As a teenager, Alex Bennett travelled to the land of the rising sun as part of a student exchange trip to learn Japanese. The 17-year-old from New Zealand could not have anticipated at the time the path he would soon embark on after taking up Kendo. Despite a gruelling training regimen, the young Bennett was hooked not only to Kendo but a variety of Japanese weapons forms, eventually embracing all aspects of Budo.
Since then Dr Alex Bennett has achieved 7th Dan in Kendo, and risen through the academic ranks to professor at Kansai University’s Division of Internal Affairs. His book “Kendo Culture of the Sword” is praised by leading Kendo practitioners including 7th Dan Kyoshi Geoff Salamon. Dr Bennett is generally regarded as an academic and budo-ka whom through his numerous academic titles, active practice of Kendo and the launch of magazine “Kendo Word” has done much to bring awareness and understanding of Kendo to western practitioners.
Taking time out from his teaching schedule as well publication and training commitments, Dr Bennett kindly agreed to speak to Kung Fu Kingdom about his life, work and what it means to be a devoted Kendo and Budo-ka.
Hi Alex, it’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well?
Welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom, we’re honoured to have you with us!
Have you taken a look at our site?
Thank you! Yes, I have.
Great. What do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
It’s better than Kung Fu Country. You’d be competing with Colonel Sanders (KFC) 😉 Seriously though, I understand that the name is meant to represent an all-encompassing appellation for martial arts culture, but as a student of Japanese budo, my initial impression was that the content would not be so relevant to what I do.
Haha, yes, agreed. Now let’s kick off with some basics if we may, like when and where were you born?
I was born in 1970 in Christchurch, New Zealand.
And what is your height and weight?
I am 5’7” (1.71m) tall and weigh 11st 3lbs (71 kg).
How old were you when you started learning Kendo?
I was 17.
What was it about Kendo that appealed to you the most?
I was always keen on sports, but never had any aspirations to delve into the martial arts. I came to Japan as an exchange student in 1987 to learn the language, not budo. I was encouraged to join a school club and was keen to continue playing football. But to my shock and horror, there was not a blade of grass to be found on the school grounds. Outdoor sports were played in a giant ‘gravel pit’, but this is fairly common in Japanese schools.
My host family mother then suggested that I forgo football for a year and try my hand at something more “traditionally Japanese”. If my school had a karate club, I’m pretty sure that’s where I would have headed, but there were only judo and kendo clubs. I went to the judo club first, but it didn’t really tickle my fancy. There weren’t many people, and it all looked pretty grim.
Kendo, on the other hand, literally took my breath away. It was fast, furious and a little bit frightening. I had no idea what the hell they were doing other than thrashing each other with bamboo sticks. I also had no inkling of the subtleties and profundity of kendo at the time, but was somehow drawn to it. It sounds a bit clichéd, but two things popped into my head when I was watching kendo for the first time: “Kamikaze”, and “Star Wars”.
I can sort of see why. So how did you initially find the training?
To be honest, I found it very awkward and tedious. The fighting stance seemed unnatural—standing up straight while holding a bamboo stick in front of the body—and there was LOTS of repetition. The same thing over and over, with very few breaks. After a couple of days, I had blisters all over my hands and feet, and ached in places I didn’t even know I had muscles. In addition, I didn’t speak Japanese at the time, so couldn’t comprehend what was going on around me. Moreover, the sensei was one of the scariest dudes I had ever met. He was a PE teacher—a breed of people who are renowned in Japan for being ruthless disciplinarians— and he even looked like he had mob connections!
The other shocking aspect of kendo was the amount of training we had to do. Every single day, weekends included. We would train for two hours each school day, from 13:00~18:00 on Saturdays, and 9:00~18:00 on Sundays. On top of that would be the training camps! It was a fulltime occupation, and I was forever exhausted. Then, there were the summer months. It was so hot and humid it gives me nightmares to this day. I’ve been in Japan for 25 years now and I still can’t acclimatise to the summers. Kendo in the Japanese summer is nothing short of torture.
Talk about an old school grilling, it sounds gruelling! So, who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts and who would you consider your heroes or inspirational figures?
I would have to credit my first teacher, Sano-sensei, at the time though he scared me to death! He not only influenced me in the martial arts, but more to the point, actually changed the course of my life through his instruction. If it wasn’t for the things he taught me, albeit in a somewhat draconian way, then I would never have become hooked on kendo, and may not have ever come back to Japan after my first year as an exchange student. He guided [pushed] me through the entrance of the perpetual path of kendo. Since then, I have been fortunate to receive guidance and wisdom from many great senseis—way too many to list. Let me put it this way: being a foreigner in Japan who speaks Japanese and is a total budo addict opens many doors. I am quite fortunate.
That’s really eye-opening! In addition to Kendo you’ve gone on to practice Naginata and Iaido. What is it about Japanese weaponry that you find fascinating, particularly Katana and Naginata?
I also study Jukendo (way of the bayonet), Tankendo (way of the short sword), Tendo-ryu, and Jikishin Kage-ryu kenjutsu. Come to think of it, they’re all weapon arts, but I never started them because I was interested in Japanese weapons per se. Nevertheless, through experience I have found that weapon arts can be studied for a long time as there is less stress on the body. Timingand control of distance is the key rather than physical strength and speed. This is why practitioners in their eighties and nineties can still get out on the floor and beat the young whippersnappers into shape. I think the longevity in terms of being a practitioner is an attractive feature of the weapon arts. Like a fine wine, the practitioner gets better with age.
Also, I like the subtlety involved. To the uninitiated, it looks like a whole bunch of crazies running in all guns blazing, but there is so much refinement in how the weapon is manipulated to ensure the trajectory of the blade is correct, distancing is pinpoint accurate, and striking power is just enough, but not too much. Watching the masters fight, you can hear the difference as their swords or naginatas hit the target. It makes a beautiful pinging sound rather than a thud. It’s little things like this that take years to master. It’s a constant journey of tweaking and adjusting, especially as you get older.
As soon as sword tips cross at the one-step-one-strike interval, you are essentially communicating with your opponent with delicate movements of mind and weapon. You are engaged in a conversation through the medium of blades and forge a special, profound bond through the experience. How paradoxical is that? You know straight away what kind of person your opponent is -their strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, personality—just by facing off and crossing swords.
The space between the practitioners separated by the weapons is very special. The connection is always there and it’s like you and the opponent have created your own little universe. It is intense but serene at the same time. Gauging the distance for attack, trying to coax your opponents into moving where you want them to and throwing your body and soul into the technique at the climax, then the follow through to reconnect and start the process again is akin to composing your own concerto.
Amazing. Intriguing. There is so much more to these arts than what we see at first glance! You’ve competed in both Kendo and Naginata competitions over the years; what titles and championships have you won?
So many competitions, I can’t really recall results anymore. The ones that come to mind are a couple of third places and a second place at the World Naginata Championships. I also coached the New Zealand Kendo Team to the Top 8 at the World Kendo Championships. I have won or placed in the top three at quite a few local or national tournaments for kendo, iaido, and naginata in Japan over the years.
OK! What high point moments would you like to share from your competition experience days?
I guess one of the high points for me was getting into the Top 8 at the World Kendo Championships in Novara in 2012. To be honest, I’m not overly fussed by competition. I enjoy participating and testing myself, but am more concerned with the integrity of my performance rather than the results.
That’s a very apt and Zen perspective, nice!What are your current Dan levels in all the forms you’ve practiced so far?
Currently, I’m Kyoshi 7th Dan in Kendo, 5th Dan in Naginata, 5th Dan in Iaido, 3rd Dan in Jukendo, 3rd Dan in Tankendo, and 2nd Dan in Jikishin Kage-ryu. But, just like competition, I certainly don’t do budo to collect bits of paper with numbers. Dan grades, however, are useful as tangible goals and for keeping on the straight and narrow. They’re like signposts in the wilderness, guiding you from one destination to the next.
A useful perspective! Of course Kendo is more than just a fighting art; it’ssteeped in tradition right down to the dress code. Do you feel that is one of the qualities that appeal to so many people?
The traditional aspects of kendo are incredibly important, especially the protocols of etiquette and respect (rei).Etiquette is a safety mechanism on one level, but the underlying respect for tradition and your opponent is the essence of budo. It encompasses a feeling of empathy toward one’s peers -even though you are beating the crap out of each other every day!- that becomes a genuine part of your demeanour over time. This sentiment is imperative in the dojo and in the competitive arena.
Of course, trying to win your matches is important, but of more significance is the manner in which one wins or loses. Regardless of the result, before, duringand after the match the competitor is expected to demonstrate self-control and respect to the opponent, referees, and the venue. Victory poses are considered to be shitsu-rei (loss of rei, – basically rude). Not bowing properly is considered shitsurei. Basically being an ignorant, arrogant, obnoxious ass in any way is shitsurei. This goes for spectators as well.
It’s truly fascinating how tradition and etiquette are so vital to Kendo.
Aside from the skill and physical benefits you attain, along with all this knowledge steeped in history and tradition, what else in terms of potential personal development do you believe Kendo and Naginata offer to its practitioners?
The official “Concept of Kendo” was formulated in 1975 to counter overt competitive trends, in other words, distorting kendo techniques to win at all costs and forgoing the traditional ideals of respect and rational sword use.The concept of kendois to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the sword.
The purpose of practicing kendo is:
- To mould the mind and body
- To cultivate a vigorous spirit
- And through correct and rigid training
- To strive for improvement in the art of kendo
- To hold in esteem human courtesy and honour
- To associate with others with sincerity,
- And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
- This will make one be able:
- To love his/her country and society
- To contribute to the development of culture
- And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples
I was asked recently to describe what kendo means to me in five short sentences. Although wary of sounding too sanctimonious, I summed my thoughts up as:
- To foster strength in body and mind in order to overcome challenges and adversity
- To develop confidence fortified with humility to identify and rectify failings
- To cultivate empathy, respect and the capacity to assist others when needed
- To nurture a sense of gratitude and a zest for life
- To encourage zanshin, or continued awareness of one’s surroundings and predicament
I should stress that these are my ideals and I don’t presume to fully embody these virtues. Far from it.That’s why they are ideals as opposed to the status quo. Although kendo has given me direction in life, I loathe thecommon misconception that studying it will automatically make you a better human being. However, I do believe in budo’s potential to enhance the quality of one’s existence. In addition to the excitement of competition, budo provides a set of mental and physical tools to deal with the vicissitudes of daily life. Its teachings serve as a barometer to gauge success and failure and plot the next step on your life map. Having said that, I also believe that a healthy dose of cynicism and objectivity is needed too, lest the whole pursuit become analogous to blindly following a cult religion.
It’s very obvious that martial arts and Japanese culture have become an integral part of your life but also shaped your academic work having published a thesis and two doctorates. Can you tell us what topics specifically those publications cover?
I did my first Ph.D. at Kyoto University. I wrote a thesis about that rather nebulous idea of ‘bushido’. I wanted to try and define it, as much as that is possible, in concrete anthropological terms. To this end, I utilised Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a framework to extrapolate the core ideas or characteristics of bushido as a system of ethics in the samurai community of honour. I wrote the damn thing in Japanese and it almost killed me, but I think the end result has value as an outside-the-box analysis of this misrepresented and misunderstood aspect of samurai culture.
In a nutshell, my approach was to incorporate my budo experience as fieldwork to understand ethics of a bygone era. I know this is fanciful if not impossible on many levels, but I was surprised to discover that comparatively few studies of samurai culture investigate the ideological and social role of the martial arts in any significant detail. Even if bujutsu and its relation to bushido—the samurai way of life and code of honour -is touched upon, it is usually only superficial. I asked the question, as an important symbolic medium for identity in samurai culture, what role did bujutsu play in the formation of a unique set of values and worldview? I believe that the act of fighting in battle and training for it was, in many ways, a ‘religious experience’, so by applying Geertz’s definition of a religion, I was able to craft a theoretical framework to define the vague and often misused term “bushido”. I published my thesis as a monograph—The Bushi Ethos and its Evolution: An Investigation of Bushidō from the Perspective of Historical Social Thought (Shibunkaku, 2007). It’s in Japanese, so probably not of much interest to most of your readers.
I did my second Ph.D. (don’t ask me why) at the University of Canterbury (NZ), and finished it in 2012. I did all of the research while working and living in Japan, so it gave me an excuse to get back to the old country a few times a year. This thesis traced the historical evolution of swordsmanship and its socio-political significance from medieval times to the present day. In particular, I looked at ideas of cultural proprietorship and nationalism and how kendo (and other Japanese martial arts) fitted political agendas throughout Japan’s history.
Although there is a growing number of books related to kendo and other martial arts, most are technical manuals, biographies, or translations of classic texts. My thesis was the first in-depth historical analysis tracing the development of Japanese swordsmanship from medieval times to the present day in English. It provides a definitive account of the sport’s history and cultural significanceand demonstrates how traditional swordsmanship and modern kendo were “invented traditions” that have always served the changing ideological purposes of various Japanese regimes. From the aristocratic-aesthetic pretensions of the medieval warriors in the Muromachi period, to the “pacification” imperative and samurai elitism of the Edo regime, to the nation-building “nostalgic nationalism” of the new Meiji state. Kendo was later influenced by the expansionist ethos of 1930s and ‘40s militarists, as well as the post-war government’s need for a “gentle cultural nationalism” that would restore the pride and international prestige of a defeated country and has come to represent notions of “Japanese-ness”.
I rewrote and published this thesis through the University of California Press as “Kendo: Culture of the Sword”. I think it will become an enduring body of work regarding budo in general in Japan. I set out to debunk a whole lot of myths surrounding Japanese budo and hope that it somehow stimulates more research in the field. I am pretty confident that this work will fill a significant gap in the Western understanding of Japan, its martial art history and its culture in general.I guess you could call it my life work to date.
As you were researching and writing it, did you learn anything new about Kendo and its history that you weren’t previously aware of through your studies?
Of course, I discovered all sorts of interesting bits of historical trivia, but the biggest thing that I got out of writing it was that it helped me contextualise why I do kendo and how far I have come. It was quite cathartic in a way. Living in Japan all of these years, I started losing sight of things. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees for the longest time. I forgot what my passion was like in the early days and was blinded by petty issues of being a non-Japanese kendoka in what can be a prejudicial environment. Writing the book helped me eradicate much of the fuzziness that had crept in over the years and refocussed me. I could see kendo for what it really is, at least, what it really is to me.
You also established the now internationally recognised magazine “Kendo World” How did that come about?
Before the internet took off, there was very little information about kendo in English. Because I was living in Japan, each year on November 3, I would get faxes or letters from kendo buddies around the world asking me to record the All-Japan Kendo Championships which is always broadcaston NHK. It struck me one day how lucky I was to be living in Japan with so many awesome sensei (if you can speak Japanese) and lots of books and magazines (if you can read Japanese). I had taken this for granted, but when I was watching the All-Japans in 2001, I had an epiphany of sorts. I was just finishing my Ph.D. at Kyoto University and was wondering what to do next. “I know! Why not make a kendo magazine for all the kenshi who live outside Japan?” I talked it over with a couple of kendo mates as we knocked back a few bottles of Asahi. We got increasingly drunk as we thrashed out various ideas and had pretty much solved the world’s problems by the end of the day.
The mark of a truly good ideais if you are still enthusiastic about it the following morning while nursing a hangover. I was. In fact, I got to work on it straight away. Of course, I had never been involved in publishing before, or starting up a company of any sort. I had no idea about the process of collating material, using publishing software, layout and design, printing, marketing, internet, postage, storage, subscription, editing… Everything was quite literally a blank page, but we learned as we went along, making plenty of cringe worthy mistakes along the way.
Starting a business: I’m sure that could make for a delicious mini volume in itself! OK, do you feel “Kendo World” has increased awareness and appreciation of Kendo globally, particularly in the West?
Of course, I would like to think it has. For the longest time there was absolutely nothing else. There still isn’t much reliable stuff in English about kendo, but the situation has improved. I think that “Kendo World” acted as a kind of catalyst for others to do a similar thing and good luck to them. Creating a magazine takes a hell of a lot of time and work. Not to mention money! We basically break even now, which is fine because we’re not in it to make money. But, there was a time when we were paying for the privilege of doing all the hard work. We were and still are driven solely by our own passion for kendo. Oftenpeople will mention how valuable “Kendo World” has been as a resource in their own journey. This really makes it all worthwhile. Even the All Japan Kendo Federation endorses our work which is an indication that we have done no evil, so to speak.
It’s been a learning process and we made lots of mistakes for sure. But, like our kendo, everything is a work in progress. It’s all about moving forward. We have a fantastic team of people working on KW who just love being a part of something special. I guess you guys at KFK get the same satisfaction.
Absolutely yes, we do! You have numerous publications to your name on Budo and Kendo too numerous to list (click here for a full list of Alex’s written work).
Quite a lot! That’s what academics do. Publish or perish. Well, it’s not that bad in Japan actually… We’re basically just geeks who justify our passion and existence by expressing ourselves onpaper with pretentious verbiage.
I have just submitted the manuscript to Tuttle Publishing for The Gaijin Samurai’s Guide to Surviving Japan. I’m not sure if that will be the final title, but this book was written for young people who are thinking of starting a Japanese martial art. It’s a bit tongue in cheek and gives the budding “gai-sam” (gaijin samurai) the necessary knowledge to navigate the ‘bullshido’out there and make the most of their opportunities, especially if they are planning on taking the plunge and coming to Japan. I try to demystify a few myths, but for the purpose of keeping the dream alive. I had a lot of fun writing this. It made a refreshing change from academic writing.
Sounds fascinating. Look forward to it. Moving away from publishing, can you tell us about the Kendo club you started in your hometown of Christchurch in New Zealand, how it has grown over the years?
After returning to New Zealand in 1987 from my year-long exchange in Japan, I had pretty much had enough of kendo to last me a lifetime, or so I thought. I wondered what I should do next. University? Airforce? Something where I could use my Japanese language skills? It was the first time in a year that I was out of the kendo cauldron and was able to reflect on the experience from the outside instead of harbouring the constant feeling of dread that always preceded training.
After a while I started getting jittery. I realised that I actually wanted to be back in that cauldron again. Cold turkey was a bit too much to take, so I went to the local martial arts equipment shop in Christchurch to confess my addiction and need for a kendo fix. “Hi, I’m Alex and I’m a kendoholic.” The shop owner, a former New Zealand Judo rep, informed me that there were no kendo clubs in Christchurch, but people often go to him to enquire. He had a list of names and numbers and suggested that I call them up and make a club! An 18-year-old spotty little Shodan like me…Why not?
I guess it was a bit of a marketing ploy on his part. A kendo club in the community would mean sales of kendo equipment. Anyway, I rang a couple people, Karl and Theresa and we decided to get together. I called the club the “Sano-sensei Christchurch Kendo Club”. The man was greatly amused and offered a more refined alternative. “Seitou Kenyukai” using the kanji from my Japanese high school.
We rented the hall where I used to go to for kindergarten, procured some bits of equipment from here and there and set about smashing each other for hours on end a few times a week. I was the ‘instructor’and really had no idea what I was doing. None whatsoever. I had been on the receiving end of some brutal instruction in Japan and figured that that was what I was supposed to do. Word got out in the martial arts community that there was a new lunatic club for kendo in town and people started to stream in to check it out.
Before long, we had an impressive membership, but many who came were already experienced martial artists and looked to kendo as something a little more spiritual, something that would supplement their usual karate or judo training. After all, kendo was all about swords, so this must be close to “genuine bushido…” Their willingness to take all the high school kendo punishment I could dish out and the probing questions they asked me afterwards really threw me. They were seeking something in kendo that I had no answers for.
I had no idea what they were talking about. Mushin, Bushido, Kokoro, Hara, Zen, Miyamoto Musashi…This was all new to me. I did recall Sano-sensei talking about all this spiritual mind-body mumbo-jumbo, but it was way beyond my linguistic ability to fully comprehend. When I was in Japan, I was more concerned with making it to the end of training in one piece. Coming back to New Zealand actually opened my eyes to a dimension of budo that I had never really considered.
To try and get some answers, somebody recommended that I read Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel, Miyamoto Musashi. It was a great read, albeit ridiculously factually inaccurate, but I didn’t know that at the time. The romantic notion of travelling through Japan to kick ass and take names had an alluring appeal to a dreamy teenager like me who didn’t quite know what to do at the time. I figured that as the club is becoming so popular, I’d better take the bull by the horns and become a ‘real sensei’. I decided to go back to Japan to study kendo fulltime, and learn about this ascetic-bushido-spiritual-enlightenment-way-thing, so that I could come back and teach properly.
To this end, I worked on a building site where I was affectionately (?) called “Brucey” by the workers (Bruce Lee). I saved my money and went back to Japan for 2 more years, studying at the International Budo University and then at the Shubukan when I worked for the All Japan Naginata Federation. The Christchurch club was continued by Karl and Theresa in my absence and was still there when I returned slightly better equipped to actually teach.
After finishing university in Christchurch, I went back to Japan for graduate studies, initially for two years. That was the plan, but twenty years later I am still here… I’m glad to say the club in Christchurch is still in good health. Better than ever before, in fact. My brother Blake, Karl, and other instructors keep a tight ship and the club has grown from strength to strength.
There was a major obstacle a few years back, though. In 2010, a large (M 7.0) earthquake struck Christchurch on September 22. Another powerful (M6.3) earthquakeon February 22, 2011 was far more devastating with 182 people losing their lives. I just happened to be visiting Christchurch when the earthquake struck. I was drinking a cup of tea with Mum and the next thing I knew, I was flat on my back staring at the ceiling after being violently jolted off my chair. It was surreal. Many of the buildings in the CBD were destroyed, and even now it is difficult to gain access to parts of the city. Residential areas were hit hard, and liquefaction wreaked havoc in the eastern suburbs leaving many people with seriously damaged homes.
For many years, we rented a large space in an old building in the CBD as a training venue. That building was seriously damaged in the September earthquake so the club was forced to rent school halls and any space available to continue. When the February earthquake struck, we suffered a terrible tragedy with the death of two of our members. Both of them were young Japanese women who came to Christchurch to study English, and they practiced kendo at the club.
The February quake really threatened to destroy the club. Members did their best, but there were very few venues available in Christchurch to train in. Countless other cultural/sports clubs were in a similar predicament with no place to continue their respective activities. Out of desperation to help the club get back on its feet and return to some semblance of normality, I somehow managed to convince my Japanese place of employment, Kansai University, to loan me money.
I was then able to purchase a warehouse located in the west of the city, which had suffered comparatively little damage. I also received considerable financial assistance from the budo community in Japan. They too had just gone through their own unspeakable tragedy on March 11, 2011 with the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown. I had just arrived back in Japan form Christchurch when it struck. Given the circumstances, I was reluctant to ask for help, but through the kind benefaction of so many people in Japan, I was able to put a beautiful sprung wooden floor in the dojo. It is the club’s permanent home now. Even the mayor of Christchurch graced us with his presence at the grand opening, and I decided to call the dojo “Chuseikan”, which means “Hall of Allegiance”—in reference to keeping the love in Christchurch. Understandably, people were leaving in droves, but there was no way in hell I could watch the club die from Japan.
In retrospect, literally thousands of people have met, trained, and created memories through their interaction at the Seitou Kenyukai over the years. I never considered this as a motivation when it was first created in 1987, but it has always served as a vibrant hub of cultural exchange and communication over the years. This never occurred to me until it was almost gone. There is no danger of that now.
Fascinating, sounds like you’ve really grown a strong Budo community there. Let’s move onto martial arts films now if we may. Who do you most admire in the martial arts movie world? Do give us your brief views on those you respect for example: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Toshiro Mifune, Donnie Yen, Mark Dacascos, Takakura Ken, Tony Jaa, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung etc.
Obviously Bruce Lee had the X-Factor. He had charisma, and was a man of the age. He revolutionised the way martial arts were portrayed and perceived in the Western world, and indeed in the East. Of course, he also had his detractors—traditionalists who found his style and demeanour as pretentious and offensive. But his name has become synonymous with the martial arts. Such an everlasting presence is surely not random. His legend now has a life of its ownand its momentum shows no signs of slowing down.
Closer to what I do, I guess I would have to say Toshiro Mifune is the man. He was a supreme actor, but his style of swordsmanship was solid. He clearly knew the principles of the sword, and I reckon he did his best to keep the integrity of kenjutsu intact in his fight scenes, at least as much as the director would allow him. More than anything, he also had a presence onscreen that cannot be faked. I’ve never met him, of course, but I’m sure he was the real deal in terms of skill, understanding, and love of the sword.
We love Mifune too, a giant of Japanese cinema. So what are Alex Bennett’s top ten martial arts films?
Are you kidding? Let’s go 15!
Haha, OK then, let’s do this!
- “Seven Samurai” (Shichinin no Samurai, 1954) – The most incredible samurai good-versus-evil movie of all time. At five hours it is epic, with the last fight scene in full swing for a whole hour. An Akira Kurosawa classic.
- “After the Rain” (Ame agaru, 1999) – A beautiful story written by Akira Kurosawa about a kindly ronin stuck in a hut with his wife and other travelers because of torrential rain making the river un-crossable. Using his sublime fencing skills, he seeks to earn money to put on a feast for everybody. Nobody is killed in this movie!
- “Sword of Doom” (Dai-bosatsu Toge, 1966) – If the katana is the “soul of the samurai,” what happens to his soul when his sword is a bloodthirsty tool of destruction? Ryunosuke is the ‘hero’ of the movie—a violent man with no empathy and some nasty demons.
- “Samurai Assassin” (Samurai, 1965)– A group of lords hire some samurai mercenaries to carry out the assassination of Ii Naosuke. Set in the period immediately before the Meiji Restoration, this movie is intriguing, dark and violent.
- “Harakiri” (Seppuku, 1962)– A window into the stark, cruel and ephemeral existence of the samurai. Intense and disturbing seppuku scene committed with a bamboo sword.
- “Samurai Trilogy” (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954; Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1955; Duel at Ganryu Island, 1956) – A series of three films that stars the greatest samurai actor of all time, the legendary Toshiro Mifune as the greatest swordsman of all time, Miyamoto Musashi.
- “Yojimbo” (1961) – Another classic Kurosawa film, “Yojimbo” is a bizarre and compelling tale of a mercenary played by Toshiro Mifune who ‘tidies up’ a dirty little town run by competing crime lords.
- “Shogun Assassin” (Kozure Okami, 1980) – One in a series of movies about the “Lone Wolf” and his child (Cub) whom he pushes throughout the Japanese countryside in a pram whilst killing hundreds of bad guys. Kill Bill was greatly influenced by this movie so you can imagine how much blood there is.
- “Zatoichi” (2003) – The original “Zatoichi” series consisted of 26 films about a blind but freakishly lethal swordsman/masseur. Rutger Hauer’s Blind Fury was based on No.17. A more recent version was released in 2003 and stars Takeshi Kitano. Dark but [bloody] colorful at the same time.
- “13 Assassins” (Jusannin no Shikaku, 2010) – Based on a true story about a group of samurai who plot to kill an unpopular shogun for the greater good. There were thirteen of them…
- “The Twilight Samurai” (Tasogare Seibei, 2002)– A moving story about an easygoing widowed samurai who only wants to look after his two lovely daughters and senile mother. If life was that easy, there wouldn’t be a movie. Heart wrenching stuff.
- “When the First Sword was Drawn” (Mibu Gishi Den, 2003) – A story told in flashbacks by two samurai who belong to the infamous Shinsengumi (the shogunate’s special police force). The fight scenes are second-to-none, but the underlying themes of loyalty, honor, and self-sacrifice to do the right thing are profound.
- “Samurai Fiction” (Esu Efu Samurai Fikushon, 1998) – Let’s lighten up a bit. A samurai comedy filmed in black and white, with flashes of red you know when. Excellent soundtrack by Japanese rock star Hotei Tomoyasu accompanies Inukai Heishiro’s quest to retrieve his clan’s stolen treasure -a sword presented to them by the shogun. Hotei Tomoyasu plays the music and the role of the thief.
- The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken: Oni no tsume, 2004) – Another brilliant Yamada Yoji film. A young samurai called Katagiri just wants to fantasise about the love of his life—a maid in his household—but ends up having to seek and kill his old friend who is involved in a plot to overthrow the shogunate. AWESOME fight scenes, and a good look at the changes going on in the turbulent bakumatsu era.
- Taboo (Gohatto, 1999) – The plot is based on the Shinsengumi and serious bromance. It is about homosexuality among samurai and the tensions (jealousy) it caused. Samurai were very into each other, and this film is one of the few that highlights this man love aspect of samurai culture.
Some great titles in that list, with a very cool synopsis for each, thank you!
Many films have been made based on the samurai such as the works of Akira Kurosawa that you mentionedand include some impressive battle scenes. How well do you feel Japanese combat arts such as Kendo and Iaido, to name a few, as well as their history are featured on film?
Well, I don’t watch movies for any other reason than entertainment. The swordsmanship that you see in movies is very different to the classical kenjutsu and modern kendo that I practice in the dojo. Sometimes you can tell that an actor is genuinely good at iaido or kendo, but for the most part they would be lucky to pass shodan level on a good day. The fight scenes are also inaccurate in that swords would not beable to withstand the constant clashing and hacking. And, they would stop cutting before long because of all the gunk on the blade. That’s the reality, but like I said, I watch martial arts movies for the action and entertainment, not the reality.
I see what you mean. Are there any titles that manage to bring these arts to life for you?
Let me come from left field with this one. I saw a movie recently that to me seems to totally encapsulate the spirit of the martial arts in terms of dedication and hardship. The quest for perfection, and the inevitable despair… I’m still trying to work it out, but something really resonates with me to the extent that it is disturbing. It was about drums… Check out “Whiplash” (2014), directed by Damien Chazelle. It speaks for itself. A truly frightening but beautiful movie.
Yes I know the one, J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for it I believe. So let’s go back to Kendo for a bit. What sort of physical training is involved in becoming a skilled Kendo-ka?
Basically just turning up at the dojo! Lots and lots of kihon (basics). Kihon ad nauseam. It’s not rocket science. Just a lot of hard work and effort.
How often do you practice?
In total, I average about 14 sessions in the dojo per week. Naginata, jukendo, kenjutsu one time a week each, and kendo 11 times. When I’m not in the dojo, I am always thinking about training. Always analysing, assessing.
Sounds ideal, amazing. What favourite exercises and training techniques do you find really work for you?
Sleep-waza. Seriously though. Apart from going through the basics, I also spend a bit of time in the gym doing mainly squats and deadlifts. I do a bit of upper body work as well, but try to focus on core strength, lower back and legs. This is more for injury prevention than anything.
What about nutrition, how important is diet for you?
It never used to be much of a concern. Now, I take much more care with what I put into my body. I have pretty much removed all refined sugar from my diet and have cut back on the carbs and processed foods. Obviously, balance is the key, but I have increased my intake of greens and fish in particular. I do enjoy the ‘odd’ beer as well, but not nearly as much as I used to.
Sounds sensible! What types of injuries have you sustained during training and in competition?
For many years, I was plagued with an injury-prone left calf muscle. I tore it once when I was about 25 and didn’t rehab it properly before getting back into training. There was no internet around then, so I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do with it. Once the pain had subsided, I figured I would be good to go. Then… Whammo! Calf exploded again, and again. I really did all I could to strengthen it, but just never knew when it was going to blow.
Sometimes I would go for a couple of years with no problem, then out of the blue. Because I didn’t rehab it properly, such as RICEing it from the outset, it has been a habitual injury. I am very careful with preparation before training, and take preventative measures. I find that being dehydrated is the common denominator when it comes to calf strains. So, I have to be particularly careful in the summer, because dehydration is a fact of life in the humidity and heat. I am pretty confident that I have it under control now, but never take anything for granted. Apart from that, I have been fairly niggle-free in other areas. Touch wood.
Sounds painful but you seem to have a handle on things. So what’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?
Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I actually really enjoyed watching “The Last Samurai”. I even shed a tear at the end. Still do… And, I have a little sausage-dog called Sparky who is probably my closest friend.
How cute! What are some of your other hobbies outside of your academic life and Kendo training?
I love hiking in the mountains. If only I had more time to do it… I also enjoy fossicking through second-hand book shops. Both activities bring me immense peace of mind for different reasons. It’s not a hobby, but I have also joined a Zen meditation group in Japan which also gives me peace of mind through no-mind.
Ah, Zen Fu! OK, looking back then what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
In truth, I can’t really say. I suppose I’ve actually achieved quite a lot, but never stop to think about it long enough to feel satisfied or proud of anything in particular. Maybe I can answer that question more succinctly when I’m about to shuffle off my mortal coil. At the moment, though, if I was pressed, I would say that I amproud of my younger brother, Dr Blake Bennett. He’s 13 years my junior, but has studied kendo the hard way—like insanely hard—and will surely surpass me in terms of skill, teaching abilityand influence. It seems strange to say this because he is my brother, but I think of him as a student whose achievements I can be exceptionally proud ofand he is just starting to spread his wings.
That’s very humbling and a joy to hear. Great to see passion for kendo running in the family. Fantastic. So, what do you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years?
In three years I will be eligible to sit the 8th Dan exam for kendo. There is a mandatory 10-year wait between 7th Dan and 8th Dan. The pass rate is a measly 0.8%, but that is my biggest challenge in the foreseeable future. Of course, my intention is to pass, but I am really enjoying the process of preparing my mind and body for the exam. It keeps me honest. It’s helping me create my own art. Maybe it will prove to be an insurmountable wall for me, like it is for most kendoka in Japan. If it is, so be it. But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. The bigger the better.
That’s great. Now, your studies and teachings have included various texts related to Budo such as Miyamoto Musashi whom you’ve mentioned. Of them all which warrior-wisdom (or perhaps inspirational) quote has best helped mold you into who you are today?
There are countless gems of wisdom out there. I think the one quote that has had the most impact on me was by one of my kendo teachers. The late Tsurumaru-sensei was a true legend. His kendo was famous throughout Japan, and he was also a gifted calligrapher. His works were highly sought after. At a training camp once, he took out his brush and started writing messages for his students. When it was my turn, he stopped for a bit, then splashed the ink down on the card. “What you don’t sweat when you are young will become tears when you are old…” I still have the calligraphy displayed prominently on my wall at home. I was twenty at the time, and it’s still as relevant to me now as it was then.
That’s a sublime thought. OK, as we (sadly) wind down, where’s the best place for people to go and find out more about you?
Thank you Alex for your kind participation in this marvellous and extraordinarily detailed interview, probably the most extensive we’ve ever done on Kung Fu Kingdom to date! We hope it gives our readers a special glimpse into your life and work in the Japanese martial arts and Budo Way. We wish you all the very best in continuing to teach the highest standards of Kendo as well as Japanese culture and philosophy which encapsulate the heart of the art. Keep up the fine work and keep in touch!
Thank you guys!