Kung Fu Panda 2: Martial Arts Themes


Kung Fu Panda 2

 A review of martial arts themes inherent in the film

      The purpose of this  essay is not to provide the typical movie review, i.e., it will not discuss the cinematography, the screenplay, or the acting. Rather, it will attempt to examine a few of the martial arts themes, or philosophies, that might be extracted from the film. Whether or not the themes discussed are actually manifest in the film is not important. What is essential is the possibility that there might be certain concepts that martial arts audiences can extract from the film, such as inner peace, harmony, redirection of force, and rebirth, whether or not they were intentional on the part of the film writers.

      In Panda 2, the pugilistic panda has found his place in his community as a respected martial arts master. However, despite his outward success, he is still not internally at rest. In other words, he has not achieved “inner peace,” as the master Shifu explains. Like many orphans, Po is troubled by the apparent fact that he has been rejected by his natural parents. For the most part, Po has been, at least on the surface, clinging to the illogical fact that his father is the paternal goose, who has taken care of him his entire life. However, in a dream sequence, he sees his panda parents abandoning him and “adopting” a radish in his place. He even tries to fight the radish, but cannot match the latter's skill, and he awakens in a state of dismay.

      Shen, the evil peacock, has megalomanical plans to control China, but learns that his master plan will be thwarted by a panda. Like the pharaoh, who, fearing revolt by the Hebrews, sent his soldiers to kill the baby boys, Shen sets out to exterminate the panda population. Believing the pandas to be extinct, Shen thinks he is unstoppable in his plan to control China, especially with his cannon, a weapon that will render kung fu not only helpless but obsolete. Po, however, has escaped the wrath of Shen because his parents rescue him, a sacrifice Po has no knowledge of. When Shen embarks on his conquest, Po accepts the challenge to stop the villain. Po is also told that the journey to save China will also lead him to find inner peace and will solve the mystery of his birth and his parents.

      Inner peace. Although not spelled out in the film, the true purpose of kung fu, and martial arts, in general, is to eliminate ego, or inner conflict; in other words, to achieve inner peace, a state in which the individual no longer is motivated by ambition or other material values. The purpose of training is not really to learn to fight but to have the confidence to walk a away from a confrontation with humility, and not humiliation. With this attitude ingrained, many martial artists have never had to engage in a fight. In fact, many do not feel the need to fight because they do not perceive conflict. Many outward conflicts might really be the result of inner conflicts that have never been resolved. Individuals who have perceived that they have been rejected might feel a sense of unworthiness and might feel the need to prove their value by fighting. Until Po learns the truth about why he was abandoned, he will never achieve inner peace. When Po discovers that his parents presumably died in the panda holocaust, perpetrated by Shen, he learns that his father stayed to hold off the enemy while his mother attempted to escape with the baby Po. Although she does not, like Moses' mother, put him in a basket and set him afloat, Po's mother saves his life by hiding him in a basket of radishes . . . no, not the trunk of a car . . . while she leads the enemy astray, becoming a sacrificial decoy. Aside from his mission of saving China and kung fu, Po now has further motivation to stop Shen, and thus purge his inner conflict, the ill-placed resentment he may have felt against his parents for abandoning him. Shen, too, has a conflict with his parents, but resorts to negative behavior patterns to prove himself.

      Once inner peace is achieved, martial artists will be true to their art. They will not use their training to seek external material goals. And their techniques will not be mechanical or artificial. Thus, they will not respond to attacks with telegraphed techniques. But all their moves will be the result of pure unconscious action. This concept is called mushin, the Zen concept of “no mindedness,” a state in which there is no preconceived thought that interrupts the flow of physical action. “Mu means “nothing, empty, or no.” “Shin means “mind or heart” in both the physical and in the spiritual sense. Thus, in terms of Zen, there is no separation between thought and emotion. To feel it, is to think it; to think it, is to feel it. With no preconceived thought or emotion, action will be one with thought and emotion. Thus, to think it and to feel it, is to do it. Although perhaps not a recognized Zen concept, the term “maru” could be added to “mushin” to create the concept of mushinmaru, which could be translated as the “the circle of the empty mind or heart,” an interpretation which implies a continual flow of energy, eventually leading to harmony.

      Harmony. It is characteristic of many martial arts films to have the moment when the heroes achieve harmony or balance in their styles and in their lives. It is that moment when both the heroes and the audience know that the characters have achieved readiness. It is when Cain, in the Kung Fu series, can walk on the rice paper or when the karate kid can “jacket-on, jacket-off.

      In Panda 2, the moment comes when the hero can trap a droplet of rain water, control it, spin it around his body without losing it, and eventually deposit it on the leaf of a plant. (Somewhat reminiscent of jacket-on, jacket-off.) I am not sure this concept is explicated in the film as clearly as it is the above-mentioned examples. However, suffice it to say, one important aspect of martial arts mastery (and the internal goal) is to be in harmony with all forces in nature, with an opponent, and of course with one's self.

      Shen soon learns that there may be one panda left that could stand in the way of his quest for world domination (since the only world known in the film is China, it's conquest could symbolize world domination; hence, the use of the term). As he gets that knowledge, he goes into a rage. At that moment, in the swirling wind, the yin-yang symbol is displayed in black and white, colors that, oddly enough, are those of the panda bear. The symbol might foreshadow the idea that the panda will achieve harmony, but Shen will not.

      In mushinmaru, there is not always a specific goal in a martial arts technique or in life. In most martial arts systems, the techniques have an “end in mind.” These techniques can also be easily countered, leaving the practitioner with no options. The circle stops. But a technique designed to be a means of achieving harmony with an opponent’s flow has many options. Since the technique has not been predetermined, it will be difficult to defend against. Because the end is not in the martial artist’s mind, it does not exist until created in response to the flow of combat. The correct technique will occur when the martial artist is in the flow of the mindless circle. Even if an opponent successfully counters a technique, there will be neither frustration nor hesitation in the flow of mushinmaru. A momentary defeat is only a chance to create another artistic endeavor based upon achieving the harmony contained in the mindless circle. As it will be pointed out later, Shen does not use his defeat to complete the circle and turn it to a victory.   However, when Po becomes in harmony with the rain droplets, he comes to terms with his inner conflict, thus achieving inner peace and he is able to redirect his energy to the accomplishment of his goals.

      Redirection of force. In the dynamics of judo and in various forms of kung fu, the martial artists learn to take an opponent’s attacking force and re-direct it to their own advantage; in other words, the martial artists can neutralize the force, change the momentum, and use the energy to counter the attack by creating the proper defense.

      Interestingly enough, in Panda 2, when Shen unleashes his cannon “fodder” against the resolute Po, the intrepid panda is able to neutralize the lightning bolt effects of the cannon fire, catch them, twirl them around his body as though they were water drops, and then hurl them back at the evil perpetrator. In fact, in the swirling cannon fire, there is a brief image of a tomoe, the comma shaped symbol that means turning or circular energy. Tomoe are often pictured as two commas, as in the yin-yang symbol, or as three comma to represent man, earth, and sky. There is a judo throw called tomoenage (circle throw), in which the defender falls under the force of an attacker by virtually creating a circle with the two bodies. This harmonization with the attack and the creation of an opposing circle redirects the attacker's force, turns it against him or her, thus throwing the attacker to the ground.

      Although it is not spelled out as perhaps it should have been, Po virtually destroys the ships and the cannon of Shen by turning his cannon-fire force against him and ultimately bringing about the demise of the villain. Of course, martial arts purists might object to the idea of kung fu being able to defeat cannon fire, a totally ridiculous and unrealistic stretching of the martial arts imagination. However, one must remember that Panda 2 is a cartoon and, as such, is not necessarily meant to be realistic. In addition, the viewer has to have an extraordinary ability to exercise the most important quality of movie enjoyment: the willing suspension of disbelief. Indeed, if the viewers, even martial artists, can accept the fact that animals can talk and that a peacock can create a cannon, they should be able to accept the over-the-top quality of the cartoon cinematic genre and even the extraordinary ability and application of kung fu. That fact that Po defeats the cannon is meant to symbolize the ability of the martial arts spirit to overcome even the most difficult of odds. Of course, it must be remembered that Panda 2 is not just a martial arts movie; it is also a film designed to explore, through the animal characters, a number of human weaknesses and strengths. And to develop the themes of self-discovery, finding one's roots, and the fulfilling of one's destiny. To make these points graphic and dramatic, it would seem that a certain degree of exaggeration is acceptable, especially since the action takes place in a make-believe China.

      Regeneration, or rebirth. While Po's life might have begun unhappily, it does not mean that it has to end that way. Thus, one theme that emerges is the concept that people have the choice to change their lives. In other words, it is the way a life ends that is important. This is a great message for youngsters who find themselves lost in a maze of dead-end avenues and feel that there is no way out; thus, they might stay trapped by their environments and continue on a path of self-destruction, believing that the dice Fate has been using are loaded. The basis of many tragedies, whether on the stage or in the street, is that the protagonists cannot foresee the possibility alternative actions instead of the apparent ones. Romeo, for example, in Shakespeare’s famous drama Romeo and Juliet, instead of openly denying his father and family, embarks on a course of subterfuge, eventually leading to the death of his love, Juliet, and himself. Romeo is the best swordsman in town, so had he chose to declare his love, like, who was going to mess with him?  Po, however, takes the opportunity to make the rest of his life filled with inner peace. The ability to change is often an important characteristic of many heroes in drama, who are dynamic, in contrast to the inability of villains who are static.

      Saul of Tarsus spent the beginning of his life traveling the earth seeking to persecute Christians. However, he is struck down by what might be described as a lightning bolt, and he hears a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” From that moment he alters his life style radically and then lives the ending of his life by trying to convert others to Christianity and to get them to accept the Lord.

      Villains, however, have a difficult time when it comes to change. Tony Montana, in Scarface, has a chance to change when he is on top, but he is compelled to seek more power. However, Montana has redeeming qualities in that his downfall comes as a result of his defying the evil powers-to-be when he refuses to carry out an assassination, which would bring about the deaths of some children.

      Shen, however, has no redeeming qualities. And it is perhaps no accident that he is portrayed as a peacock, a bird that often symbolizes pride; hence, the expression “proud as a peacock.” Even though Shen's ultimate weapon is destroyed, he still is compelled to fight to the end, using his kung-fu skills against those of Po. Before the final confrontation ensues, Po explains to Shen that the villain has the chance to alter his evil beginning and be born again to start a new and productive life. It is fitting that Shen's demise comes when his cannon is dislodged, falls, and crushes him to death. In other words, his end comes as a result of his own machinations.

      At the conclusion of the film, Po has reached the ultimate level of self-confidence. When he returns home to his adoptive father, the goose, who continues to perpetrate the myth that he is Po's father, the goose is apprehensive that Po has learned the truth (and the apparent illogic that he is the son of a goose) and he will no longer be loved as a natural father. When he asks Po what he has learned on his journey, Po responds with something to this effect, “that you are my father.”

      There is no conflict in Po's heart, so he can, for the sake of the goose father he loves, perpetuate the myth.

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