“When one has a weapon it is easy to delude oneself into believing that he is better than his opponent. To be a samurai means to avoid this self-conceit and to constantly train oneself to face death.”
Opening with seppuku and shot with stark ritualistic detail, a sunrise soon follows signifying the conquest of the internal enemy. The film will never recapture the quiet intensity of this moment, but that is not because of any slacking in the cinematography department (rather, the music department which sporadically kills the film’s atmospherics). Director Nemoto is sensible enough to allow many quiet sequences, voiceovered by Harry J. Quini (who had previously narrated Goto’s Fighting Black Kings), and demonstrations by such expert martial artists as Satoru Suzuki and Teruo Hayashi. Hisao Masuda’s comprehensive (though the way of the bow is excluded) documentary details the many styles of Budo, the Way of the Warrior, in classic reverential style.
The focus of the gendai budo is less on a reckless art of killing than, “The weak must defend from the strong.” The choreographed scenes are well-done and the training session scenes are energetic and spontaneous, but one must note that this is not an instructional film. It is merely an introduction to the concept and form of these styles. What is most significant about the film, however, is the striking camerawork and sharp editing, all contained with sagacious direction. Fists and crashing waves, a white crane landing in slow motion – there are many figurative associations penciled-in periodically which beautifully complement the formalistic exercises.
Following the seppuku segment, yabusame follows: Samurai mounted archery where precision and control are paramount. The loyalty of the samurai to their lord is mentioned, their most glorious death: sacrifice. “And so they lived each day with a constant desire for beauty in death.” The traditional garb of the samurai, vibrant and pronounced is a fascinating visual when on the battlefield: the variety and eclecticism of the designs, the colours extensive. Many other forms are displayed as well: naginata-do, aikido, traditional Judo training, Okinawan fighting techniques used to defend against samurai (“Although the Japanese sword is synonymous with the soul of the samurai, it became a source of great fear; one that changed both human character and social situation”), sumo wrestling, tameshigari, and firewalking. Various weapons are exhibited throughout the film as well such as nunchaku, nicho gama (two farmer’s sickles), the sai, sansetsukon (three-section staff), and of course the nihonto.
The discipline inherent in the art is demonstrated visually in the rigorous training required for karate (meaning ‘empty-handed’ – “Karate training can be both severe and cruel, yet a sword can take away a life with one swing”) and the endurance required in sumo. “The enjoyment of pleasures can only mean the negligence of practice,” intones the narrator and this segue ways to the final connection drawn to budo, Zen Buddhism; in particular, zazen, the primary method of the art. The calming of the body and mind is significant in clearing the psyche of distractions, allowing one to act purely, instinctually. “Through cruel physical training and with it, the cultivation of a dauntless spirit so that one can stand any pain, the entire body is converted into a steel weapon.” Overall, it must be said that the film is a rather flawed one but also sincere in its reverence for the subject. The material is tame and fundamental, often elementary, but the vigorous training matches and deliberate pace conspire to make it an enjoyable experience.