SEIS MANOS: Netflix’s Stellar Kung Fu Anime

The heroes of <I>Seis Manos</I> are ready for action in Netflix’s new anime series. The Six Deadly Hands

The breeze whistled acutely through the emerald green trees surrounding the martial compound. The young maiden stood her ground against the burly, rotund man across from her in the courtyard. He grinned in amusement as forefingers and thumbs of his blocky hands gripped imaginary cups brimming with libation, illustrating that he was indeed a master of the esoteric Drunken Fist.

Her silky black hair swayed in the wind like gentle spindles of onyx kelp moving in the depths of the ocean. The suppleness of her face and hair belied the strong musculature of her shoulders and arms which, like granite, seemed unyielding and brutal in their stillness, punctuated only by leathery, studded bracers which encompassed the totality of her massive forearms. With a sturdy inhale she drew one hand back while the other inched forward, fingers clenched in a claw save a single index finger raised in defiant stature. She would fight him using the legendary system of the Hung Family Fist.

It is the 1970s. The martial art is Kung Fu. The place is Mexico. She is Isabella, he is Jesus, and this is Netflix, Viz Media, and Powerhouse Animation Studios’ new anime series: SEIS MANOS.

 

When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear

Co-Creator/Showrunner Brad Graeber and series Fight Choreographer Sifu Thomas Leverett forged their friendship as student and master long before they began work on the animated Kung Fu saga. So it should go without saying that this kind of bond forged in the fire of the martial way is felt in every frame of the breakout new show. As I can attest from my enjoyable time interviewing both gentlemen, the two don’t just love Kung Fu, they live it.

“I grew up watching Shaw Brothers films via Kung Fu Theatre on UHF with my cousins on weekend mornings," says Graeber. "Those movies are what inspired me to seek out and train later in life. The first person I met on my Kung Fu journey was Sifu Leverett. I had visited a series of less than authentic schools and was about to give up when I walked into a school in South Austin and he signed me up. His passion for Kung Fu is infectious. He is incredibly skilled but it is his love for the history, the art, the philosophy and the science of it that just makes it magic. He embodies Kung Fu to me. Whenever I pitched a show with Kung Fu in it – it was always my intention to bring him in to help – luckily someone finally gave Powerhouse a chance to do that. A lot of what we did in the fight choreography sessions are an extension of what we have done on the weekends training together for the past couple decades – it’s just playing hands and dissecting forms.”

Mexican and Chinese cultures converge in set pieces like this Kung Fu temple surrounded by a mango garden.

Mexican and Chinese cultures converge in set pieces like this Kung Fu temple surrounded by a mango garden.


Sifu Leverett echoes Brad Graeber's sentiments in explaining what first inspired him to begin his own Kung Fu journey. “The first Kung Fu movie I saw was FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978) when I was four years old. And I grew up with Run Run Shaw’s films. I taped all those films. So I had all those movies on video.”

Learning Kung Fu did not come easy for Sifu Leverett. When asked how his decades-long commitment to the fighting arts began, he was quick to explain the adversity he faced. “Nobody taught it. You could get Taekwondo everywhere, but you couldn’t get Kung Fu. You never even saw the word, to the point that I almost forgot all about it.”

It was by a chance encounter that a friend introduced him to his first Kung Fu teacher, Seven Star Praying Mantis Master Sifu Jeff Hughes. Leverett was in a state of disbelief that he had finally found an authentic Kung Fu school. “I was like, ‘No way. That doesn’t exist.’ Then I go to my first class and I’m doing horse stance, and my Sifu is sliding around the room doing double broadswords, coming up and down on one leg and I’m like, ‘Hell yeah! This is it!’"

 

A Dream in the Making

So how did a passion for Kung Fu lead to an animated series set in 1970s Mexico with Chinese martial arts, hordes of zombies, and a super villain voiced by none other than cinematic heavyweight Danny Trejo? Brad is more than happy to explain:

“I have always wanted to do a series that had some legit animated Kung Fu. In the beginning SEIS MANOS was just a tribute to '70s genre films (martial arts, horror, blaxploitation, grindhouse). It was also loosely inspired by Adolpho Constanzo and his 'Narcosatanists' murders in the '80s. That created a lot of urban legends when I was a kid growing up in Texas. When we brought on film and TV writer Alvaro Rodriguez (MACHETE (2010), FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES (2014–2016)) for the show, he added a lot more from Mexican curanderismo and Mexican cinema that really made the show whole.”

Sifu Thomas Leverett posing for an improvised weapon fight sequence with broken-in-half shears.  Supervising Storyboard Artist Julie Olson and Director Willis Bulliner take note at the Austin-based Powerhouse Animation Studios.

Sifu Thomas Leverett posing for an improvised weapon fight sequence with broken-in-half shears. Supervising Storyboard Artist Julie Olson and Director Willis Bulliner take note at the Austin-based Powerhouse Animation Studios.

 

Authentic Kung Fu, Streaming Live and Direct

Sifu Thomas Leverett and Co-Creator/Showrunner Brad Graeber discuss the finer points of a Tiger Claw throat grab.

Sifu Thomas Leverett and Co-Creator/Showrunner Brad Graeber discuss the finer points of a Tiger Claw throat grab.

Over-the-top flights of fancy are definitely part of the DNA of SEIS MANOS. But when it comes to the martial arts, the grounded, down-and-dirty, hard-hitting traditions of Kung Fu are depicted with unabashed fervor. From the philosophy and fighting to the vocalizations characters make when executing masterful maneuvers – this is as genuine as it gets.

Each episode starts with an obsidian black title card wherein delicate scarlet Chinese calligraphy accompanied by ivory white text are etched on the screen, pontificating on the beauty of Daoist doctrine.

“We discussed the Taoist aspects of the show with Dr. Carl Totton at the Taoist Institute," Graeber explains. "I tried to insert as much from my years of training with Thomas and stories from our Sifus and Sigungs.”

First and foremost, Graeber and Leverett set out to make their own Kung Fu epic as true to the styles they’ve devoted their lives to as possible. So careful consideration and meticulous planning was made to highlight styles from the golden age of Kung Fu cinema. Each character has their own unique fighting method based on some of the most dynamic systems in China’s martial history.

The moral compass and leading lady of the show, Isabella, is an adept of the resilient and bold Hung Gar Kuen (洪家拳) system. Burly yet playful, Jesus revels in combat by utilizing the tipsy, yet effective, Drunken Boxing style. The lethal mute, Silencio, conveys the conflict of his inner turmoil with the lyrical mastery of a poet using both the Seven Star Praying Mantis and Bak Mei (白眉) disciplines to dispatch his foes.

The challenge to accurately depict these Kung Fu systems would have deterred lesser men. However, Brad, Sifu Leverett, and the entire Powerhouse Animation Studios team were steadfast in their resolve.

“As you know, Kung Fu is complex," says Brad. "No matter how long you study, there are all these little ‘treasures’ and intricacies that you discover every time you practice or drill a form. I thought translating that nuance to a crew of animators and board artists who are working on drawings at a fraction of a second would be impossible." Brad continues with swelling pride. "But luckily our director Willis Bulliner and his team really embraced the challenge. On top of that, Sifu Leverett is an amazing teacher with a ton of patience and deserves a lot of credit for the authenticity you can feel in the animation.”

This attention to detail extended beyond the remarkable visuals to the most intricate of vocalizations. As Brad elaborates: “One fun story was getting the actors to make all the specific sounds in our familys’ Hung Gar. The actress Aislinn Derbez really took it seriously. Sifu Leverett made a video explaining all the different sounds and tried to explain it in a way someone could understand quickly. I think she did a great job and one of my favorite parts of the show is hearing this in the action.”

The intricate movements of styles like Hung Gar (洪家) are animated with great care as depicted in these animation frames of heroine Isabella

The intricate movements of styles like Hung Gar (洪家) are animated with great care as depicted in these animation frames of heroine Isabella.

 

Green Dragon, White Tiger, Red Eagle

Like the fighting systems of Kung Fu, SEIS MANOS may at first seem to be composed of disparate elements. To some, the idea of a human being adopting characteristics ranging from a feline, to an insect, to a drunkard in order fend for their life may seem odd in the case of Kung Fu. But ask any devotee of the authentic practice and they will tell you it works. It works very well.

Similarly one’s curiosity may be aroused at the thought of a TV series rendered in the animation style of Japan depicting Chicano characters fighting the undead whilst utilizing the fighting arts of China. But ask fans of the new series and they will tell you. Sit in front of the screen. Load up the Netflix show SEIS MANOS and you will be transported to a world of high adventure and pulse- pounding thrills peppered with the mysticism of Mexico and the mastery of Daoist Kung Fu warriors.

With an open mind and youthful heart, audiences will find that both the spellbinding anime series SEIS MANOS and the beloved art of Kung Fu share a common thread: They are both far greater than the sum of their equal parts.

Jars of the healing liniment <I>dit dar jow</I> (跌打酒) adorn the walls of this set piece from <I>Seis Manos</I>.

Jars of the healing liniment dit dar jow (跌打酒) adorn the walls of this set piece from Seis Manos.
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About Kurtis Fujita :
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Sifu Kurtis Fujita is the Head Instructor of Tiger Crane Kung Fu in West Los Angeles and Simi Valley, California. He serves as the Los Angeles Chairman of the United States Traditional Kung Fu Wushu Federation and is the Hung Gar Advisor to the International Traditional Kung Fu Association. He can be contacted at: Email: instructor@tigercrane.net; Online: TigerCrane.net; Facebook: facebook.com/tigercranekungfu; Youtube and Instagram: tigercrane805.

Sifu Thomas Leverett is the Co-Owner of Del Sol Yoga & Kung Fu where he teaches both Kung Fu and Yoga. Sifu Leverett is a 10th Generation practitioner of the Northern Shaolin 7 Star Praying Mantis system of Kung Fu, and began his training in 1997 while completing his B.A. degree from the University of Texas Austin in Anthropology and Archaeology. He became a Sifu under Master Jeff Hughes in 2006. During those years he also trained with his Sigung, Master Raymond Fogg, and Master Joe Colvin, from whom he learned Hung Gar. Sifu Leverett was the Fight Choreography Consultant on SEIS MANOS. He lives in Austin, TX, where he and his wife and Co-Founder, Claudia, are in the process of developing a retreat center there where the eastern arts can be practiced and passed to any who come. They currently lead Yoga Teacher Trainings at both the 200 & 300 Hour Levels as well as retreats around the world. You can find him online at delsolaustin.com

Brad Graeber is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer for Powerhouse Animation Studios. He is the executive producer and co-creator of SEIS MANOS and supervising producer of Frederator's CASTLEVANIA – both currently available on Netflix. Powerhouse is currently working on other adult action animated series including Netflix's GODS & HEROES and Mattel's HE-MAN & THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATIONS. Brad has been training with Sifu Thomas Leverett for almost 20 years, studying 7-star Mantis, Hung Gar, and Wah Lum Kung Fu. He can be found on twitter @bradgraeber and powerhouseanimation.com

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