SIFU KISU ON MARTIAL ARTS MASTERY AND DESIGNING + CHOREOGRAPHING THE BENDING OF AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER (MF GALAXY 069)
CREATING BENDING STYLES, WHY HE RETURNED TO SHOWBIZ TO MAKE AVATAR AFTER SELF-IMPOSED EXILE, AND HOW HE BECAME SWORDMASTER PIANDAO
It’s one of the most innovative and best-written Western animated series ever made, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Brian Konietzko and Michael DiMartino created its three seasons, which ran from 2005 to 2008. While technically aimed at children and teens, the series had a vast adult following that continues to grow via DVD, and because of its sequel series The Legend of Korra.
Distilled to its essence, Avatar: The Last Airbender is about a Dalai Lama-style boy monk with super-powers. He’s a bender, a person who can shape the four elements to his will. In this world, each element has a nation: the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation. Young Avatar Aang, born an Airbender, awakes in a world in which the Fire Nation has destroyed the balance among the nations by waging a war for global conquest.
Young Aang already knows air-bending, but if he’s to defeat the Fire Nation armies and its Fire Lord, he has less than a year to master the other elements, or face a planetary dictatorship that is now invincible. Avatar is a lushly animated and intelligently-written series with memorable and touching characters. It’s alternately deeply philosophical and hilariously slapstick.
Sifu Kisu is the martial arts consultant for the series. He’s the man who designed the distinct bending moves for each of the four nations and all the lead characters, and choreographed all the weapons fighting, based on his own decades of training in Chinese and other East Asian fighting systems. Avatar without his enormous impact wouldn’t be the same—try imagining Star Wars without the Force and light sabres. In the show’s final season, the creators transformed Sifu Kisu into a character named Sword Master Piandao, voiced by Robert Patrick, best known for playing the T1000 in Terminator 2.
Sifu Kisu has led a fascinating life. In addition to his decades of training in and teaching of martial arts, he’s been in the US armed forces, served as a body guard to foreign dignitaries, and worked in Hollywood; as an African-American super-achiever in martial arts, he’s befriended many of the most accomplished African-American practitioners of various fighting forms.
Sifu Kisu and I discussed:
- How Sifu Kisu came to be the fight choreographer and martial arts consultant and concept designer for Avatar: The Last Airbender, even though at the time he was on a self-imposed exile from Hollywood
- How Sifu Kisu worked with the producers, directors, and artists to translate his martial arts moves into animation, and how he invented the multi-martial system for the series’ elemental bending
- How Kisu used the martial arts of Jingis Khan to design the martial arts for the evil fire bender Azula
- How Sifu Kisu ended up as a character in the series named Sword Master Pian-Dao, and the impact of Avatar on the world of martial arts
We began by discussing Sifu Kisu’s pitch to Hollywood for his own animated martial arts series, which embodies his ideals for how martial arts can improve humanity
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To hear the half-hour, patrons-only extended edition of my conversation with Sifu Kisu, become a sponsor for a dollar or more per week. By funding MF GALAXY, you get access to all extended editions of the show, plus video excerpts from selected interviews as they become available. This extended edition includes Sifu Kisu discussing:
- How he began learning East Asian fighting arts and the discipline required to perform literally thousands of kicks per day
- Why he believes his advanced martial arts training saved his life without him having to throw a single kick or punch
- What martial arts taught him about the difference between his ideal self and his real self
- Sifu Kisu’s experiences with Hollywood stars and major martial arts masters including Dr. Moses Powell and Ron Van Clief, and how he almost got the starring role in The Last Dragon
- Overcoming Hollywood racism
- The martial arts difference between fighting on screen and fighting on the street, and how his Northern Shao-Lin kung fu fighting system addresses grapplers and grappling, the core theory of Northern Shao-Lin, and real danger in the world of martial arts