On Training Kunoichi

Twelfth Night and Kunoichi

I spent last night training a kunoichi.

My wife Maura is directing a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at her school. As often happens, I’m helping out, working with the actors on the language and teaching them combat. It’s fun to break out the scansion and fencing I learned as a young actor.

The students enjoy it too — though I’ll admit they prefer the sword fighting to the verse.

In Twelfth Night, there’s a character called Antonio, a pirate who rescues one of a pair of twins — the brother, Sebastian. Seeing Sebastian being attacked, he jumps to his defense, sword out.*

For a number of reasons, Maura chose to make Antonio into Antonia. She’s being played by Isabelle. Isabelle is not exactly physically imposing, and, in addition to her acting training, has a background in dance.

In the sword fight that I worked with her on last night, Antonia takes on two soldiers. We made the choice that she would best them decisively. Fighting with a rapier and a saber, she takes out two much larger men. At the point where she is about to kill them, Viola stops her.

Warrior Women

As you’ll probably understand, this got me thinking about women warriors, both legendary ones like China’s Fa Mulan (who isn’t just a Disney movie by the way!) and real ones like Lady Chiyome’s kunoichi.

As the two guards, Isabelle, and I were talking through the fight, I found myself telling them something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve been writing about Risuko’s adventures: the most skilled woman fighter has very specific advantages and disadvantages when it comes to fighting a trained man.

The man’s advantages are:

  1. He will generally be larger (The guards are between four and eight inches taller than Isabelle.)
  2. He will generally be stronger

The woman has two major advantages:

  1. She will probably be quicker than he is (especially if he’s in armor)
  2. She will almost certainly have the element of surprise

Antonia’s battle plan, I told the three actors, is to take out the two men as quickly and as completely as possible, before they can use their advantages against her.

Speed and Surprise

For educators: Onna-bugeisha — Japan's warrior women (Ishi-jo,_wife_of_Oboshi_Yoshio) (training kunoichi)
Onna-bugeisha — Japan’s warrior women (Ishi-jo, a noblewoman, defends herself with a nagatana or glaive)

Saying this, I realized that this is precisely why Lady Chiyome didn’t outfit her fighters as fighters. There was a tradition of training samurai women as onna-bugeishaThey learned to use glaives and swords to defend their homes. Even so, Japanese women were generally expected to stay very, very… feminine.

And so the kuniochi dressed as shrine maidens and servants and dancers — the last kind of person that a lord or samurai would expect to attack them with a knife, or to steal their secrets. Their disguise not only allowed them to travel wherever they wanted, but it gave them a tactical advantage.

No one expects the sweet young dancer to come at them with a sword — and they certainly don’t expect her to know how to use it!

I’ll try to post some pictures or video of the sword fight. I think you’d enjoy it. 🙂

* If you know Twelfth Night, you’ll know that “he” is actually the other twin, Viola, dressed up as a man.

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