There is nothing outside of yourself that can make you better, stronger, richer, faster, or smarter. Everything is inside. Everything exists. See nothing outside of yourself ‘
Miyamoto Musashi, “The Book of the Five Rings”
In the past 18 months, I haven’t seen anything outside of myself, and it’s a pretty disturbing sight. Nothing is inside. Very few exist. I have become weaker, poorer, slower and dumber. With all due respect to Mr. Musashi, the great 17th century Japanese samurai scribe and philosopher who could not have foreseen this pandemic, it was high time I looked outside of myself. That said, the answer lay in my streaming cave: Netflix’s Rurouni Kenshin movies and series, as well as a Japanese season on the BFI player featuring famous Kurosawa movies such as Seven Samurai.
Now, as post-containment life began in earnest, the question was: Can the practices and values of these legendary warriors shift from a living room fantasy to the real world?
So one Saturday morning I left my dojo (okay, home) in my kimono (joggers, t-shirt), to walk a sacred path (the Overground) and train for the art of sword fighting with an ancient monk (uh, that’s correct).
Outside Battodo Fudokan School in Hoxton, I acted like a mighty warrior, threw my Snickers wrapper into the trash, and walked into the classroom. It was everything I had dreamed of: students in kimono, carrying real swords and warming up with grace and power. I quickly gained respect by removing my socks to reveal nails so sharp they could remove an upper knot in one fell swoop. Another newcomer and I learned the basic movements 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 how to do it properly.” He showed us a technique of relaxing with one hand while stretching it. other, a combination of contradictory actions which is one of the key principles and allows to go beyond the rational mind.
Next came sparring with wooden swords, a chance to battle blades with other warriors. I quickly got into the back-and-forth rhythms, staying low, hitting with fluid control – and making it clear that I was scared and posed no threat.
To end the lesson, Evans and another man demonstrated cutting with sharp blades (it was a relief to realize that the students’ swords had no sharp edges). Using specially treated rolled carpets, the two men took turns crossing them with swift precision. Indeed, a protractor was taken out to measure the angle. They should teach math like that in school – it would certainly help reduce the number of classes.
“Do nothing that is of no use” – Miyamoto Musashi
Doing nothing had actually proven to be very useful. My lockdown ritual of lying in front of the TV gnawing at a Tony’s Chocolonely directly led to my samurai movie frenzy, in which lay a code that echoed everyone’s withdrawal into human necessities. Before I jumped into sword fighting, I spoke to BFI Southbank’s Japan 2021 season co-programmer Alex Jacoby (now in actual theaters) about the continued appeal of these films. ‘Like the western,’ Jacoby explains, ‘the samurai film often talks about “a man has to do what a man has to do.” The classic expression which is “giri-ninjō” – obligation versus human feelings. ‘ Yet Jacoby is also quick to dig into the intricacies of the jidaigeki (period) films, which attempted to make sense of rapidly changing troubled times. “During Japan’s catastrophic WWII engagement, militarists said people should aspire to bushido [samurai moral code] values - this is 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 said the militarists claim they are noble and courageous, but what they do is contemptible. For the Japanese public, the samurai was a figure of Japanese traditions to be questioned; you might consider what you wanted to take from the past and what should be discarded.
The same could be applied to thinking about male behavior today. The question that keeps coming back to me, in the context of increasing mental health problems and suicide rates, is: how do we evolve as men? Can we let go of old posture values and develop new ones for our time?
It also fits Jacoby’s intention to showcase Japanese cinema at large. “There is such richness and such diversity,” 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 put forward, you can come back to Funeral Parade Of Roses, a film on LGBTQ + issues made over 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 in fact, expanding interests beyond macho samurai stuff can actually be the most samurai thing you can do …
“There is more than one way to the top of the mountain” – Miyamoto Musashi
This idea of going beyond the clichés into a deep understanding on a mental, physical, spiritual and gender level is something linked to the story of John Evans. “When I was 10, my father died,” he told me in a cafe after the training. “When I was 11 my mother had a nervous breakdown and when I was 13 I had a serious back injury. With these events, I began to look at religion to understand why this should have happened. He started visiting an Anglican monastery during school holidays and after college he entered it for five years. Eventually frustrated with the lack of physical exercise, he traveled to Japan, where he taught English to schoolchildren and – yes – met a life-changing mountain monk. “He said, ‘Your head is full of shit, your body is shit, you should study the sword. “
Now 66 – he could pass for half that – Evans has spent his life studying, writing, and teaching, including those saber training courses. He tells me about a deity called Kannon and his idea of 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms. “The idea of 1000 eyes is to see everyone, and the 1000 arms is to recognize what a person needs and to be able to help. When you do any of the training exercises, empathy is the thing that you develop. To kill someone, you have to develop this empathy.
Without a father present, he had no role model for being a man, but he found in his work that a fluid approach was more beneficial. “If you communicate with yourself on the inside, you can be more masculine or feminine in a particular context. This is not a problem. 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 – everyone eats and drinks, but very few people taste it.
While the Samurai Code has long appealed to lost men like me, a serious look at Japanese culture provides more instructive lessons. Some obvious samurai values like respect and obligation would be helpful in stopping violence and harassment on our streets, but even this issue needs to be approached with a deeper look at masculinity: so that men do not try to to be these rigid but freer, more understanding human creatures. Samurai movies are a happy place to start, but for me at least they’re just the start of the journey. Unlike toenail care, becoming a better man is a long game.
Sign up for John Evans’ Japanese sword fighting lessons at battodo-fudokan.co.uk. BFI Southbank, Japan Season 2021: 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, runs from October 18 to December 31 (bfi.org.uk)