3/09/2008

Budo

Cultural Stereotypes
Budo: The Art of Killing
Before the latest anime and manga explosion in the West unleashed the sailor-suited schoolgirl on so many impressionable teenagers, there was the sword-wielding, high screeching, side-kicking, martial-arts hero. This was one of the most familiar images I saw perpetuated by popular media in the eighties: from film, television, comic books, to literature and video games. Japan's martial reputation is an element of the West's general wariness towards the country dating from the last World War (and going back even further). The typical view of Japan could be described as: a geographically isolated country, racially and culturally homogenous, its people raised in cramped, austere conditions to be obedient to authority, conformist, polite, disciplined, hardworking, patriotic, militaristic, inscrutable. Can't forget inscrutable. The qualities which supposably made Japanese soldiers capable of fighting to the last man helped push Japan's post-war growth. Not surprisingly the country's economic success was met with trepidation and xenophobia in some quarters, exacerbated by worry about America's possible declining status as a world power.[1]

Fiction and Reality

Off course the Japanese romanticize their heritage as much as anyone else, and their bushi,[2] whether it's the or , get the glitzy media treatment just as much as cowboys or medieval knights in Hollywood. Fiction is one thing. What about the reality behind the larger-than-life image?

One of my early influences spurring my nascent interest in legitimate Japanese (and East Asian) martial culture was the Japanese film Budo (Einaru Budo).[3] It's been a long time since I first saw it but I recently happened to watch it again. Interestingly my memories of the movie are different from the version distributed by cult label Synapse Films: First, in line with their catalogue of horror and exploitation flicks, its title was changed to the rather unfortunate Budo: The Art of Killing. Second, a voice-over narrative track has been added that I don't recall hearing those many years ago. Both of these changes, in my opinion, have macekred the product. But I'll elaborate on this later.

Someone hearing the Synapse title might get the impression that what they're about to witness will be some kind of slaughter-fest. Nothing close to that happens. There are only two scenes of simulated death: The first one, which actually begins the movie, is a discreet theatrical reproduction of seppuku.[4] But the bulk of the picture is taken-up by demonstrations of practitioners of the sword, the halberd, miscellaneous Okinanwan weaponry, judo, sumo, aikido and karate-do. It's not comprehensive, just a survey of the more well-known disciplines. Not surprisingly, the sword (kendo, iado etc.) receives the most exposure, while karate-do receives the most attention among the empty-handed combat forms.

The film is of interest to enthusiasts because of the content and the personalities that appear in it. First, to anyone interested in what actual budo looks like, what's being exhibited here is far more authentic than what's shown in popular entertainment like, oh say, Naruto. But I suspect that most lay-people would be turned-off by the lack of flashy acrobatics or various special effects that regularly accompany fictional onscreen hand-to-hand combat. The demos by themselves are fairly typical: Budoka are either performing solo, attacking inanimate objects (sandbags, wooden boards, bamboo stalks, tree trunks etc.), or performing together in various choreographed or improvised fight sequences. No one is getting intentionally hurt.

Second, the producers managed to round-up a couple of highly respected budoka to perform some of the demos. Yoshinkan aikido founder Gozo Shioda gets to throw-around three partners in his free fighting demo. Famous shito karate exponent Teruo Hayashi shows-off his skills with the tonfa, kama, and nunchaku[5], and performs a few karate kata.[6] Modern-day swordsman Taizaburo Nakamura slices bales of straw with a katana. Takamiyama, the first foreign sumo champion, trains with his fellow wrestlers. It's a not unimpressive list.

But watching an hour and a half or demonstrations would become pretty tedious to the uninitiated. The film tries to break the monotony by taking the budoka outdoors. kendoka cross swords in rice fields, at night, in forest groves, on temple grounds, in front of the majestic Mount Fuji. Karate-ka train in the snow and on the beach. In one bizarre scene, one of them is conditioning his hands by repeatedly striking a locomotive.

Interspersed between the various demos are scenes of Japanese life. Some of them bear a direct connection to budo, such as actual classes and training sessions, tournaments, equestrian events, a smith forging swords, or sword polishing scenes. Others like religious festivals or Zen Buddhist monks meditating are more obtuse in their connection. Others like Noh dances blended with various kata simply look cool. Using Japan as a backdrop may seem cliche now, but it's used to great effect here to heighten the exotic beauty of the fighting disciplines. They're all attractively shot like some commercial from Japan's board of tourism.

In the end Budo isn't so much a documentary as a promotional video. It takes no critical stance about its subject matter, supplies no real historical information, offers no analysis, makes no attempt to differentiate between koryu bujutsu and the gendai budo,[7] shows no candid interviews with the personalities that appear in it. The film makes no attempt to dispel the mystique associated with the Japanese martial arts. While it's nice to watch, its spiritual lessons do not cut too deep.

The Art of Killing


For me the most cringe-inducing part of Budo: the Art of Killing is the voice-over narration. I can understand why it was added. For afficianados like me, watching famous budoka in action can be very engrossing. But for everyone else a film with neither plot nor dialogue, and a seemingly endless succession of demonstrations would probably get repetitive after fifteen minutes. Judiciously placed narration could inform and educate the audience about what they are watching. But the narration in this case does neither. In fact it's peppered with many half-truths and generalizations.

For one thing the narrator goes overboard in selling the deadliness of these various fighting arts. During an early kendo kata performance he intones "As real swords are used, great skill is required as the least mistake means certain death." How many times does that happen? During the filming of a judo free fighting session one judoka passes-out after being successfully choked. The narrator warns "Should one loose consciousness...he will die if left alone." Throughout the film, words like "severe", "cruel", "pain" and "death" are repeatedly used to emphasize the severity of the training, which lasts a lifetime since no one ever achieves perfection. Wow, a lifetime of pain and misery. They must be dropping by the hundreds everyday in Japan. Why would anyone want to send their kids to karate class after listening to this?

Then there's the usual self-aggrandizing claims made on behalf of their respective disciplines: Judo allows the smaller man to defeat the bigger man. With aikido, the person can defeat the opponent without raising a single blow. But The karate expert can kill a man with a single blow. The most historically inaccurate statement made in the film is when the narrator basically says that karate (and Okinawan weapons) was designed to fight against the sword. Seriously now. At the time the movie was produced the relative novelty of Japanese budo gave them a certain invincibility that still tends to persist today even as decades of exposure have made them less strange, and their assertions less credible.

The narration falls into the trap of cultural stereotyping when it conflates bushi philosophy with Japanese values: "The samurai lived to die a beautiful death. In this life philosophy of the samurai lies the typical mind of the Japanese man. he seeks after truth, through the sword, the soul of the samurai and cultivates his heart to be a sharp as the blade..."

Really? Well somewhere along the way, the Japanese man got tired of his spartan existence, decided to become an otaku, and hang-out at maid cafes in Akihabara.

Without the narration, Budo is a rather pretty, if noncritical portrait of the Japanese fighting arts. With the narration Budo: the Art of Killing becomes cheap and exploitative, and begins to feel a bit like a recruitment video for an eighties new-age cult.
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[1] The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy was a seminal academic work published at the time. Published in 1987, it traces the rise and fall of the great colonial empires and predicts the rising influence of China, Japan and the European Economic Community (EEC) as well as the decline of the Soviet Union and the United States.

[2] Bushi (武士) is a Japanese word for warrior. It combines bu (武) meaning war or martial, and shi (士), meaning gentleman. The warrior-class is more commonly known as samurai outside of Japan.

[3] is a term for the Fighting Arts - bu (武), meaning war or martial; and dō (道), meaning path or way. The latter is a Buddhist term referring to a "way of life" or a "path to enlightenment" connoting that Budo is a spiritual discipline with the purpose of defeating the ego.

The other term for fighting arts is - combining bu (武) with jutsu (術), meaning art, science, or craft. The word emphasis the practical objectives of combat and war rather than achieving spiritual goals.

[4] is the term for the ritual suicide practiced by the bushi. Popularly known as hara-kiri.

[5] , , and are various Okinanwan weapons.

[6] is a preset pattern of techniques executed solo or with a partner/s. the term is usually translated into English as "form."

[7] generally refers to the classical military arts practiced during Japan's feudal era. These include kenjutsu, naginata-jutsu, sojutsu, kyujutsu, bojutsu, jojutsu, ninjutsu etc. Alternately called kobujutsu or kobudo.

Gendai Budo refers to the Japanese modern fighting systems developed since the Meiji era (1868–1912). These include aikido, judo, karate-do, kendo, naginata-do, kyudo etc.