In a field dominated by one-time amateurs, Judge Adam Arseneau is pleased to see somebody finally bringing the art back to killing.
"As long as the universal truths of Heaven, the Earth and Man remain, the spirit of budo will endure."
Traded for years within martial-art circles, Budo: The Art Of Killing gained something of a legendary cult status based solely on the fact that nobody had ever managed to actually see it. The title itself certainly whetted the appetite, and the description of authentic and brutal martial art exhibitions within kept people scrounging endlessly in the dark corners of the world looking for copies of this martial art documentary…until now. Finally available in North America on DVD, remastered from the original archival vault materials, Budo is ready to be rediscovered by an entirely new generation.
Facts of the Case
The study of budo, the Japanese martial arts, encompasses all elements of Japanese culture—it's a centuries-old practice rich in historical and spiritual elements. From the feudal lord system that gave birth to the samurai warrior, to the peasant developing farming instruments into deadly weapons of self-defense, Budo: The Art Of Killing explores every nuance and element of the mentality, the training, the dedication, and the historical context of martial arts in Japan. It reveals secrets and teachings passed down through the generations into modern times, and the way of the warrior that still permeates the hearts and minds of today's budo masters.
Like a bizarre melding of an infomercial, a documentary and a cultist propaganda film, Budo mixes up the rituals, practices, religions, and training of Japanese students of martial arts, placing them in a historical context of samurai culture. For all those seeking out Budo for its much-hyped and legendary feats of martial arts mayhem…well, you are so out of luck that it makes me want to laugh at you. Budo has a PG rating—how crazy can you get with a PG rating? Not very, let me tell you.
Despite the hype and exaggeration surrounding the film, Budo: The Art Of Killing treats its subject matter with great respect that borders on outright reverence and worship. At the same time, it feels schlocky and exploitative. It is an uneasy, yet strangely compelling combination—imagine, if you can, a martial arts episode of In Search Of… with Leonard Nimoy. Created by Arthur Davis, a film producer who fell in love with the Far East and its mythological charms, Budo is offered in loving tribute and honor to a subject matter it holds in great esteem, and yet is narrated in an overly dramatic fashion and scored like a bad horror movie.
For everyone looking for carnage, there is blood in exactly one scene, and it is faked. The rest of the film plays like a documentary on the martial arts, showing demo after demo, kata after kata, fight after fight, but all totally respectable and realistic. There are no deaths, no injuries, nothing remotely controversial about this film (unless you count the inherent corniness of its delivery). It is an honest and detailed look into the training, rituals, and practices of various forms of Japanese martial arts. It is also exactly the kind of cheesy film a martial arts dojo in Hoboken, New Jersey would give you in order to "sell" you on signing up for some training—authentic martial arts, but low production values, overly dramatic narration, and terrible '80 synthesizer music.
Much attention in Budo is paid to the katana, the Japanese short sword sported by the samurai class during feudal Japan. We learn about the katana's use in combat, its cultural significance, its spiritual element, even its tedious and painstaking crafting. Only the elite samurai were allowed to wear swords in feudal Japan, so the working class, in order to protect themselves and their land, outfitted themselves with whatever they could—farming equipment, sticks, rods, sickles, chains—even their fists, as they developed karate, judo, and aikido out of pure necessity (or so goes the legend). We get endless slow-motion shots of katanas slicing through bamboo, fists and heads breaking concrete blocks and wooden boards, and sumo wrestlers thumping each other silly in a 90-minute repeating loop, a self-advertised "docudrama" of martial arts culture and spirituality.
So here is the main point: Budo has absolutely, positively no idea what it wants to be. It exists in a quantum state of flux between being a travel and culture guide, a martial arts demonstration, and a historical documentary. As a travel guide, it paints Japan and its culture in a compelling, mesmerizing, and often frightening light—intensely fascinating and authentic, with some stunningly beautiful and poetic cinematography of the Japanese landscape. As a martial arts demo, it certainly has its share of slow-motion sword swipes and aggressive sequences, though it pales in comparison to a well-choreographed martial arts movie in sheer entertainment value. As a historical documentary, its authority is highly suspect to say the least, since Budo focuses on glorifying and edifying the mythology of the warrior and budo as a mindset, a struggle between life and death—definitely cool, but not exactly the stuff of historically accurate documentaries. It feels more like a religious recruitment film at times, which is just plain weird. As the end credits roll, you scratch your head in puzzlement, having no idea what you just witnessed, but with the inherent knowledge that it was very, very cool. Especially the final shot.
Budo has been digitally restored from its original archival material, framed peculiarly in a "windowbox" presentation to preserve the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Imagine black bars not only on the top and bottom, but also on the left and right. This seems a particularly strange way to present a film, but since most television screens will cut off some of the image on all sides anyway, in the end it mostly works, save for a tiny hint of black bar on the sides. Believe it or not, for purists, this method is actually preferable to a straight fullscreen transfer, since it presents the entire image with no lost material.
One look at Budo, and you can tell this film has seen better days, but Synapse has done a marvelous job presenting the film as cleanly, crisply, and colorfully as possible. Some footage is beyond redemption—at times, it's a nightmare of scratches, grain, and damage—but this is counterbalanced by a pleasing color response and attention to detail and clarity. Considering the abhorrent state of some of the footage, which looks like it was filmed on a thick canvas sack instead of photographic film; this is the best a film like this will ever look. With the material presented, Synapse has done a fantastic job, taking a much-worn film and making it downright presentable and respectable.
The music is a blend of traditional Japanese wind, string, and woodblock instruments set to a bizarre and psychotropic synthesized soundtrack a la Shogun Assassin. The aesthetics make your brain cells reel, but the transfer to DVD is quite excellent, with good bass response and crystal-clear dialogue. For a mono soundtrack, this is better than one could have expected.
Only one extra is included on the DVD, an onscreen copy of the original press kit. As an extra feature, it is basically useless. Considering the cultish status of this title, it is disheartening that Synapse was unable to unearth any additional material.
Budo will no doubt appeal to…to…to be perfectly honest; I have no idea to whom this movie will appeal. Despite being a Japanese culture nut, an ex-martial artist, and a connoisseur of fine ninja and samurai movies, I really have no idea what to do with this film. In the DVD shelving unit of my mind, it fails to fall under any category. This is fringe cinema in the strictest sense of the word, half schlocky documentary and half fascinating cultural examination, too corny to be taken seriously and too realistic to be all that entertaining.
In 1982, when the film was released, I can imagine it would have been a compelling look into a mysterious and emerging form of martial arts in North America, a glimpse into the rituals, forms, and practices of Japanese budo. But these days, a barrage of kung fu and ninja movies on late-night television, the ever-present Internet, and Quentin Tarantino films have pretty much made Japanese martial arts culture a household item.
The film features some incredible martial art feats, but the sad and undeniable truth is that any Shaw Brothers or ninja attack film features feats of martial art skill and entertainment that are as good as, if not more impressive than, anything you'll see in Budo. Now, the fact that one category of films features fake choreographed techniques, while the other features actual students practicing actual moves, has not escaped me. In fact, it makes me feel dirty as all heck just saying it, especially as a former student of goju ryu karate—but one film is definitely more enjoyable than the other.
Being a film critic is a tough job sometimes. But you gotta call 'em like you see 'em.
If you have ever considered moving to Japan, shaving your head, tending a rock garden, and punching a wooden training block until you shatter your hand and your knuckles bleed, then Budo: The Art Of Killing is the film to watch on the long flight over.
If that does not describe you, then pass on Budo. That being said, the subject matter is just too darn cool to hand down a guilty verdict.
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