Reviewed by Chuck Gordon
This 70s-era documentary was the first taste many Americans had of a broader world of budo than they'd known before, your humble reviewer among them.
I had been studying martial arts for a few years when I first saw this (on PBS, if I remember correctly). It was beautiful, compelling and tempting ... and, in some ways, it still is.
I'd seen snippets of this here and there over the years, and jumped when I got the chance to review the DVD version. As I awaited delivery of the DVD, I tried to remember details of the documentary, and seem to remember that there was some connection between the film and one of my first budo books, titled simply "The Martial Arts" by French budoka Michel Random.
The photography (shot of real film instead of video) is stunning. It's still simply a beautiful film.
Too bad about the soundtrack.
OK, it was produced in the 70s ... but the unfortunate synthetic wacka-chika music is reminiscent of the porn of that era. My wife and I suppressed the occasional giggle whilst watching the DVD.
Aside from production values, the content was actually surprising to me this time around. It's been years (don't ask how many) since I first saw this film, and content-wise, I was somewhat disappointed as I watched it this time out.
While some segments are outstanding, by and large, the script glorifies many of the best of the martial myths and misconceptions that plague budo in the West.
The mystery and mastery represented by the black belt, for instance. Several references are made throughout the film and how severe training must be, how superior yudansha are, etc. Kind of sad, really. But it helps explain some of the persistent urban mythologies of today's dojo.
There's a strong emphasis on karate in the film (I hadn't remembered this, actually), and in one segment the narrator solemnly intones the 'fact' that karate was developed in response to the predations of armed samurai against unarmed farmers and parrots the old tale of how they turned their farming implements into weapons that allowed them to fight and even defeat their armed, armored and mounted samurai.
At least it didn't say anything about commoners using jumping kicks to knock the samurai off their horses ...
I found some of the koryu segments far too sketchy, leaving me wanting to see the bits that got swept up on the cutting room floor. Don't get me wrong, some of the scenes are great, but I felt that there was far too little of that aspect and far too much of the mystery and mastery business.
Some of the sections were a bit disjointed; in one particular segment, monks perform a firewalking ritual, but no substantive connection is made to budo. It's interesting, but it left me scratching my head. Maybe I missed some of the back-story, but it wasn't evident in the film or the narration.
And I also found the Zendo sequence more than a little contrived and annoying as well, but at least the focus there was on a swordsman who also did Zen.
Aside from those disappointments, the movie is still fascinating. It's got some outstanding footage of folks like Yoshinkan Aikido's Gozo Shioda, the somewhat controversial Shogo Kuniba doing karate and iai, Okinawan kobudo's Teruo Hayashi, iaido's Taizaburo Nakamura and other big names from that era. The sumo sequences featuring Takamiyama are almost worth watching all by themselves.
Some of the iai/batto is grand, and the scene of the iai folk bundling straw for cutting targets was a delight.
'Budo' was -- and is -- an amazing film for its day, but there's so much more info available now, and a much more open-eyed approach than the more glamorized and oh-so mysterious approach of this script. What I'd really love to see is a remake, or perhaps an update, of 'Budo' ... one done with folks like Meik Skoss, Karl Friday and Serge Mol, amongst others.
Do I recommend this film? Absolutely. But I also recommend that you
balance it with the koryu budo trilogy from Koryu Books (www.koryubooks.com)
and as you watch 'Budo: The Art of Killing,' that you take a grain of salt
along the information presented as gospel by the film-maker and script-writer.