Martial Suture: Aikido and Aesthetics in the Films of Steven Seagal

Curator's Note

Famous for featuring uncompromisingly brutal violence, the fight scenes in the films of Steven Seagal are bound up with the eternally perplexing issue of realism in the cinema. A piece of conventional wisdom in the realm of action aesthetics is that editing is a dead giveaway of phony, inauthentic action. This conventional wisdom is nowhere more pervasive or more dogmatically asserted than in discussions of martial arts cinema, where the comparatively long shots and long takes in the paradigmatic fight scenes of Bruce Lee are considered the gold standard for realist action aesthetics. No less the cinematic pedagogue, Seagal turns this conventional wisdom on its head by utilizing an editing-based action aesthetic which I have previously termed martial suture ( for the purpose of communicating the combative efficacy of the Japanese grappling art of aikido (

Due to the practical differences between striking-based versus grappling-based martial arts, it is only natural that different martial arts styles necessitate different visual styles. Thus, as a supplement to David Bordwell's well-known "pause-burst-pause pattern" as explicated in Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, the rhythm of martial suture – in line with the rhythm of grappling – tends to follow an attack-defense-counterattack pattern where, first, an attacker tries to grab, throw a punch or kick, or strike with an object; second, the grab is neutralized, the punch or kick is blocked or caught, or the strike is slipped or blocked; and third, having committed to and missed an offensive attack, the attacker is countered with a grappling technique. The building block style of martial suture is thus the perfect aesthetic corollary of the building block style of grappling, as the step-by-step moves of a given grappling technique are captured in a seamless shot-by-shot flow of images.

These combative and aesthetic principles can be witnessed in the featured image – an animated gif taken from a fight scene in Seagal’s supremely underrated 1990 actioner Marked for Death. As can be seen in the featured gif, martial suture neither obscures the execution of the technique nor cheats the skill of the performer; rather, martial suture maintains the clarity of the execution of the technique and provides a visceral impact upon its successful execution.


What a great post, Kyle. Truly enjoyed it. I love your suggestion that "it is only natural that different martial arts styles necessitate different visual styles." It seems so simple, and yet something I never considered before. Particularly in the difference between styles that are more striking-based vs. grappling-based. What this post brings to mind is how different styles of martial arts, which might call for different visual aesthetics, come together with different national contexts, not only in terms of their film history, but also their particular martial arts history. I’m thinking about things like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Israeli krav maga, Indonesian silat, etc. How do these forms combine with their country’s respective film histories and aesthetics – many of which inevitably cross-pollinate with Hollywood and other countries – to create something new? Are there any examples? I must admit I have not seen martial arts films from very many different countries. But this week’s discussions are making me want to rectify that. Thanks again! Will definitely be checking out the articles you linked to in both your entry and your comments for more on this idea.

Hello, Munib. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think you're right about the connections that can be made between national film styles and the martial arts that are prominent in those national contexts. I haven't followed up on that very extensively. To this point, I've pretty much been focusing on American contexts in an effort to prove that what I call martial suture, with its aesthetic basis in the grappling arts, emerged in the context of American cinema due to the prominence of grappling arts like Jiu-Jitsu and Judo in the post-WWI and post-WWII eras. The following link features the only such analysis I've conducted thus far. In it I discuss a handful of films from the classical Hollywood era that showcase the emerging aesthetic of martial suture in relation to the popularity of grappling in American martial arts discourses/practices. I imagine you're correct that, in addition to more extensive research on martial arts and aesthetics in American contexts, even more insights await discovery in analyses of other national contexts in relation to the wide variety of martial arts styles that have been/are being practiced and used for artistic purposes around the world. Hopefully this is an area of research that will see some growth in the future as scholarship on martial arts cinema continues to grow in academic circles, in particular the new interdisciplinary field of "Martial Arts Studies" which I imagine you'd find of interest:

I appreciate your re-evaluation of the visual styles that are favored among martial fights film enthusiasts and film scholars as well as your re-reading of Steven Segal's films through your example. Special effects have created new aesthetic possibilities in martial arts cinema. Filmmakers now have the choice of cutting or relying on CGI. Do you feel these innovations have reduced the effects of the suture, as exemplified here in Marked for Death, in martial arts cinema?

Hello, Ian. Thank you for your interest. I must admit - at the risk of coming off like a snob or an anachronistic "purist" - that I tend to stay away from effect-heavy martial arts films. I don't mind some wirework here-and-there (the subject of today's post, Once Upon a Time in China, is a personal favorite of mine) but the CGI stuff just isn't for me (to say nothing of martial arts anime/animation). Realism and practical application are such key issues for me that, even though the issue of realism is vexing and the term is nothing if not fluid, if what I'm watching wasn't or couldn't be actually performed by any human being who has ever lived/practiced or ever will live/practice martial arts in this world - and, by extension, cannot be applied to real martial arts practice by any current human practitioners - then I completely lose interest. You're not wrong to claim that technological advancements have created new opportunities for filmmakers/performers and that, as a result, choreographic and aesthetic strategies have shifted/will continue to shift. I just can't really comment on it because it's outside the province of why I watch and study martial arts movies. As to your question of whether or not I feel technological advancements have reduced the effects of martial suture, I would say - assuming I'm understanding you correctly - that they have not, nor can they. Martial suture provides films as diverse as 'G'-Men, Blood on the Sun, Marked for Death, and The Bourne Identity with the means of conveying realistic martial arts action. If, in a grappling sequence, martial suture is not utilized - as it was not in Bruce Lee's fight with Ji Han Jae in The Game of Death or Gordon Liu's battle with the hulking Judoka in Heroes of the East - then the techniques lose their claim to realism on the basis of either unintelligibility (as in The Game of Death) or trickery (as in Heroes of the East). To have utilized special effects in these sequences in lieu of martial suture may have provided the means of securing intelligibility where it was lacking (though it's hard for me to imagine how) but it would not so much as touch the issue of trickery since a special effect is by definition beyond the scope of reality. On this level of generality, I feel I've exhausted what I can say regarding special effects. If, however, you have (a) certain grappling sequence(s) in mind which utilize(s) special effects, I'd be happy to offer my take on their choreographic and aesthetic strategies.

Thanks for your very thorough response. I totally agree with your feelings about msny martial arts films with heavy CGI, (such as the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles [2014]) . However, I feel that some martial arts films that blend live action with special effects, especially those that have a seasoned choreographer behind them, can still highlight the martial artist's performance. I am thinking mostly of Yuen Woo-Ping's post Matrix work here, but also Corey Yuen's contributions to Red Cliff and Wild Card. Anyways, thanks a lot for the conversation. Its nice to have this kind of excahne and interaction. .

I really enjoyed your insights about editing and shots that look natural. That's why tracking and however a camera can be rigged are crucial when it comes to cinema that is more realistic to the viewer. I'm curious though, can you tell me why Marked for Death is so underrated? My time is at a premium, and I may want to watch it so I can talk more about it.

Hello, Kate. I have to warn you that asking me to elaborate on why I think Marked for Death is underrated is opening a Pandora's Box of obsessive Seagal fandom. I'll try to be brief, though. 1) First and foremost, Marked for Death is to my mind the greatest showcase for Seagal's unique action persona. So many action stars, from the chiseled Sylvester Stallone to the monstrous Arnold Schwarzenegger to the indefatigable Jackie Chan to the athletic Jean-Claude Van Damme, have been afflicted with what I call "underdog syndrome." Despite their mental and physical strengths and skills, they all invariably indulge in a sequence where they get the absolute crap kicked out of them and have to "come from behind" and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Even Bruce Lee would do this. Now I don't want to banish this trope from the whole of action cinema. It can be very effective. Nevertheless, I appreciate Seagal because he is unique in the entire expanse of action and martial arts cinema for being immune to underdog syndrome. Seagal is hands down the most invincible action hero the screen has ever seen, and never was he more imposing, intimidating, or invulnerable than as the agent of justice cleaning up the streets of American suburbia as a one man army in the war on drugs in Marked for Death. 2) Linked to the first point, Seagal is also unique for his genre hybridity. In particular, he has often mixed elements of the action film with the horror film. Marked for Death is the first time he did so, but he would do it again in The Glimmer Man and Against the Dark. What makes this interesting is the way Seagal's invincible persona changes the response to such familiar genre elements that we all know from horror movies. When the bad guy/killer is approaching, we feel fear, we worry for the safety of our protagonist and hope he/she can find a way to escape/outwit/kill the bad guy/killer. That literally never happens with Seagal. In Marked for Death, when Seagal's sister is in danger in one memorable sequence, the horror elements are there and our horror response is of the standard variety. When Seagal is there, on the other hand, the horror elements lose their power to inspire fear and instead we are confident that, because of Seagal's martial arts prowess, it is only a matter of time before he kills everybody. As opposed to that feeling of, "Oh no, will our hero survive?" when Seagal is on the scene, the feeling is, "Who's turn is it to die?" It's a powerful/empowering feeling on the strength of which Seagal is able to subvert genre expectations, and it's ultimately premised on his martial arts skills. 3) The political subtext is, as is typical of Seagal's films, very shrewd (for more on this front, see this essay of mine from a few years ago: With the war on drugs heating up in political discourses in the late 1980s and early 1990s - resulting in films like Chuck Norris' Code of Silence and Arnold's Red Heat prior to Marked for Death and New Jack City and Deep Cover after - Seagal incorporated an interesting take on isolationism and the "protect your own backyard" sentiment. Beyond these three points, Basil Wallace is a memorable villain and the voodoo angle is among the creepiest I've ever seen, even creepier than Angel Heart; the action and martial arts sequences are top-notch including a sequence that begins with a car chase, turns into a shootout, and ends in a fight scene, which is arguably the most extraordinary action sequence in the entire Seagal canon; and the score and soundtrack are amazing, and the latter even features a collaboration between Seagal and Jimmy Cliff. There is basically no shortage of reasons why Marked for Death is an extraordinary and unforgettable action film. It's just been overlooked by a majority of action film fans/scholars, which, in my opinion, is a symptom of the larger issue of Seagal himself being overlooked.

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