Can Samurai living solve one man’s post-lockdown crisis?

·7-min read
 (Michelle Thompson)
(Michelle Thompson)

‘There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. See nothing outside of yourself’

Miyamoto Musashi, ‘The Book Of Five Rings’

Over the past 18 months, I have been seeing nothing outside of myself, and it’s been a pretty disturbing view. Nothing is within. Very little exists. I have become weaker, poorer, slower and dumber. With all due respect to Mr Musashi, the great samurai scribe and 17th-century Japanese philosopher who can’t have foreseen this pandemic, it was high time I looked outside of myself. Having said that, the answer did lay within my streaming cave: Netflix’s Rurouni Kenshin films and series Demon Slayer, as well as a Japanese season on the BFI Player including famous Kurosawa films such as Seven Samurai.

Now, with post-lockdown life beginning in earnest, the question was: can the practices and values of these legendary warriors be taken from a living room fantasy to the real world?

So it was that one Saturday morning I left my dojo (okay, house) in my kimono (joggers, T-shirt), to travel a holy path (the Overground) and train in the art of sword fighting with a former monk (er, that’s correct).

Outside the Battodo Fudokan school in Hoxton, I adopted the demeanour of a powerful warrior, lobbed my Snickers wrapper toward the bin and entered the class. It was everything I’d dreamed of: students in kimonos, carrying actual swords, and warming up with grace and power. I quickly won respect by removing my socks to reveal toenails so sharp they could take off a top knot with one flick. Another newcomer and I were taught the basic moves with wooden swords before instructor John Evans took to the front of the room to lead the class in a deceptively simple warm-up. Demonstrating what looked like a routine hamstring stretch, Evans commented: ‘It took me 35 years to learn to do this properly.’ He showed us a technique of relaxing one hand while tensing up the other, a combination of contradictory actions which is one of the key principles and helps you get beyond the rational mind.

Sparring with wooden swords came next, a chance to clash blades with fellow warriors. I quickly got into the back and forth rhythms, keeping low, hitting with smooth control — and making it crystal clear that I was scared and posed no threat.

To finish the class Evans and another man gave a demonstration of cutting with live blades (it was a relief to realise the student swords had no edge). Using specially treated rolled-up mats, the two men took turns in striking through them with swift precision. Indeed, a protractor was taken out to measure the angle. They should teach maths like this in school — it’d certainly help reduce class numbers.

‘Do nothing that is of no use’ — Miyamoto Musashi

Doing nothing had actually proved quite useful. My lockdown ritual of stretching out in front of the TV gnawing on a Tony’s Chocolonely directly led to my samurai film binge, wherein lay a code that echoed with everyone’s retreat back to human necessities. Before I went sword fighting I spoke to Alex Jacoby, co-programmer of BFI Southbank’s Japan 2021 season (now in actual cinemas) about the continuing appeal of these films. ‘Like the western,’ Jacoby explains, ‘the samurai film is often about “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do”. The classic way of phrasing that is “giri-ninjō” — obligation versus human feelings.’ Yet Jacoby is also quick to dig into the complexities of the jidaigeki (period) films, which tried to make sense of rapidly changing, troubled times. ‘During Japan’s catastrophic engagement in the Second World War, the militarists were saying people should aspire to bushido [samurai moral code] values — that’s common in right-wing tyrannies. But you’ll find period films like Humanity And Paper Balloons, where director Sadao Yamanaka showed samurai not living up to their ideals. He was saying the militarists pretend they are noble and brave, but what they’re doing is contemptible. For Japanese audiences, the samurai was a figure for Japanese traditions to be interrogated; you could consider what you wanted to take from the past and what should be discarded.’

“The idea of 1,000 eyes is to see everybody and 1,000 arms are to recognise what a person needs and be able to help them” (Michelle Thompson)
“The idea of 1,000 eyes is to see everybody and 1,000 arms are to recognise what a person needs and be able to help them” (Michelle Thompson)

The same could be applied to thinking about male behaviour today. The question that keeps coming to me, against a backdrop of rising mental health problems and suicide rates, is: how can we evolve as men? Can we drop the old posturing values and develop new ones for our era?

This also happens to fit with Jacoby’s intention to highlight wider Japanese cinema. ‘There’s such a richness and diversity to it,’ he says. ‘I wanted to show how some of the great Japanese films of the past could be meaningful for the present. At a time when gender issues are often highlighted, you can look back at Funeral Parade Of Roses, a film about LGBTQ+ issues made more than 50 years ago. Or films that still seem radical in their feminist sentiments, like Fallen Blossoms, which has an all-female cast and was made in 1938.’

And actually, broadening interests beyond the macho samurai stuff may actually be the most samurai thing you can do…

‘There is more than one path to the top of the mountain’ — Miyamoto Musashi

This idea of going beyond the clichés into a depth of understanding on a mental, physical, spiritual and gender level is something tied up in John Evans’ story. ‘When I was 10, my father died,’ he told me in a café after the training. ‘When I was 11, my mother had a nervous breakdown, and when I was 13 I had a massive back injury. With those events, I started to look at religion to understand why this should have happened.’ He began visiting an Anglican monastery during school holidays and after university he entered it for five years. Eventually frustrated by the lack of physical exercise, he went to Japan, where he taught English to schoolchildren and — yes — met a mountain monk who changed his life. ‘He said, “Your head’s full of shit, your body’s shit, you should study the sword.”’

Now 66 — he could pass for half that — Evans has spent a lifetime studying, writing and teaching, including these sword training courses. He tells me about a deity called Kannon and her idea of 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms. ‘The idea of 1,000 eyes is to see everybody, and the 1,000 arms are to recognise what a person needs and be able to help them. When you’re doing any of the sparring exercises, empathy is the thing you’re developing. In order to kill somebody you have to develop this empathy.’

Without a father present he had no model for being a man, but he discovered in his work that a fluid approach was more beneficial. ‘If you’re communicating with yourself inside, you can be more male or more female within a particular context. It’s not an issue. It’s not rigid, it’s so much richer. I also do calligraphy and it’s the same thing. People say calligraphy is like eating and drinking — everybody eats and drinks but only a very few people taste.’

While the samurai code has long been appealing for lost men like me, a serious look into Japanese culture provides more instructive lessons. Some obvious samurai values like respect and obligation would be useful to stop the violence and harassment on our streets, but even that issue must be tackled with a deeper look at masculinity: for men not to try to be these rigid creatures but freer, more understanding humans. Samurai films are a joyous place to start, but for me at least, they are only the beginning of the journey. Unlike toenail care, becoming a better man is a long game.

Sign up for John Evans’ Japanese sword-fighting classes at battodo-fudokan.co.uk. BFI Southbank’s season, Japan 2021: 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, runs from 18 Oct to 31 Dec (bfi.org.uk)

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