Let's talk about the Katana. The katana is one of the most visually recognizable symbols of Japan. A weapon that is renowned for its beauty and killing power. Is it any wonder that it has become the go-to sword of choice in movies? But is it really a “Jack-of-all-trades” weapon that can be used in all situations?
The Katana is a superb weapon for the kind of combat it was designed for, killing or maiming an enemy in one hit. It is a weapon designed to end fights quickly and decisively. The reputation and legend of the Katana has, in many ways, placed it on a pedestal in the minds of the general public. But the Katana has many weaknesses that are rarely discussed.
- This is not a weapon you can parry with: The very things that give the Katana its sharpness and ability to slice all the way through a human torso in one swing work against it when it comes to striking something hard, including bone. The edge can easily become nicked causing it to lose that cutting power that makes it so deadly. Samurai didn't engage in the locking of blades we associate with all sword fights because they had to protect their weapons. Battles between Katana wielders were often decided in only a few blows with the combatants mainly dodging each other’s blows while looking for a chance to get into range and end it in one hit.
- No thrusting: Due to the curve that helps give it such fantastic cutting power it wasn't very practical to thrust at your opponent and obviously did not play to the weapons strengths.
- Yes, Size does matter: One of the first things I hear people comment on is the length of the handle on a Katana when they hold one for the first time. The handle is overly long compared to swords of a European make. This allows the wielder to have space between his hands when gripping the weapon so when he makes contact with something he can pull his lower hand in to add a levering action, increasing the power of the cut. This means that in order to get the most out of the Katana it must be wielded two handed. There is only one recorded case of a Samurai wielding a Katana and Wakizashi (the smaller of the two swords a Samurai would carry) at the same time. That man was Musashi, who is considered to be possibly the greatest Japanese swordsman who ever lived. That’s a tough bar for your character to live up to.
So how does this affect the movie you’re making? Let’s say it’s a zombie movie (one of the most common places to see a Katana). You are dealing with creatures that can only be killed with a thrust to the head or complete decapitation. The Katana is a sword that is made for slashing through the torso, the blade chips on bone and isn't made for thrusting. Is the Katana really the best choice? Sure, one or two zombies and you’re fine. But what about when you are facing a horde and your sword gets progressively worse with each swing? Or would you be better off looking at a European sword? Their design is much better suited for thrusting and cutting through bone.
The Katana has its place, but far too often it is a crutch used to make a character appear more exotic or communicate to the audience that “This is the real bad ass of the story”. Some of you may be saying, "It's just a sword". True, but this is the type of things nerds notice. Would it really change your prop outlay or story to have the character using a European sword? No, but you would be light-years closer to gaining nerd acceptance and nerds spend a lot of money on properties they deem acceptable.