A happy confluence of events happened this weekend. I read a wonderfully written biography of Kano Jigoro by John Stevens, titled The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students, printed by Shambhala Publications, Inc., and I let my wife choose a movie for our Saturday night date. I was expecting a weepy romance date movie, but she inexplicably chose The Grandmaster, a highly fictionalized biopic about Ip Man, the teacher of martial arts movie star Bruce Lee. Both were superlatively entertaining and, from a martial arts point of view, enlightening.
Both, coincidentally, tread on about the same time frame: Asia in the early to mid-20th Century, and how martial arts in respectively China and Japan underwent transformations through the life and times of two great masters of their generation.
In The Grandmaster (video trailer: http://youtu.be/uC5amKLgnFU), a kung fu action biopic of Ip Man is transformed by director Wong Kar Wai into a visually stunning, complex movie that takes, for me, one step beyond Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in turning kung fu movies into an arthouse rendition. There were other movies about the life of Ip Man, but this movie transcended the genre. And who could not enjoy seeing the beautiful Zhang Zhiyi perform kung fu in slow motion? But enough of that; I’ll leave the movie reviews of Chinese movies to someone else.
But back to Steven’s book. As the title says, the book is a compilation of the history of Jigoro Kano, his life, his times, and the students he influenced. It also summarizes his philosophy of life and martial arts. The value of the book is that it gives us an insight into the goals and mindset of the founder of a preeminent modern budo; the man whose influence, in many ways, formed what budo is to this day. His influence reached far past beyond even his own invention, judo, to affect the histories of aikido, karatedo, even kendo and the survival of older koryu arts. A devoted shepherd of his Kodokan judo, Kano was deeply concerned about the propagation and survival of all forms of budo.
Kano, as Stevens notes, was also a quintessential Meiji man; that incredible person born in the turn of the 20th Century Japan who had one foot in Japan’s feudal past, and one foot firmly in its future, who was inculcated both with traditional Confucian ethics and a samurai-influenced code, but who eagerly studied Western culture and traditions to forge a new, modernized nation. Because of his training and intellect, Kanos’ influence was not limited to just budo. He was one of Japan’s great educators of his era, founding several academies, serving as an educational leader, and working tirelessly on behalf of sports education and the Olympic ideal. Kano was pivotal far, far beyond judo, in Japanese modern history.
One of the many strengths of Stevens’ book is that it places Kano and his students in the context of his times. While some of his students appear less than laudatory in their political and personal lives, Kano struggled to embody and promote culture, education, international peace and goodwill in a time of chaos and Japanese ultranationalism. While the overall arc of Kano’s life was positive, on a larger scale, it embodied a bit of tragedy, as he tried in his own way to promote peace in a country running headlong into perpetual war and imperialism.
It is also instructive to note that Kano himself began to criticize his own creation as the years went on and judo became more and more a competitive sport, rather than an ideal physical regimen that complemented a sound mind in a sound body. He felt the overemphasis on tournament play and winning was detrimental to an art which he wanted to use to create well-rounded gentlemen (and women), but by then, the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. How to return the genie to the bottle and cap it when it was already well past its time to do so? So what to do now? One can only wonder. As a youngster, I loved the rough and tumble of judo randori. As I aged, I found greater insights in its kata, and was inspired by the open-mindedness of Kano’s beliefs, his rational, systematic approach to training, and his acceptance of other forms of budo.
But judo changed even in my generation, and I also changed as well. Now I look at it from afar as a concerned outsider. The book will inspire both judo practitioners and non-practitioners alike. But it should arouse some introspection on the part of judoka as to the true purpose of their sport, and serve as both an example and a warning to other martial artists about the paths their arts could take.