘take them off,’ and that’s where the character part of the fight comes into play. You see Rock Lee and by proxy this entire fight, is a case study in ‘Attitude vs Aptitude’, in that he has no raw talent and no natural capabilities that give him an advantage. Many people are born with amazing talent, but do not achieve their potential because they have the wrong attitude and don’t feel the need to work on improving themselves. Lee has hard to work hard to reach even the starting point of most others. That is his strength and what makes him such a compelling character. What his mentor meant when he said “you can take them off” was the extremely heavy training weights he had around his limbs under his clothes. We see that everything he does and everything he has done up to this point, is done with massive weights on so that he is always training. As he takes them off they are heavy enough to make dust explosions as he is fast enough to blitz Gaara and land the first hit on him of his entire life. The fight is intense and full of back and forth, tragically with Lee losing in the end, but even after the arms and bones in his legs are crushed, he stands back up and enters a ready stance before the match is called. If we knew nothing of these characters the fight would be entertaining, but it’s because of their struggles, personalities, differences and interactions that we get something truly special and memorable.
Lastly, themes can play a massive role in making a fight spectacular. I’m hoping by now you’ve noticed a trend in that it is often what is happening behind the scenes and outside the fight itself that makes a scene so great. Yet another potent way for a fight to be enriched is by imbuing important themes of the story into the conflict itself. Themes are often the way the creator of a story imparts something into the audience, that it shares with them an idea or philosophy and in many ways attempts to change the way the audience interacts with their own lives. While I briefly mentioned it in Rock Lee vs Gaara with the ‘Attitude vs Aptitude,’ themes go a long way in amplifying conflict. When themes become integral to the conflict, we become invested and it often provides us with interesting answers to important questions the story has been posing.
A great example of this can be seen in My Hero Academia. To greatly simplify things, our protagonist Deku was born into a society of super powered individuals without having any powers of his own. However due to his heroism, he’s been given an opportunity to prove himself and even given a superpower of his own. Much like Rock Lee, he has had to train much harder than anyone else to even make it into the hero school he was aiming for, spending months of time training every day and following a strict regimen. On the other side of the coin we have a character named Todoroki. A side-effect of a nastier side of the super-hero society, he was the result of a superhero wishing to have a powerful child and mating with someone who would have complimentary powers that his offspring could inherit. He can manipulate ice and fire, abilities that offset the drawbacks of each other. Using too much fire can overheat him and too much ice will cause his body to freeze up, but he can entirely offset it by using the other power. Todoroki’s traumatic upbringing has left him rightfully resentful of his father and so he refuses to use the fire half of his quirk out of spite, believing that he can be a hero without it. In a school tournament, Deku and Todoroki are set to fight one another and this sets the stage for more than a simple brawl.
Deku and Todoroki are both fighting to prove an ideal to both themselves and their opponent. Todoroki believes he can win without relying on his dads power as he perceives it, however this greatly upsets Deku, as everyone is fighting with everything they have trying to make their dreams a reality and views Todoroki using half of his strength as an insult to the efforts of Deku and his peers. Deku on the other hand knows about Todoroki’s upbringing, the resentment he has towards his father, and sees that he is severely hurting himself by refusing to be everything he can be. Deku sees his opponent as someone who needs to be saved from himself and puts everything he has into overcoming Todoroki’s philosophy. This makes their match about much more than simply advancing to the next round of the tournament, it sets up a thematic duel that takes place alongside their physical one. Deku breaks finger after finger to continue to fight Todoroki and prove his point to him as he refuses to give up. Todoroki can’t understand why Deku is trying so hard and towards the end of the fight Deku finally breaks through to him. “It’s yours, your quirk, not his!” This simple line helps Todoroki understand that he’s not a slave to his lineage. That even if the quirk he received was from someone he resents, he can use it for something pure and help others. This thematic resonance also creates a unique outcome not possible without it: Deku loses the physical fight due to Todoroki no longer holding himself back but wins the thematic battle by getting him to use his full power and that victory ends up shaping the entirety of the story. Todoroki no longer holds himself back and gives it his all to become the best he can be, without this change many events Todoroki is involved in going forward would be impossible to achieve and would have ended horribly. It was also quite shocking and unexpected to see the protagonist lose his battle, yet it is because of this loss that the theme is driven home. It would have greatly cheapened the point he was making if he convinced Todoroki to fight fully and still won.
And… that’s a wrap! I hope you enjoyed this perspective and that it might have gotten you to think differently about what goes into a good fight. While all of my examples were from anime/manga, these ideas transcend format and can be found in books, video games, movies and more! What are some of your favorite fight scenes? Do you think a different fight would have been a much better example than the ones I used? Let me know! Until next time, thank you so much for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed, and stay healthy!