Our martial art is not certainly the most famous one. This is also because it is not widely represented in literature and cinema. Maybe the reason is that it is not honed to overwhelming the others, which is something more spectacular than pacific resolution of conflicts. As a matter of fact, this article will not merely be about Aikido. It will focus on the cultural foundations it stems from, by means of two art forms such as literature and cinema.
Certainly, Steven Seagal has been able to transpose Aikido into action movies using Aikido techniques in combat scenes in a very cinematographically effective way. In his first movie Above the Law (1988) he is an Italian-American cop who practices Aikido (like the actor himself in real life). While Seagal has almost quitted Aikido today, he still holds a 7th dan from Hombu Dojo. This movie is probably the only one where a picture of Morihei Ueshiba is shown in a Hollywood production. The starring character also appears in keikogi and hakama, performing the formal bow before starting an Aikido class.
But this is not the genre I want to deal with here. I’m thinking about novels and movies set during feudal Japan. I’m confident they can help us understanding the cultural roots from which Aikido and all others forms of Budo arose. This meant the transformation of war techniques depicted in those works into something good for self-improvement.
This review is of course incomplete, since it will only report about what I’ve watched or read. This is not intended as an exhaustive guide on the subject. I will follow a time trend reflecting the periods the plays are set in, not their time of issue. Whenever possible, I will try a connection among those stories and to Aikido itself.
Let’s start with the most famous movie from the greatest Japanese director of all times: Aikira Kurosawa. His first movie set during feudal Japan is The Seven Samurai (1954), staged during 1587-88. Two long time friends samurai, Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) and Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), survivors from several battles, decide to put their martial knowledge to the service of some poor farmers constantly threatened by a band of thugs. They enroll five fellow samurai including the strong peasant Kikuchiro (who fakes to be a samurai), portrayed by the immense Toshiro Mifune, maybe the greatest Japanese actor ever. Kurosawa’s masterwork offers a realistic view on the Japanese society in the sixteenth century. The country was devided into feuds often at war among themselves. A feudal lord was called a Daymio and he had samurais at his service. Daymios held full life-and-death rights on samurais: they could order them to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide, without having to explain why. Civil wars between feud allegiances continuously took place each century. Samurais were forced to face the danger of death everyday. This enormously reinforced their combat ability and strength of spirit, famous today as the Bushido code. The samurasi in this film by Kurosawa are ronin, samurai without a lord who choose to serve as farmers protectors. Following is the scene of a bokken battle between Kyuzo, a samurai who will join the seven, and another swordman who declares the first skermish a tie; Kyuzo claims that if they had been using real swords the other one would have been dead. The character insists in using real swords and Kyuzo rapidly kills him in front of the admired Kambei and Gorobei, who will soon enroll him.
In 1590, just a couple of years after the time of The Seven Samurai, the various lords who ruled over Japan were forced to unite under the power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the Taiko). He was the first man to unify Japan, continuing the work of his predecessor Oda Nobunaga. But the Taiko will die soon, living a heir too young to enforce peace. The risk of new civil wars was really high. The group of trusted men Hideyoshi left in command was only able to keep the delicate balance for a short period of time. In the ensuing war, Ieyasu Tokugawa will take over, obtaining the definitive control of all Japan.
In this period, James Clavell set his wonderful novel Shogun (1975). The plot is based on real facts. In the first months of 1600, a Dutch vessel headed by the English pilot William Adams (John Blackthorne in the novel) sinks near Japan’s coast. After a first cultural shock, Adams/Blackthorne is so fascinated by the local culture that he becomes a samurai and a personal counselor of Tokugawa himself (who is renamed Toranaga in Clavell’s novel), a critical one to obtaining the ultimate power as Shogun in 1603. The novel is interesting in Clavell’s attempt to figure out how a westerner of the times could get along in Japan. Japanese were barbarians to Europeans; the latter were even more so to the Japanese: in Europe, taking a bath was then believed a danger, since water could bring diseases. Europeans used to bathe once a year. In Japan, the bath was a daily ritual and people would never dream of going around unclean. Fetid, pale and hairy barbarians were unbearable. Japanese used to open their windows in order to let clean air in; the English feared outside air brought in illnesses.
On their side, westerners were appalled by the way a samurai could chop the head off a farmer just because the former believed the latter didn’t bow correctly. Suffice to say, in a country where all houses were made of wood and paper, the crime of setting a fire was a real serious one: the culprit was put to death along with his entire family.
Clavell’s novel has also been transposed into a nice TV series of 1988. Richard Chamberlain starred as John Blackthorne and Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga. The show is available in a DVD set.
The Shogun novel ends with the battle of Sekigahara, which took place on October 21, 1600. Allied forces headed by Ieyasu Tokugawa clashed against those commanded by the rival Ishida Mitsunari, who was faithful to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s succession. A sudden change of allegiances on the battlefield led Tokugawa to victory. In three years time he would have enforced his power an all Japan, achieving the title of Shogun, the military commander of the whole country. From then on, the Shogun title will become hereditary and will stay within the Tokugawa family until 1868. Legend has it that the young Myamoto Musashi (1584-1645), who was to become the greatest swordman of all times, fought at Sekigahara among the defeated troops of Hideyoshi.
The story of Takezo Shinmen, his birth name, is reported in the novel Musashi, written in 1935 by Eiji Yoshikawa. It tells about the life of the famous ronin who, after surviving Sekigahara’s battlefield with a friend, must escape form his own villagers since he is deemed a violent and aggressive character. When only 13, Takezo slaughtered his first opponent, an expert from the Kashima Shinto ryu sword school (the one much of the sword practice of Aikido is founded on). In the novel, he is saved by the Zen monk Takuan who instructs him, allowing Takezo’s inner qualities to come to the surface. Takezo becomes Musashi and begins his wandering across Japan pursuing the way of the sword. He challenged all the best kenjutsu masters, defeating them all. Musashi was famous as using two wooden swords (bokken). Often he carved them from wood on his way to the duel, purposedly arriving late in order to irritate the opponent. The novel ends with the duel with Kojiro Sasaki, believed one of the strongest swordman of the era, also known as Ganryu. Musashi arrived late as usual, carving his own sword from an oar while on the boat that was bringing him to the island for the duel. Kojiro, who was a samurai at the service of the local Hosokawa family, had a particularly long katana.
The usual Toshiro Mifune starred as Musashi in a trilogy by Iroshi Hinagaki from 1954 to 1956. The films, named Samurai I, II and III, immediately followed The Seven Samurai and cover the whole story told by Yoshikawa in his book. This is the trailer of the first movie. The 3rd one ends with the duel with Ganryu, staged on the island of Funa-jima, renamed Ganryu-jima in 1612.
After the death of Kojiro Sasaki, Musashi took service for the Hosokawa family. The same Hosokawa family whose descendant Hideki came to Italy to aid Hiroshi Tada in spreading Aikido.
The period following the battle of Sekigahara is the backgound to a literary trilogy by Dale Furutani, a naturalized American of Japanese origins. Japan was in a confusing state after the defeat of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, while Tokugawa’s troops roamed the country to consolidate his power. The main character is Matsuyama Kaze, a ronin in search of the daughter of his late Lady and Lord. They were loyal to Hideyoshi and their feud had been levelled by Tokugawa’s military. Furutani’s style is flowing and entertaining, thrilling and funny at the same time. His are crime stories staged in feudal Japan where the hero becomes a detective investigating on murders occurring in the villages he passes by, while attempting to complete his mission. Furutani craftly mixes the plot with refined descriptions of the customs of the time. In his first book, Death at the Crossroads, Kaze and a coal merchant stumble upon a corpse killed by an arrow at a crossroads. The coalman will be accused of the murder but Kaze is not convinced and he will do all he can to reveal the truth.
In the second book of the trilogy, Jade Palace Vendetta, Kaze is witness to an ambush by some bandits versus a merchant. The escort is quickly eliminated but Kuze succeedes in saving the merchant. When safe at the merchan’t home, Kaze sniffs something is wrong. The merchant’s palace is not the safe place he was told. Any guest is at risk…
In the third novel, Kill the Shogun, Kaze is accused of attemting the life of Ieyasu Tokugawa himself, the new Shogun. The plot unfolds in the city of Edo, the ancient Tokyo, where Tokugawa move the capital from Kyoto, which remained home to the Emperor (this is why Tokugawa’s era is also called Edo period). Kaze will have to disguise in order to escape from the Shogun’s troops and fulfill his mission.
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In 1999, Takashi Koizumi, for 28 years the assistant of Aikira Kurosawa, directed the movie Ame Agaru (After the Rain), based on a script by Kurosawa himself. The film is set in the Kyoho period (1716-17335), starring Akira Terao as the ronin Ihei Misawa. Misawa is travelling with his beloved wife when hi finds himself stuck in a country inn after the heavy rains caused the nearby waterstream to flood. Many travellers and a Daymio are also trapped in the inn. The Daymio admires the ronin’s ability in sedating a scuffle between two of his own men. So he asks Misawa to become his master of arms. Meanwhile, the Daymio organizes a series of bokken duels to kill time while waiting for the flood to retire.
The main actor Akira Terao is very famous in Japan as a successfull singer and bass player. His records sell by the millions and he received a number of prizes for his appearances in movies, often working with Akira Kurosawa. Terao is known for wearing sunglasses and for his expressions of nihilism. He’s also nicknamed hoppe, “cheek”, in Japanese, because he has two moles in one cheek. He’s not bad in using the bokken, too:
Zatoichi’s legend is set at an uncertain date during the Edo period, probably the Tenpo era (1830-44). Zatoichi is a fantasy character by Kan Shimozawa portrayed in a number of novels, movies, books, shows and cartoons. I’d like to mention here the movie directed by Takeshi Kitano in 2003. Zatoichi is a blind masseur and an incredibly high skilled swordman. Blind people were believed to be perverts at the time, while masseurs ranked even lower than merchants and beggars. Therefore, Zatoichi couldn’t carry a katana and his sword is cached in his blind man’s cane. He unsheaths his straight sword in a flash, as fast as he can sheath it back. In his wandering, offers his assistance to the dweller of a village who are blackmailed by the local Yakuza. The original soundtrack is worth a special mention, since it is characterized by percussion rythms performed with the farmers’ tools, culminating in the final tap dance, at the same time exhilarating and anachronistic. Gory scenes are rendered in a rather pulp style by using purposedly exaggerated effects: the blood is so red it is clear it is a movie trick. Co-starring is Tadanobou Asano, playing a samurai enrolled by the Yakuza who will finally confront Zatoichi. Asano was personally chosen by Kitano for the role after they met on Gohatto’s set, about which we will talk later. Kitano required Asano to train with the sword for three months: while they were shooting Gohatto, Kitano noticed that Asano needed perfecting his hips posture! Watching Asano performing in Gohatto he seems real good with the katana. If Kitano noticed anything wrong with him, this tells us how good Katano is in Kenjutsu! He too looks very good with the sword in Gohatto…
Asano will also star in Mongol (2007) as Gengis Kahn and will have a role in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor in 2011. You can admire him in this scene acting as Gennosuke who easily slaughters a number of opponents of his clan; note the elegant “chiburi-noto” (blood shaking – sheathing of the sword) at the end of the clip.
The Twilight Samurai (2002) by Yoji Yamada, is set in Japan’s nineteenth century, a few years before the end of the Edo period and of Tokugawa’s shogunate. The low-ranking samurai Seibei Iguchi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (who will also star in The Last Samurai one year later – see below), a bureaucrat employee, is forced to have a second job to provide for his old mother and young daughter. After his samurai shift, he leaves the barracks at dusk to go to work, while his comrades go around drinking sake and enjoying life after service.
A chain of events will bring him to face a duel with a captain who is harassing his best friend’s wife. Seibei wants to save his friend, not very good at sword play, and preserve the honor of his family. In order to avoid any bloodshed, Seibei shows up at the duel with a short wooden sword he is an expert of. This infuriates the opposing samurai who angrily unsheaths his katana. This is the clip where Sanada shows his notable abilities.
This is not the usual samurai action movie. The duel is one of the few combat scenes. The film tells about the everyday struggle of a samurai in dire straits in Japan at the end of the shogunate. It is a refined and profound film, focused on human values.
Tokugawa’s shogunate, the Edo period, lasted longer than 250 years and was a period of partial peace. Practically, all the Daymios, willing or not, were loyal to Tokugawa. Civil wars were ended and the samurai were no longer to face death everyday. They still were the most powerful caste of Japan but they also had to take up the administrative tasks their leading role required. For these reasons, many founded martial arts schools (ryu) where they trained their bujutsu skills. The aim was preserving the techniques they had refined during centuries of wars in order to pass them down to later generations. With time, the influence of the Zen doctrine was growing so much that the combat techniques became aimed at the inner enemy, those limitations which prevent the human being from achieving a complete development. The first Budo schools were born. The Way of the Warrior is here intended as a shaping path, rather than a way to defeat an opponent.
A kenjutsu school that was rather famous at the beginning of the 1800s was the Tennen Rishin ryu, founded in 1789 by the Kondo family. The school maintained a pure combat focus and it gained a certain reputation in the rural district of Tama. In 1849, the 3rd soke of the school, having no male descendants, resoved to adopt his 16 year old skillful student Miyagawa Katsugoro with the name of Kondo Isami (1834-1868).
In 1860, Isami (at left) married Otsune from a noble family of the Shimizu-Tokugawa clan, to make up for his peasant origins. A couple of years earlier, the “black ships” of the U.S. Navy had forced Tokyo’s harbor at Admiral Perry’s command. Perry blocked the harbor and forced a commercial treaty upon the Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa. Many Japan isolationism parties were enraged and triggered violent attacks to foreigners and their supporters.
In 1863, the shogunate organized a large group of ronin to be brought to Kyoto to defend the Shogun during his visit. Isami joined those forces together with a group of Tennen Rishin practitioners friend such as Hijikata Toshizo (at right), Yamanami Keisuke, Harada Sanosuke, Nagakura Shinpachi and the young sword marvel Okita Soji. Right after, Kondo founded the elite special corps known as Shinsengumi, based in Kyoto at the Shogun’s service under the supervision of the Aizu clan.
In 1999, director Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013), renowed for the Empire of Senses movie, shot the film Taboo (Gohatto) staged in the Shinsengumi barracks. Takeshi Kitano starred in the role of Hijikata and Shinji Takeda in the role of Okita; Kondo Isami was played by actor director Yoichi Sai. The story is about a young effeminate samurai named Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda, then 16 years old), who is admitted to the Shinsengumi together with Tashiro Hyozo, played by Tadanobou Asano (who will co-star in Zatoichi as already described). Tashiro is already in love with Kano’s feminine beauty and the jealousy developing through the military upon the young man’s arrival creates a serious problem for the efficiency of Shinsengumi. Hijikata and Okita will have to solve the question somehow.
The movie is directed with craftsmanship, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music and the photography are both spectacular; the opening scene depicts very interesting bokken fencing you can admire in the following clip: here, the genious Okita, known for his chirful attitude, is testing the candidate samurais for Shinsengumi enrollment, among them are Kano (Matsuda) e Tashiro (Asano).
In 2004, the NHK Japanese TV network aired the Shinsengumi TV series. It very accurately tells the story of the old Kyoto police force. The series is famous for having been interpreted by Katori Shingo and other members of the SMAP boyband, idols of Japan’s teenagers. Here is a clip with a selection of scenes involving the controverisal Saito Hajime character (his original name was Yamaguchi Hajime – only a casual coincidence with the two great Aikido shihans). Some believe Hajime was a spy within the Shinsengumi, but he actually fought for the Aizu clan until the end as a Shinsengumi commander after Hijikata was wounded.
Toshiro Mifune also starred as Kondo Isami in a movie by Tadashi Sawashima in 1969; he was also the producer.
For what concerns the links with Aikido, it is worth noting that Shinsengumi was deployed in Kyoto under the Aizu clan supervision. The Aizu was one of the most loyal clans to Tokugawa; they were among the most powerful clans, surely the most prominent in Kyoto’s area. For years the Aizu had been founding the most refined bujutsu schools, even some secret ones where they trained the Emperor’s and the Shogun’s samurais. Many of those schools were directed by members of the Takeda family, whose forfather was Yoshikyo Minamoto, descendant of Yoshimitsu, the father of Aikijutsu. Yoshikyo moved to the Takeda village and took up its name. In 1574, Kunitsugu Takeda, brother of the famous Shingen Takeda who opposed Ieyasu Tokugawa, moved to the Aizu district beginning a martial tradition which included the secret techniques of what would later become the il Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu. The Shinsengumi was under the command of Matsudaira Katamori (1836-1893) (at left), head of the Aizu clan at the time. His counselor was Seigo Tanomo Sensei (at right), one of Sokaku Takeda’s instructors. Sokaku, we know, taught Aikijutsu to Morihei Ueshiba.
The Shinsengumi is very popular in Japan and it has been portrayed in movies, comic books, etc. Probably it is because it represents the end of an era. The special forces where at the service of the last Tokugawa Shogun. At the end of that period, the Emperor Meiji (1868) would completely reform the country in a western way, erasing all the caste system, samurai included.
The war among the various factions, the Boshin war, led to the huge destructuring of Japan’s society. It is well rendered by the Shinsengumi TV series. At first, Shinsengumi joined forces with the Aizu and Satsuma clans in order to fight the Choshu clan who were challenging the Tokugawas. The first clash was solved with no bloodshed and the Choshu clan left Kyoto. Later, the shogunate decided for fighting the Choshu clan, but the Matsuma clan, headed by Saigo Takamori (1828-1877), swapped sides thanks to the mediation of Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867) (at right). Sakamoto is today known as a visionary who dreamed about a modern Japan, with no feudal classes, inspired to the American revolution and to the principles of equality among men. The war was a disaster for the Shogun who fell sick and died shortly after. His successor Yashinobu (at left) attempted some reforms but the movements against the Shogunate, led by the Satsuma and Choshu, had become unstoppable. Even after the last Shogun dropped his title giving the power back to the Emperor, the opposite forces clashed in a war that lasted until 1869, with the shogunate’s defeat. In 1867, the Emperor Komei suddenly died leaving his throne to his 14 years old heir Meiji. After the war, the new Emperor transformed Japan in a country much resembling a western one. His government was legally dominated by politicians from the Satsuma and Choshu clans and it stayed like that until World War I. But the reforms disappointed one caste above the others, the samurai. Their outrage bursted out in the 1877 Satsuma rebellion, headed by Saigo Takamori (at right), who fough so much in the past for an opening towards the foiregners and the ensuing reforms.
The Saigo character inspired the creators of the 2003 The Last Samurai film by Edward Zwick, from a story by John Logan. The rebel samurai Katusmoto, skillfully interpreted by Ken Whatanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha, Letters from Iwo-jima, Inception), is inspired to the life of Saigo Takamori. Japan has been reformed and is attempting to modernize with the help of foreign powers. In reality they were Great Britain, Netherlands and France, but in the movie thir role is almost entirely taken over by the United States. A goup of rebel samurais refuses to be cancelled and to put down the swords that are symbols of their caste. They are still a pain in the back of the imperial army, not yet used to firearms. So an American officer, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), is enrolled to train the new Japanese military. He falls prisoner at the first encounter, but Katsumoto wants his life saved, so he can learn about his foreign culture. With time, Algren will appreciate the culture of Bushido and will stay at Sakamoto’s side until the end. It is interesting to note the parallel drawn between Native Americans and the samurais, both fought against at first, later appreciated and respected by the main character, both believed savages from their opponents’ propaganda. I would like to highlight the peformance of Hyroyuki Sanada (who starred in The Twilight Samurai the year before) in the role of Ujio, the deadly samurai loyal to Katsumoto; he was hostile to Captain Algren at first, later decisive in teaching him the art of the sword. In a scene that was cut from the final version, the two characters first meet in the streets of Tokyo.
The Ujio character is maybe inspired to Beppu Shinsuke (1847-1877) (at left), Saigo Takamori’s right arm, who assited him during his seppuku and later rushed against the firearms with his katana in his hand. Sanada offers a lively protrait of this real life character thanks to his strong martial arts training including Shorinji Kempo, a Japanese defense system based on Shaolin KungFu and Kyokushin kaikan, a full-contact Karate style. In 2010, he co-starred in the acclaimed TV series Lost and appeared in 2013’s 47 Ronin (a remake of the Japanese 1994 movie), with Keanu Reaves e Tadanabou Asano, the co-star in Zatoichi and Gohatto. Some say Tom Cruise received sword training by Pascal Guillemin, 6th dan Aikikai, student of Christian Tissier, who was then too busy travelling the world holding Aikido seminars.
The Last Samurai protrays the end of the Samurai class by highlighting their values. They still survive today in the martial arts they inspired and which are practiced all over the world. Maybe, at the end, they were the winners…