Monday, February 22, 2010

Deadliest Warrior: Samurai!

So, why are Samurai so awesome? Because they’re Samurai, duh! But in all seriousness, everybody’s familiar with these guys, the elite warrior class of feudal Japan, who followed the warrior code of Bushido, and practiced the kicking of asses and the taking of names.

But apart from being awesome in battle, Bushido placed an emphasis on loyalty, and self-sacrifice. The seven virtues of Bushido are Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, and Loyalty. To be called Samurai, a warrior had to practice these in his daily life. Honor was so important to a Samurai that they had a tradition of ritual suicide, practiced by defeated warriors to regain any honor they may have lost.

The act of suicide, called seppuku, involved the Samurai cutting open his own abdomen in a very dramatic (not to mention painful) fashion. Death was dealt to opponents by cutting off their head, or some other blow that would be quick and efficient. They weren’t big into making people suffer, excepting themselves, apparently.

So, on Deadliest Warrior, Tetsuro Shigematsu, a descendant of Samurai, and Brett Chan, a master of Samurai weapons showed us what Samurai weapons could do. The weapons tested were the Katana, the Naginata, the Yumi bow, and the Kanabo.

The Katana is perhaps to most idolized and idealized of swords. And for good reason: It’s awesome! Over two feet long and made of glittering steel, it’s basically a giant razor blade. It’s made with a technique of folding the steel over and over again so it becomes extra strong. Some blades don’t even need to be sharpened, so I’ve heard. But you definitely want to keep them clean, since human blood corrodes steel. One way swords were tested was on human bodies. They were graded by how many people, usually criminals, they could slash through with one stroke. On the show, they tested a blade against some dead pigs. It cut clean through two of them, and partway through a third.

Other swords the Samurai used were the wakizashi, the tanto, and the odachi. The wakizashi was about half the length of the katana, and the Samurai would draw it in situations when the Katana’s length was a hindrance. It was also the sword he would use to commit seppuku. Miyamoto Musashi was famous for using both swords at once. In battle, not to kill himself.

The tanto was basically a knife, but it had the same basic shape as other Samurai swords. At the other end was the odachi, which literally meant “great big sword.” Appropriate as it actually was a great big sword. An odachi was typically five feet or longer. It was often used for ceremonial purposes, and rare was the warrior who could handle such a long blade. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to start something with the guy who could.

The Naginata combined the slashing power of a Katana with the safety of a lance’s distance. It was a spear with a short curved blade, and it was the second most popular weapon of a Samurai. Similar weapons were also used by Buddhist monks in Japan. A guy by the name of Saito Musashibo Benkei used a Naginata to hold off a bunch of guys bent on killing him and his master Minomoto no Yoshitsune. The master had gone to commit seppuku and requested that Saito hold the door while he killed himself, and hold it he did. The guys trying to kill him finally just shot him with a bunch of arrows, but even that didn’t seem to bother him as he just stood there. Somebody finally got the courage to go up to him, and they realized that he’d freaking died while still standing!

Another weapon tested was the Yumi, although at one point in their history, the Samurai abandoned the bow entirely, considering it an ashigeru, or "common" weapon. But it was probably featured on the show to give the Samurai some kind of projectile weapon. A Yumi has the same basic shape as any other bow, but the handgrip is further down on the stave. Shigematsu demonstrated it’s accuracy by shooting out the eyes of a dummy at twenty-five feet. He also shot targets at forty-five feet, calling his shots and making his mark each time.

The final weapon featured on the show was the Kanabo, a weapon that has near-mythical status in Japan. Very few warriors wielded it due to its cumbersome weight, but it was often featured in pictures of Oni demons. In case you didn’t know, Oni in Japan were kind of like ogres are to Westerners; really, really big. The Kanabo was a wooden club with metal studs covering most of the shaft. In the tests, it busted a Viking shield, and shattered the femur of a cow. Imagine what that kind of power would do to your head.

Samurai were also famous for their distinctive armor. Made of leather and metal, it was designed to deflect blows, rather than block them. A very effective design, since if a blow was strong enough to break your armor, it would be better to have it slide off of you instead of standing there and taking it.

So, all told, I’m not upset that the Samurai won, even though I was rooting for the Viking. I mean, if being a Samurai can make Tom Cruise look awesome, who am I to argue with their awesomeness?

Deadliest Warrior: Viking!

Everybody knows Vikings as the bearded guys who talk funny, wear horned helmets, and sing really loudly in Wagnerian operas. What you might not have known, is that they also kicked a lot of ass. They were intrepid explorers, setting out in their longboats, discovering new lands, (including a strange, America-shaped continent hundreds of years before Columbus) and raping and pillaging almost everyone they encountered.

When they weren’t raping and pillaging, they could be found in almost every Scandinavian country. Some of my ancestors were Swedish Vikings. Some Vikings can be found in Minnesota today, but that’s a subject for another time.

Part of their ferocious behavior can be explained by their religious beliefs. In Old Norse mythology, it was believed that in order to go to Valhalla, you had to die in battle. If you didn’t, you went to Hel, which was not the same as H-E-L-L, but it wasn’t much fun. In Valhalla, warriors became spirits called einherjar, and battled each other all day. This was done so that they would be ready for Ragnorok, the final battle. Then, when all the battles were done for the day, the warriors would retire to Odin’s mead hall, where they ate and drank their fill.

Mead was served to them by the Valkyries, beautiful and dangerous warrior women. When they weren’t keeping deceased Vikings entertained, the Valkyries would fly above battlefield, invisible to the eye. They decided who would live, and who would die. One way of honoring the Valkyries was to take a slain opponent, split his ribcage open, and spread it out like a gory pair of wings.

A special class of Viking warrior was the berserker. Going into battle with nothing but a bearskin coat to protect them, the berserkers fought without fear, and without mercy. It was believed that to “go berserk” was to be possessed of a kind of courage that made the warrior invincible. Some berserkers gave themselves so fully to this battle-fury that they even turned on their comrades if they got in their way. Whether the berserkers actually had some supernatural power, or if they were just high on magic mushrooms, is up for debate, but either way, they were not to be trifled with.

So it’s no surprise these guys would wind up on Deadliest Warrior. The Viking experts were Casey Hendershot, a Viking weapons instructor, and Matt Nelson, a Viking combat expert, and descendant of Danish Vikings. You’re in good company sir!

The weapons tested were the Great Axe, the Long Sword, the spear, and the shield. These are pretty common weapons in most ancient cultures, so they don’t much description, but the thing that characterized Viking weapons is an emphasis on sheer power. Mostly, these were weapons that would kill in one blow.

While Vikings did use the bow and arrow, the only distance weapon in this simulation was the spear. Used in melee combat, or thrown, Vikings would often hurl two at once. The shield was a typical round wooden shield with metal studs. In addition to protection, it could be used to bash an enemy’s head in.

Another trick they’d use in battle was to block an enemy’s attack with their long sword, and then quickly draw their dagger and stab them with it. This was usually employed when taking an enemy ship, overwhelming the crew before they could set up a defense.

They also wore thick animal hides, to protect and against the cold, and chain mail, to protect against stabbing. In fact, their chain mail defeated one of the most awesome weapons of all time: the Katana! That’s right, the sword Uma Thurman used to kill a buttload of bad guys in Kill Bill, Vol. One, couldn’t cut through Viking armor.

Another Viking subject worth addressing is music. Specifically, the music style, Viking Metal. That's right, there's Death Metal, Speed Metal, Black Metal, now there's Viking Metal. For a song that totally kicks your ass, check out Into the Battle, by Ensiferum. It's crazy.

So, even though the Viking lost on the show, we at least got to see why you wouldn’t want to mess with these guys. Unless of course, you wanted to be killed. In that case, see in Valhalla!

Deadliest Warrior: Apache!

The Apache are a linguistic group of Native Americans from the American southwest. There are many different groups, but they have many cultural similarities. But I’m not here to talk about their culture. I’m here to tell you why they were on Deadliest Warrior.

It is not known for certain where they got their name, but it could be from a Yavapai word meaning “enemy.” Just knowing their name gives you an idea of their legendary ferocity. Probably the best-known Apache warrior was Geronimo, who, like others before him, waged guerilla warfare to drive white people and Mexicans off his land. Even though the other guys had all the guns, the Apache had other ways to fight.

One common technique was that of a predator silently stalking his prey. Groups of warriors would coordinate their efforts and surround their enemies, some infiltrating the camp, others holding their bows at the ready. By the time an enemy knew they were being attacked, it was usually too late, falling to a deadly assault by arrow and knife.

Adding to their frightening reputation was the practice of scalping defeated enemies, sometimes while they were still alive, (ouch) although, to be fair, they weren’t the only Native American people to practice it, and white people also used it as terror technique against them. The Apache also wore face paint, often using a black and white pattern that mimicked the face of a raccoon. They used other patterns, too, but they all served to make them look scary to whoever was on the ouch-end of their blades.

So, what weapons did the Apache use? Well, the ones tested on Deadliest Warrior were the tomahawk, the knife, the war club, and the bow and arrows. They also used spears, and bucklers made from hide, but these weren’t featured on the show. The experts brought in to test the weapons were Alan Tofoya, a world champion knife fighter, and Snake Blocker, a U.S. Army Combat Instructor, both Apache by descent.

Snake demonstrated two types of tomahawk, one made of stone, and another made from a horse’s jawbone. Both of them can give you a head injury that you’d need more than a band-aid to recover from. After European people began trading with the Apache, steel tomahawks would have been added to their arsenal, but these were not put into play on the show.

The stone knife was up next, and Snake was able to throw three knives at three different targets in as many seconds. In response to critique that if you throw your knife, you wouldn’t have anything to defend yourself with if you missed, Snake pointed out that an Apache warrior wouldn’t have just one knife. He’d have as many as he could possibly carry. Well put, sir!

The bow and arrow was tested against the gladiator’s sling. The bow got the edge for accuracy, speed, and range. Tafoya used it to put so many arrows into a gel torso that it looked like a porcupine. Another fact worth noting was the Apache used more than one type of arrowhead, much like bow-hunting aficionados do today. When asked what his favorite arrowhead was, Tafoya responded, “The one that pierces your heart.” (cue nervous laughter)

The war club was the only weapon that failed in the tests. It could crush a skull, but it couldn’t put a dent in a gladiator’s helmet. Snake hit the thing like ten times, but all he managed to do was break the head off the club. The air of embarrassment around him was palpable, even through the TV screen.

So, even though the gladiator’s weapons were more impressive for shear killing power, the Apache won due to versatility, and probably the fact that they would have been used to fighting people with bigger toys than them. So, Apache, my hat goes off to you. Unless of course, you’re thinking of scalping me. LOL