The Accurate (and Not-So-Accurate) Depiction of Naginata in Video Games

by 
 | April 5, 2022

The entertainment industry, at large, is not always known for its accuracy in either history or weapon handling. So, when you find that gem that gets it right, it can make your inner nerd very happy.

Let’s rewind a bit. In 2013, I was looking for something active to do that was low impact. That’s when I first saw naginata demonstrated at our local YMCA. Naginata is a Japanese polearm weapon, measuring around 7 feet in length with a steel blade on one end and often a spike on the other. The weapon and art are not widely known in the US. There are around 250 practitioners within the US Naginata Federation.

The sweeping movements and the controlled structure of the art were appealing, so I signed up for class. Over the years, I moved up in rank, competed at Nationals, hosted seminars, and became a teacher. 

And then COVID-19 happened. Suddenly, there were no classes, no seminars… nothing.

During lockdown, several of us who are part of the Couch Soup community started playing multiplayer games together. One game that had made its way into our rotation was Ubisoft's For Honor

Naginata facing the wrong way in Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

Aaron (AaronB) knew I was sorely disappointed in the usage of the naginata in Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition because they held their weapons backward. It's the equivalent of holding a sword with the blade pointed at the ceiling. Since he knew that I practiced naginata, he suggested that I try the game to see if it is accurate in any way. The character Nobushi in For Honor wields a naginata. I had my doubts, but I begrudgingly downloaded the game and started playing.

For Honor is a melee combat game with both a story and multiplayer options. In multiplayer, you and 3 of your friends can breach a city, fight champions, or duel each other.

For Honor game cover art from Ubisoft

When you open the multiplayer loading screen, your characters are in their main guard position. I immediately recognized her form. It is a guard position called Chudan. When the loading screen times out and the characters move into an attack form, Nobushi swings up for either a Men (head) or Sune (shin) strike.

I wish we had been streaming or recording because I don’t remember everything I said while nerding out. I just remember Aaron laughing like mad for a good 10 minutes.

Nobushi (left) in the Chudan Guard position in the loading screen

I have played Nobushi for a while now within multiplayer. Her stances, movements, and hand positioning are all very accurate, from the guard stances she uses, Chudan, Hidari Chudan, and Gedan (above the head), to the stabbing and slicing motions of her weapon. Much to the chagrin of anyone who has played with me, the space needed around you for the weapon’s size is also accurate. I have sliced, maimed, and killed many a party member who stood too close. 

Students Paige and Randy Gray square up at a Seminar

I wish I could say that my training gives me an advantage in the game. It does not. But it did prepare me for how she moves. I have talked to several people who do not like playing Nobushi because her movements can seem erratic. However, there is a logic behind the way she moves: we learn to stay on the balls of our feet, causing us to always slightly be in motion. I do not find her movement distracting because I know how it feels to move the way she does.

I was not only impressed with the accuracy of the animation in Nobushi’s movements, but also in the historical accuracy of her existence. The naginata is, traditionally, a samurai woman's weapon. There were several notable female samurai in Feudal Japan, and the weapon became part of her dowry for use to protect the home. The art is still taught as part of girls' physical education classes in Japan and in dojos throughout the world.

Some photos of me with my fellow naginata artists side-by-side with images of Nobushi in For Honor

I hope to see more game development with this level of research and care put into it. 

Here are some other games I've seen that feature the naginata and how they stack up to the real thing:

Soul Calibur 6, Seong Mi-na: The weapon is too short.

Elden Ring, the Cross-Naginata: This is 2 naginatas held simultaneously, but the naginata is a 2-handed weapon.

Ghost of Tsushima, Khotun Kahn: Most of the movement is correct, and the weapon features the spear on the end that was often used.  

Do you practice any martial arts? If so, have you played any games that properly portray your art or that are so very far from correct that they make you cringe?

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