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Budo – Art of Killing (1979)
Director: Masayoshi Nemoto
Plot: A visually and audibly fascinating insight into the history of Japanese martial arts presented in the style of a captivating, cultural documentary.
‘Budo – The Art of Killing’ is a title that evokes ambiguity, as referring to ‘killing’ as an art form is perplexing to say the least, as though it is a paradox that has been implemented in order to shed a different light on an unethical matter. Nemoto utilises visual and audible elements in order to support the title’s claim effectively – this notion becomes increasingly apparent throughout the documentary – which, in itself, is an art form, from the use of music in conjunction with the inclusion of moving film that provides both a historical and cultural understanding of a multitude of martial art practices, including Aikido, Karate, Sumo and Naginatajutsu – all of which originate from Japan and have been utilised for centuries, and each of which is still prevalent in contemporary culture.
The documentary style works proficiently in accordance with the theme of the piece itself which details the history of martial arts in a visual form, where those who practice such ancient arts are showcased in order to provide the viewer with a demonstration of how iconic sports such as Karate and Sumo are performed. It is highly intriguing, as previously I had not known much about martial arts aside from what I had viewed via Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris films – it was truly fascinating to learn about how martial arts were initiated and how they still remain relevant and play an influential part in contemporary Japanese culture.
Nemoto has executed the ‘documentary’ format with such precision, and in ‘Budo’, the director implemented the medium of the ‘visual’ most effectively, utilising ‘nature’ as a primary thematic element throughout the entirety of the piece, where jump-cuts of trees, waterfalls, waves crashing on the shore and blossom trees frequent the documentary. One believes this is done purposefully, as one scene from Nemoto’s piece showcases a heavy storm thus promoting the sheer power and unpredictability of the force of nature, which consequently reflects the art of self-defence, which when practiced, utilises strength which is not only physical in the art of ‘Budo’, but also spiritual.
One can possess the power of nature which is utilised as a metaphor effectively throughout Nemoto’s docu-film. The fighting spirit of the trained martial art figure, in turn, reflects the strong force of nature – the documentary comments on the notion of inner ‘spiritualism’ and how this correlates with individuals who practice such martial art forms.
Additionally, Nemoto’s historical piece on ancient Japanese martial art forms showcases a practice entitled ‘Naginatajutsu’, which is a form of the traditional art form of ‘Budo’ – however, it is performed primarily by a female demographic, where individuals utilise a ‘Naginata’ weapon in order to spar their opponent – this part of the documentary was intriguing and rather emotional overall as the art-form itself promotes the idea of spiritual beauty as opposed to physical beauty, thus empowering women in the process; something I found to be moving as it focuses on a woman’s inner self-belief, strength and capabilities, which I found motivational and thoroughly inspiring.
One of the recurring themes throughout the documentary is the belief that ‘human strength can ultimately defeat the sword’, which was an interesting concept that was conveyed through the entirety of the piece. Nemoto features the contrast between the ‘human’ body as being a weapon contrasted with that of the ‘physical’ weapon – the sword – which was utilised historically by the samurai warrior class, whilst those who could not afford such expensive weaponry utilised their body as a weapon – by training and gaining strength via martial artistry. This was a highly interesting concept that was narrated in great detail – Nemoto’s film sheds light on how powerful the human being is and what we as a species are capable of, highlighting how the human being can ‘train’ their body in order to feel no pain. It was absolutely astounding to see multiple scenes in the documentary that showcased ‘Budo’ (one of the main and original Japanese martial art forms) being displayed visually. One of the scenes features a young man who obliterates solid concrete slates with one hand – without even flinching! This was incredible to see. It is hard to envision that a human being such as this man could hold such strength. It was unbelievably powerful and a great scene overall, adding to the incredibly captivating documentary tremendously.
Nemoto also presents the negative side of ‘Budo’, accounting how one’s life can end by the ‘sword’ – and that a certain amount of fear developed around the samurai warrior who bore such arms – even though, the documentary scribes, was intended to be a warrior who was a signifier of ‘protection’ as opposed to a bringer of fear. It was interesting to discover that when the sword of the samurai is crafted, the creator of the iconic weapon (which is crafted in the flames, also described as being ‘born’ in such flames) prays that the sword itself is utilised by peaceful means, without the shed of blood. This was an unusual contrast, but in turn, it highlighted that even with such perceived violence, there is an element of harmony, where such martial arts are utilised for self-defence and that violence is not the primary goal.
Moreover, Nemoto’s documentary highlights how much the martial art of ‘Budo’ (in its multitude of forms) is centred around ‘self-control’, and that it can be perilous for the individual as life can be a constant struggle; that regardless of whether one receives the highest accolade, the iconic ‘black belt’, there are still improvements to be made – one should keep on practising the martial art in which they have mastered in fear that someone may become stronger than them if they do not attain their standard. It is moving, as the piece accounts of how much the internal struggle takes a toll on the individual and that in order to achieve true enlightenment, one turns to Buddhism to reinstate an equilibrium in their lives. There is a comparison between the sharpness of the mind in correlation with the sharpness of the sword, thus stating how pivotal metaphors are and how much they play a part in both the lives of the martial art-trained individuals, as well as the documentary itself.
Aside from the plot of the documentary, Nemoto utilises the notion of the ‘audible’ effectively, not just through the narration of the story, but also through the music that is implemented amongst certain scenes within the piece, where energetic music is played when set demonstrations of the martial art practices are performed. This is highly effective, as it adds to the suspense, as one never knows how it will end or what will entail during the performance, so to speak. It correlated with the ‘energetic’ vibe of the visual side. Both elements of the visual and the audible were fused together cleverly throughout Nemoto’s documentary. Also, the introduction of lively music in certain sections of the piece was welcomed, as it helped to break up the narration and added a sense of action into the documentary style that is usually a genre that is blatantly factual and sometimes banal. Nemoto managed to alter this notion, adding theatrical elements into the narrative and making the documentary enthusiastic as well as informative in the process.
Overall, Nemoto’s documentary ‘Budo – Art of Killing’ was a piece that provided an historical perspective which was educational, enabling the viewer to discover how martial arts developed and how they continue to resonate on from their archaic beginnings. The style of the piece provided both a visual and audible presentation of information which correlated together effectively, where Nemoto utilised both a documentary style format, but fused it with an ‘action’ format, which did not come across as being too theatrical – it was an equilibrium of both elements that worked most successfully throughout the piece. If one is interested in both history and culture, then this documentary in particular is worth a viewing, as it includes an array of informative elements that fuse together, thus creating an interesting piece of film in the process, but if you’re not so interested in such things then this may not be the film for you despite its deeper and more human outlook on such practices.