Sunday, June 12, 2016

Revenge of the wooden men! (Originally posted on my Capcom-Unity blog)

You ever wonder where there weird fighting game characters come from? I don't mean the occasional pro wrestler or pop idol either, I mean the really weird, way out of left-field characters. Somebody like Mokujin from the Tekken series for example. The character first appeared in Tekken 3 back in 1997. Many thought that it was a wooden man post, a training tool used by kung-fu practitioners, that had sprung to life. It couldn't really talk and seemed to be a sort of comedic character that mimicked the moves of the entire Tekken cast.

The figure was actually based on the training dummies from the Shaolin Wooden Men. A movie from 1976 starring Jackie Chan. The wooden men were fictional sparring partners controlled by a series levers and pulleys in the Shaolin temple. In order for a person to be deemed a master they had to survive a gauntlet made up of these wooden men. When I was a little kid my brothers and I saw the film on kung-fu theater. It was a local show that would marathon different kung-fu movies. There was no doubt that my exposure to those movies was part of why I became attracted to fighting games in the first place. Anyhow I remembered that film for the special effects and rows of various wooden men.

Something that I always appreciated about the films was that no matter how cheesy they were it was easy to get carried away by the story. The special effects were all practical. They built sets for the films, used costumes and props to make things seem period-correct. When you're a kid you just accept the fact that somewhere in China there's a temple with wooden men like Mokujin training the kung-fu masters. You also accept that the best fighters could do all the impossible things you would see on tv.

There was something about the film that freaked me out though. In one scene Jackie grabbed the forearm of a wooden man and broke it open. There was nothing inside. I was sure that there would have been a Shaolin master in each costume doing the fighting. As I little kid I actually believed that the movie producers had actually rigged a few wooden men and were controlling them with chains and levers. Even better I believed that this technology was something that the Chinese had been sitting on for centuries. Sure it's an absurd thought but anything is possible if you are a kid. When I saw Mokujin many years later I wondered how many of the same films the Tekken developers had grown up with.

Of every martial arts fable I believed in growing up the only thing that was scarier than a wooden man run amok was a blind master of the Flying Guillotine. Again, that movie was probably the reason why I ended up loving Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It was what prepared me for the ultimate battle between the various fighting arts. Anyhow in that movie a blind assassin was pretending to be a Shaolin monk while he was tracking down the one-armed boxer. He had amazing hearing for a blind man and could throw his flying guillotine with pinpoint accuracy. Near the end of the film he is trapped in a coffin shop. The hero throws rocks at the walls to confuse the assassin. The blind monk stands perfectly still and rotates his head 360 degrees while trying to figure out where his opponent is. Of every kung-fu film I had ever seen that was the scene that freaked me out the most. Producer / director / star Jimmy Wang Yu used the effect sparingly and right at the end of the movie for the biggest shock value. Even today I get creeped out by the thought of a free spinning head.

Were there any fantastic characters or impossible fighting techniques that you had seen as a kid that you genuinely thought were true? I'd like to hear about it.

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