How real-life martial arts influenced all three Shenmue games

After a surprise announcement at E3 2015 and a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, Shenmue III finally arrived last month and it…. didn’t exactly blow us away. Developer Ys Net has painstakingly recreated the goofy and stilted charm that defined the first two Shenmue games, but that charm sadly isn’t as easy to appreciate in 2019 as it was 20 years ago when the original Shenmue arrived.

Thankfully, much like its two predecessors, Shenmue III has plenty of martial arts fighting to satiate players who just want to wade in and put their combat skills to the test. One thing the Shenmue series has always been good at is showing off the diverse and dynamic nature of different martial arts styles, be they real or made up, and Shenmue III is no different. In this article we’ll take a look at the various styles which have popped up in all three Shenmue games and, where applicable, explore their real-life history and applications.

Jiu-Jitsu

Shenmue protagonist Ryo Hazuki is often referenced as being a practitioner of “Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu,” a style which he learned from his father, Iwao. He even specifically says “Jiu-Jitsu” at several points in Shenmue II when other characters ask him what his style is. But it’s important to note the clear distinctions between traditional Jiu-Jitsu and the fictional Hazuki style Ys Net crafted for the Shenmue games.

Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that’s native to Japan, so the fact that Ryo and has father are devote practitioners isn’t too surprising. What is surprising is how much traditional Jiu-Jitsu and Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu differ from each other. Traditional Jiu-Jitsu’s origins stretch all the way back to the year 1532, during Japan’s turbulent Sengoku period. Unlike other martial arts of the time which focused predominantly on striking techniques, Jiu-Jitsu was designed to help warriors defend themselves against armed opponents, and thus a heavy emphasis was placed on grappling, joint locks, weapon disarms, and choking techniques.

In the first two Shenmue games, Ryo can execute a number of different throws, locks, and pins (grappling and throws aren’t included in Shenmue III’s fighting system), but his preferred method of combat is clearly utilizing striking moves such as punches, chops, elbows, and kicks. Indeed, many fans have noted that his overall fighting repertoire more closely resembles Karate than traditional Jiu-Jitsu.

The striking-heavy makeup of Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu makes more sense as players work through Shenmue II and Shenmue III, which are both set in China, and learn more about the time Ryo’s father, Iwao, spent in the region. There are influences of Chinese Kung Fu in Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu, specifically the Bajiquan style (which we’ll get to) that gave Iwao’s (and later Ryo’s) style its signature technique: the Elbow Assault. .

Fans theorize that Ys Net decided to label the style as “Jiu-Jitsu” (even though it doesn’t really resemble traditional Jiu-Jitsu at all) to pay proper homage to Ryo’s homeland of Japan. Of course, as we’ll soon see, the “Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu” Ryo is equipped with in the very first Shenmue game can look quite different by the time he’s trading blows with other martial artists in Shenmue III.

Yan Qing

Across all three Shenmue games, Ryo can learn new combat moves from an eclectic cast of NPC’s, and one of the first characters to offer a new technique to Ryo is his aloof friend Guizhang Chen. Though he never says as much in Shenmue proper, Guizhang is a practitioner of a unique form of Chinese Kung Fu called Yan Qing Quan (also referred to as “Yanqingquan”).

Guizhang’s Yan Qing consists mainly of dynamic kicks, giving it a close resemblance to the kicking-focused Korean art of Tae Kwon Do. Yan Qing is also the name of a fictional character in Water Margin, a famous novel in Chinese literature and one of the four great works that includes the Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga. Unsurprisingly, the character of Yan Qing, in addition to being a skilled archer and wrestler, is also a martial arts master.

Since Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki also helped Sega develop and launch the Virtua Fighter fighting game series, influences of Virtua Fighter can be seen throughout both Shenmue and Shenmue II, and what some fans may not know is that those influences extend to how some characters fight. Those familiar with Virtua Fighter may recognize Guizhang’s Yan Qing style as the same style used by Virtua Fighter competitor Pai Chan.    

Tai Chi

Ryo meets several Tai Chi masters in Shenmue II and even learns a few fighting techniques from them, which might sound a bit strange since Tai Chi isn’t often regarded as a combat art. In fact, Ryo himself even acknowledges as much when a Tai Chi master named Jianmin Tao offers to spar with him. What Ryo doesn’t learn until a bit later is that Jianmin is a master of a particular form of Tai Chi called Chen Style Tai Chi.

Unlike Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu, Chen Style Tai Chi is indeed a real style. In fact, it’s actually the oldest of the five traditional styles of Tai Chi, having been first developed in the year 1580. All five of the traditional styles are known to have more of a martial aspect than contemporary forms of Tai Chi, with the Chen style being said to focus on combat techniques more so than even the other four traditional styles.

Even still, to an outside observer Chen Style Tai Chi looks much the same as contemporary Tai Chi, with the practitioner seamlessly moving from one technique to the next in a slow flowing pattern. Hidden within those slow movements, however, are sudden bursts of power which define Chen Style Tai Chi and, as Jianmin explains to Ryo, reveal how advantageous Tai Chi can be in combat:

“Most styles start with force and develop into softness. Tai Chi starts with softness and develops into force.”

Pankration

Later on in Shenmue II’s story, Ryo is tasked with finding and defeating three elite street fighters, each of whom has mastered a particular fighting art. The first of those three, a goofy-looking yet brash fighter named Rod Stunt, is listed as being a master of  “Pancrantium” which, as far as we can tell isn’t actually a word and is likely just a slightly modified spelling for “Pancratium” which itself is a modified spelling of “Pankration,” a martial arts style hailing from Ancient Greece.

Pankration dates back to the 7th Century BC where it was an Ancient Greek combat sport that combined elements of the region’s other two major combat disciplines: boxing and wrestling. Whereas Ancient Greek boxing only allowed for punches and wrestling only allowed for throws and chokes, Pankration athletes could punch, kick, throw, choke, and, in the case of Spartans, even bite each other (non-Spartan regions didn’t allow unsportsmanlike moves like biting or eye gouging).

Along with being a revered combat sport, Pankration was also an integral part of the combat curriculum learned by Ancient Greek soldiers, and as such it was a no-frills sort of style with a focus on overwhelming opponents through sheer offense and devastating blows. This philosophy has carried on into modern Pankration which saw a resurgence in the 1960’s and 70’s thanks to Greek-American combat athlete Jim Arvanitis.

As for the “Pancrantium” practiced by Rod Stun in Shenmue II (and also by Virtua Fighter’s Jeffry McWild), it appears to at least have a passing resemblance to Ancient Greek Pankration. Stunt attempts to bully Ryo with straightforward punches and kicks as well as a few dynamic throws (including a piledriver). The gloves Jeffry McWild wears in later Virtua Fighter games also appear to be the very same gloves Jim Arvanitis helped design and create for modern Pankration practice. Since they’re both fingerless and padded, the gloves allow for seamless transitions between striking and grappling, and they even served as a prototype for the gloves modern MMA fighters now wear.

Jeet Kune Do

The last of the three elite street fighters Ryo must face is a cowboy-hat wearing female fighter named Chunyan Xu. As he observes Chunyan fighting another opponent, Ryo recognizes her style as Jeet Kune Do, which isn’t a big surprise considering her style is based off of Virtua Fighter competitor and Jeet Kune Do practitioner Sarah Bryant. Of course, any martial arts fan worth their salt will know that Jeet Kune Do isn’t an invention of Ys Net, it’s the fighting philosophy that was developed by one of the greatest martial arts pioneers in history: Bruce Lee.

Jeet Kune Do (which translates to “Way of the Intercepting Fist’) isn’t so much a formal martial arts style as it is a catalogue of essential combat lessons and doctrines. Bruce Lee, frustrated by the limitations of the traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu he had practiced since he was a child, opted to develop his own series of fighting methods that, unlike virtually every other martial arts style, would adapt to the practitioner instead of the other way around.

There is a series of core techniques that serve as the foundation for Jeet Kune Do (Lee mainly drew inspiration from Western boxing, European fencing, and his own Kung Fu background), and those techniques (particularly Lee’s lightning-fast counter-punches) often appear in the distinct fighting style Lee showed off in the various movies he starred in.

To be clear, the way in which Lee fought in his movies (the howling, the high jumps, the flying kicks, etc.) was just a show he put on, he fully acknowledged that what he demonstrated on screen wasn’t a practical way to fight in real life. However, that now-iconic showmanship has since come to define how Jeet Kune Do practitioners are often portrayed in movies and video games. The style used by Sarah Bryant and Chunyan Xu is clearly more flashy than even Lee’s movie antics, incorporating acrobatic backflip kicks and the like, but it also retains the quick punches, oblique kicks, and trapping techniques Lee developed for the Jeet Kune Do curriculum.             

Tiger Swallow

The Tiger Swallow style of Kung Fu practiced by several different Shenmue villains including Shenmue II’s Master Baihu and the big baddie himself Lan Di is an interesting amalgam of both real-life influences and fictional embellishment. According to the Shenmue series’ own lore, Tiger Swallow style is derived from three separate sources: Yanqingquan (the same style practiced by Guizhang Chen), another form of Kung Fu called Xiaohuyan (which is real), and a style called Dahuyan (which, as far as we can tell, is fictitious).

Tiger Swallow is also the style used by Virtual Fighter’s Lau Chan, and in both Shenmue and Virtua Fighter it’s defined by viciously direct punches and kicks that are meant to be “as powerful as a fierce tiger.” The “Swallow” part of the style’s name seems to refer mainly to its kicks which, unlike in Pankration or Chen Style Tai Chi, are more sweeping and acrobatic.

In Virtua Fighter, the style is technically referred to as Koen-ken (or “Tiger Swallow Fist”), but the principles of combining hard, direct punches with speedy and agile kicks remain the same. Some fans have remarked on how Tiger Swallow looks similar to certain forms from the Praying Mantis style of Northern Kung Fu, but that’s the only other real-life correlation that can be made other than the obvious Yanqingquan and Xiaohuyan influences.       

Bajiquan

Shenmue protagonist Ryo Hazuki is first exposed to the Chinese martial art of Bajiquan in Shenmue II when he meets the female Bajiquan master Xiuying Hong. He becomes even more inundated in the style in Shenmue III as he meets several other practitioners and masters. What Ryo doesn’t know, however, is that he’s been practicing Bajiquan, at least in part, all his life.

The default stance for Bajiquan, whose first recorded use dates it back to at least the year 1712, involves taking a wide stance and holding out your leading arm’s elbow so that your palm is pointed up towards the sky. This stance virtually mirrors the execution stance for the Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu technique Elbow Assault, revealing just how much Chinese Bajiquan influenced Ryo’s father Iwao when he created the Hazuki style.

The correlations between Bajiquan and Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu are further solidified later on in Shenmue II when Xiuying teaches Ryo a technique called Counter Elbow Assault. The move builds upon the standard Elbow Assault by adding an opening component where the practitioner first parries their opponent’s strike and then punishes the attempt with a devastating elbow thrust to the ribs, essentially using the opponent’s attacking energy against them.

In Shenmue III, Ryo learns several additional Bajiquan techniques, and his natural aptitude for the style seems to be Ys Net’s way of further hinting that his father was actually instructing him in a slightly modified version of Bajiquan mixed with more traditional Jiu-Jitsu moves. One could interpret Ryo’s devotion to Bajiquan in Shenmue III as him leaving Hazuki Style Jiu-Jitsu behind, but another interpretation could be that Ryo’s father Iwao simply took what he liked from Bajiquan and combined it with his own Japanese combat repertoire, much as Bruce Lee did with Jeet Kune Do. 

Animal Kung Fu

While Shenmue’s Tiger Swallow style may be fictitious, there are several real styles of Chinese Kung Fu that are influenced by and thus named after specific animal movements. The Praying Mantis style of Kung Fu we mentioned earlier is also seemingly used by the Shenmue villain Chai (though we only know that because his style mirrors that of Virtua Fighter’s Lion Rafale who is specifically listed as being a Praying Mantis practitioner).

In Shenmue III, Ryo encounters a villainous gang leader who has apparently mastered all five of the main animal styles: Tiger, Dragon, Crane, Snake, and Leopard. Aside from the obvious differences in stances, each of these five styles also exemplifies different techniques and combat philosophies. For example, the Leopard Style focuses on overwhelming opponents with speed and acrobatic ferocity, whereas the Crane Style focuses more on balance, defense, and accuracy so that when an opening is presented, the practitioner can counterattack with pressure point strikes using their fingers.

Sub-forms of these five main animal styles (including the aforementioned Praying Mantis) also exist, but they all derive from the five original styles. In Shenmue III, the gang leader is seemingly able to switch between the five main styles (or at least their basic stances) at will, and this actually makes sense considering the Chinese monks who developed the styles created them with different exercise attributes in mind (i.e. practitioners were encouraged to practice multiple styles, not just one).

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