Wallow in the fantasy of Japanese martial arts
Budo: The Art of Killing is a documentary that waxes poetic about the founding principles and thoughts behind samurai and the fighting styles and sports of Japan. The presentation is straight-up like a National Geographic documentary. In truth, it is a work of fiction, choreographed to appeal to a caricature: the myth of Japan as the Other, the Japanese as an unknowable and mystical race. This is part of a superficial tradition with roots in Japan's closed country policy and the Second World War, where the US portrayed everything Japanese as alien. Budo presents not so much a concise picture of martial arts as it partakes in the same fantasy world as The Karate Kid.
What the documentary deals with is a series of segments about various sports and the hardships that must be endured to learn them. Karate and the other ‘ways’ have training regimes that border on cruelty and are apparently practiced on endless beaches flanked by roaring oceans and misty woods. Are your alarm bells going off at this point? They should. That these sports are serious business stands beyond question. Are they taught in a twilit dimension existing primarily of vales where you’d expect Conan the barbarian to pop out on horseback? Not likely.
As a visual, musical experience it's captivating in the same way Koyaanisqatsi is. Close-ups of swords cutting through straw bundles, slow-motion karate leaps, imagery of cherry blossom and running streams supported by deliberate music create an entrancing mood. The various martial artists who display their craft are indubitably masters. Their dedication and skill is breathtaking. Intersected are shots of Noh theater with grinning demonic masks reflecting on the violence. It’s all very evocative, transporting. As a documentary, perhaps even a primer on these sports, it is regrettably shallow.
Budo seems most interested in samurai, their philosophy and how the art of killing developed from a historic perspective. In that light it's puzzling why the film is 95% about the modern branches of Japanese fighting sports. It tries to push those same feudal intentions on its participants and their training, but this is a ludicrous proposition. Modern practitioners of sumo, jodo or aikido are not actually trying to defend themselves against the tyranny of the sword; they are engaged in a sport. One that builds character as well as skill, yes, but the actual samurai experience doesn’t enter into that. You’d be hard pressed to find a young kendo student who has actually embraced the thought that he can be cut down at any moment in his life, or whose purpose of existence is to die gloriously for his lord. Modern people are in it for the competition, for the exercise, for the feeling of engaging in a tradition. You know, like any old sport.
By cutting out any context to the real, modern world in which this is taking place, the movie disingenuously portrays Japan as a mythological land, a place no more real than Arthurian Avalon. Japan is a land of contrast, where the old lives with the new on a razor's edge. That emphasis is one of many that would have resulted in a more interesting thesis for this documentary. How are old traditions kept alive? What do Japanese tournaments look like? Alternatively, it could have focused on the samurai part of the equation, cutting out modern sports altogether.
At the end of the show, you've seen plenty beautiful images, learned next to nothing about various sports and weaponry and perhaps got the wrong idea about Japan. Budo takes on the air of objective documentary, but it is sensational in nature.