Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Mythbusters Dilemma

What do you say when the people who are supposed to get it right get it horribly, horribly, wrong?

That's the question I had to ask myself recently after watching the "Duel Dilemmas" episode of Mythbusters. Their whole shtick is, well, disproving or proving myths, but recently they've had to stretch to find interesting things to bust and it shows.

So, a little bit of background on the episode. Funnily enough the title reveals the subject matter. The alpha team of Jamie and Adam focused on different dueling myths. Now, I can't judge the gun myths because my experience with guns is limited to television and books. I don't like guns and have no huge desire to handle them. (Okay, maybe a little desire just to know what it's like to use one, but I'm not about to start stocking up for the zombie apocalypse.)

No, the part of the episode that put me into a frothing rage was when they test the sword myth that the first person too attack loses. At first I was excited. I mean, the Mythbusters and swords, what could be cooler? Yeah, not so much.

First off, Jamie and Adam focused on kendo. Hate to burst your bubble guys, but kendo is a sport not a sword art. That right there invalidates your testing because it severely limits what can be done. In kendo there are only three valid target areas. Now, while this does simplify their testing methodology immensely, it removes options which allow the person receiving the initial attack. So, first problem is they chose a sport instead of a sword art. I'll have more to say on this in a moment.

Next, they narrowed their testing setup even more. They restricted themselves to one target, the men or helmet for those of you in the audience not familiar with kendo terminology, as well as they had to make a full swing in response. The full swing was a good idea actually, but needless to say neither host truly knew what they were doing. Watching them attack each other was painful for me, and based on their technique it was obviously painful for them as well.

That leads me to my third point in that their methodology was needlessly painful. First, their improper technique had them landing blows to the head in an improper spot and with too much force. On top of that they added weight to the shinai by wrapping it in a conductive mesh in order to have a series of lights come on when the hit. Basically, they were whaling on each other in such a manner they could have actually done themselves serious damage after compromising their equipment. Either of them could have ended up seriously hurt and both Jamie and Adam are very lucky that a headache was the worst of their problems. I've taken blows to the head (stop laughing) on the wrong part of the men and let me tell you it hurts like a sonofabitch. Getting hit that way once is enough to clean your clock, so I can only imagine how Adam and Jamie felt.

So in the end what did we have with this "myth"? Bad form, needless injury, and a loss of respect from this Mythbusters fan. What makes it even more annoying is I couldn't find an email address to send my concerns, only the Discovery channel forums. Bah.

How could this have been improved? Well, if they wanted to stay with the same basic setup they could have used just the high-speed camera to record the hits and hit the proper spot on the men. The hits still would have been a bit jarring but the risk of injury would have been greatly reduced.

If they wanted to go beyond the simple setup they had they could have gone to a real kendo dojo and observed/asked questions. There is a technique in kendo called debana where you strike an opponent before they finish their cut. It's hard to do, requires great speed, timing, and awareness, but it is possible to strike someone after they've initiated their attack and before they succeed.

The next step they could have taken was to actually research some of the true Japanese sword arts. Don't get me wrong, I love kendo. It's a great sport and hell of a lot of fun, but it is not a true sword art. Some of the true sword arts do use counter-attacks, and I can think of one that the majority of it's forms or kata actually depends on your opponent initiating and then you respond and then take control from him. That art is Ono-Ha Itto-Ryu, and it was one of the arts that had an early influence on kendo. I studied it for a few years and the whole point was to let your opponent initiate an attack, counter it, and then make him pay for the presumption of attacking.

The worst part of this whole thing is that Jamie and Adam reduced a complex idea into a simple test of reaction speed. The idea of he who attacks losing isn't so much about who actually gets the first shot in, it's about a spiritual loss. If you've been pushed to the point that you lose control and attack someone then, even if they die and you live, you've lost because you surrendered control. It could be because of anger, it could be because of fear, the reason doesn't matter. But Mythbusters, being a hard-science based show, went for what they thought was a testable iteration of this concept, thereby missing out what the concept was truly about.

I hope the next time the Mythbusters tackle a martial arts or bladed weapons myth they conduct deeper research and come to greater understanding. Or they could skip these myths altogether since, especially considering how very wrong they were on this one.