They must spend a fortune on band-aids for their shoulder
August 3, 2005 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Where did the image of the Japanese hero carrying a big sword on his shoulder come from? Examples here, here, here, and here. It seems to come up a lot in Japanese videogames and toons.

I've seen mention of a Chinese folk hero named Wan Wu, that was known to carry a big scimitar, but I can't find much about the legend. Do we have a similar thing in American culture? I can think of a few cliche heroes, the cop, the cowboy, etc, but I don't think they have a specific pose associated with them.
posted by patgas to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Wish I knew.

Berserk seems to be a rather iconic example of this, but I doubt it's the original. (warning: link to large image)
posted by selfnoise at 7:00 AM on August 3, 2005

...couldn't it just be that swords are kinda heavy, and that's a natural place to rest them if you're planning on putting them into use in the near future?

And it looks cool?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:09 AM on August 3, 2005

Well, I guess my question would be... why do a lot of Japanese characters carry impossibly huge swords when Japanese swords tend to be fairly elegant and compact? Is it some kind of cliche or misread from Chinese or Western culture?
posted by selfnoise at 7:11 AM on August 3, 2005

There's a rather iconic photo of Toshiro Mifune carrying his sword on his shoulder in the 7 samurais.
posted by elgilito at 7:28 AM on August 3, 2005

The great big Japanese sword is called a no-dachi. Apparently, they are more common in fiction than in real life.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 7:34 AM on August 3, 2005

why do a lot of Japanese characters carry impossibly huge swords when Japanese swords tend to be fairly elegant and compact?

For much the same reasons that other characters carry impossibly huge guns, I would imagine.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:35 AM on August 3, 2005

I think Leotrotsky has it.
There are similar images of scotsmen with claymores, european soldiers or guards with pikes and american tough guys with shotguns.
As for why asian cartoon swords are so ridiculously huge, I've no idea.
posted by Zetetics at 7:40 AM on August 3, 2005

Japanese cartoons and games like to include characters with absurd weaponry (like a really large weapon or maybe a really huge cybernetic arm replacement). Also, there is big-sword history in Japan.

Take a look at these Nodachi links:

Colin Hyakutake-Watkin's site is how I first heard about these swords. Check that site out if you want to see someone expertly handling a ridiculously large sword.
posted by redteam at 7:46 AM on August 3, 2005

I think it might be a zanbatu. According to wikipedia, the Japanese version is probably fictional, although there was a Chinese version. Here is a picture.

A good book for finding out the origins of various anime tropes is Samurai from Outer Space by Antonia Levi.
posted by carmen at 8:01 AM on August 3, 2005

Just guessing here.

Regarding video games, maybe it's similar to why so many American characters get a BFG instead of only traditional pistols? It's just part of the genre. In FPS, there's a BFG that's so huge that just carrying it slows your character down. In most fighters, there's a person with a huge weapon (or who's just huge themselves) who has poor recovery times but does massive amounts of damage. In adventure games and RPGs, there's a very large sword that you can equip only with two hands, hence losing your shield; in this case, the sword's weight and power are conveyed through its size due to the limitations of the medium.
posted by aiko at 8:21 AM on August 3, 2005

Along the 7 Samurai line of thinking: doesn't the young hot shot Samurai have a huge sword? Presumably to make up for his lack of experience.
posted by ODiV at 8:25 AM on August 3, 2005

I am going to have to agree with the Seven Samurai line of thinking here.
It was and still is a very influential movie for both eastern and western culture.
posted by thefinned1 at 8:39 AM on August 3, 2005

Re: the title of this page ("They must spend a fortune on band-aids for their shoulder") most Japanese swords are sharpened on only one side, which allows you to rest the blunt side on your shoulder while keeping the sharp side pointed toward possible threat.

The point is that the sword-on-shoulder trope is probably more prevalent in Japanese culture than in, say, English, for precisely this reason: trying to rest a broad sword on you shoulder in a similar way would be difficult.

Similarly, the traditional Western badass stance - feet together, sword point in the ground, blade oriented vertically parallel with the legs, hands resting on pommel - would be awkward, if not impossible, with a samurai sword.
posted by ChasFile at 9:41 AM on August 3, 2005

The large blade you see in Japanese videogames is more of a caricature than archetypal representation of typical swords. If you look at Western comic books, you'll see muscle-clad men and Barbie women carrying impossibly-huge machine guns with unlimited bullets in each hand - same thing.

Eglito mentioned the long nodachi that Toshiro Mifune wields in Seven Samurai. It's a comedic device that further exxagerates his outlandish pseudo-samurai character in contrast to the traditional weapons carried by his companions. When you see him swing it in the movie, you can see how impractical of a close combat weapon it is - useful for cutting down mounted warriors but ineffective otherwise.

As for carrying it over the shoulder, Chasfile nailed it. Japanese swords are wedge-shaped and thus only have an edge on one side. The other side is flat and can be comfortably rested on the shoulder without injury. The daisho (katana and wakizashi) were normally slung across the left hip but if you're going to be walking around a lot, it's uncomfortable to be carrying all that weight low on one side. For an undedicated warrior, it's much easier to rest the balanced sword over the shoulder while gripping end of the handle (as opposed to hand-carrying it by the sheath).
posted by junesix at 11:36 AM on August 3, 2005

I think the real question is when did the sword get ridiculously and unrealistically oversized?

The first time I remember seeing it was in Final Fantasy VII (1997) with the character Cloud Strife. FF7 was hugely popular and influential, so I think anything after 1995 is going to be derivative. Sigfried from SC is certainly a big fat stinking Cloud ripoff.

Before FF7 I couldn't tell ya. I'd hazard it's just a natural development of the superdeformed/chibi style that appeared in manga or something.
posted by fleacircus at 4:06 PM on August 3, 2005

Well, I guess my question would be... why do a lot of Japanese characters carry impossibly huge swords when Japanese swords tend to be fairly elegant and compact? Is it some kind of cliche or misread from Chinese or Western culture?
posted by selfnoise at 7:11 AM PST on August 3 [!]

Well the difference is that a lot of these characters aren't Japanese, and their swords are stylized versions of European two-handed swords. Think how those swords are different from Japanese swords: they're much broader, longer, and straight. Overemphasize those three attributes and there you have it.
posted by fleacircus at 4:19 PM on August 3, 2005

When I say the characters aren't Japanese, I mean it in the same way that Robin Hood isn't American even in the most Hollywood portrayal.
posted by fleacircus at 4:24 PM on August 3, 2005

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