Best of 2006: Chanbara - A Lesson from the Masters

According to Shimaguchi a fighter must train eight hours a day for at least six years to gain master samurai status...

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Published 09 Jul 2007
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On a grassy mound opposite the Pleasance Courtyard, I stand face-to-face with samurai sword master, Hiroaki Kawaguchi. He’s clearly eyeballing me. Clenching his teeth and grimacing, he points his 30-inch blade straight at my forehead. On my right a voice whispers some last-minute advice. “Do not be afraid Sam,” says Tetsuro Shimaguchi, my Sword-fighting mentor and the main star of Chanbara, a Taiko drumming and sword-fighting spectacular currently running at Pleasance Grand. “You must concentrate”.

In an instant Kawaguchi is upon me, wielding his sword and bringing it down with an impressive high-pitched war cry. I duck to the left, bringing my sword around my right shoulder just in time to meet my opponent’s blade in mid-air. We both swivel and swing again, this time locking swords. Again we eyeball each other, pushing against our blades with all our might. Even though his face is scrunched and contorted, I can still make out the impressive sword-fighting scar that decorates Kawaguchi’s nose. Suddenly the force gives way and we’re both flung backwards. I react quickest, slashing my sword in an arc across my opponent’s abdomen. He lets out a Street Fighter-esque howl of pain and stumbles back. This is my opportunity and I seize the moment, bringing the full weight of my sword up above my head and then down on poor Kawaguchi, condemning him to a bloody fate. As I look down to inspect my opponent I hear Shimaguchi again. “The picture, remember the picture,” he shouts. How could I forget? I swirl round triumphantly, spotting the photographer and giving my best He-Man pose. “Perfect,” says Shimaguchi with a proud smile. “You make a great samurai.”

Kind words, but sadly not entirely true. After a very patient 30-minute lesson, Shimaguchi has successfully taught me the basics of a 45-second samurai swordfight. I’m not getting carried away. According to Shimaguchi a fighter must train eight hours a day for at least six years to gain master samurai status, and even then most still train incessantly to maintain skill and agility.

Shimaguchi is the founder of the Kamui Japanese sword fighting company and a specialist in Nitou, the art of using swords in both hands. He is also the choreographer behind the final, bloody battle in Kill Bill Volume 1, where The Bride (Uma Thurman) exacts her “roaring rampage of revenge”, coolly dispatching O-Ren’s (Lucy Liu) army, the “crazy 88”, before finding and scalping O-Ren in the snowy confines of a Japanese garden.

In contrast to the graphic violence and visceral spectacle of Kill Bill, Chanbara (loosely translated as “sword fighter”) is a much more thoughtful study of the Japanese samurai fighter. Eight master swordsman and five Taiko drummers combine to create a graceful and theatrical play where, if anything, the elegant sword fighting takes a backseat to the thundering power of the Taiko drums. For Shimaguchi this measured, almost spiritual, arrangement of Nitou is much more true to the art form. “It’s interesting because there is a real contradiction,” he says. “People associate sword fighting with killing and violence but this artistic expression allows us to convey the absolute opposite. In order to be safe we must look after the safety of the person we’re fighting. It’s about consideration for other people.”

Shimaguchi spent six months with Tarantino and his cast, and says he was impressed with the way the fabled director handled his subject matter. “Tarantino has a real respect for Japanese culture, which was very important,” he says. “American films also spend a lot more time on preparation and the training was very serious.” It was only Uma Thurman, previously not much of a femme fatale, who caused Shimaguchi any problems. “At first Ms Thurman didn’t really want to do the part because she’s not really an action girl. She needed to be convinced,” he says smiling.

Straight after my lesson Shimaguchi takes his sword back and begins a real duel with Kawaguchi, a Kamui colleague. They slice and slash at breakneck speed, clashing swords on occasion but mainly ducking and spinning away from each other. It’s a wonderfully harmonious display, not dissimilar in rhythm and grace to the Brazilian dance of Capoeira. “A good swordsmen must be strong and fast but above all he must have great mental strength,” says Shimaguchi. “Sword fighting for me symbolises the human process from birth to death and through the art form I can express the beauty of Japanese culture, the sword itself and the Japanese heart. I understand it might seem violent but it is also very elegant.”

Traditionally a male-only pastime, it is interesting that two of the eight swordfighters in Chanbara are females. Women, Shimaguchi says, have never really been part of the Japanese “sword culture” and are still banned from participating in Kabuki, traditional Japanese theatre. Perhaps tellingly the female swordfighters in Chanbara are not involved in the most stunning action scenes, but when they do appear they look just as skilled as their male counterparts. Shimaguchi says he deliberately tries to attract women to Kamui. “It is very rare to have female swordfighters,” he says. “In the past female swordfighters were not allowed but I think it is changing. Japan can be quite an insular place, but with Chanbara we are trying to transport our art form all around the world. Through this I think we are able express our individuality in a more liberal way, which is perhaps not that easy in Japan.”

As Shimaguchi and Kawaguchi intensify their battling, I watch the action in awe. The two men are laughing now, expertly avoiding each other’s swipes and clearly playing to their small Japanese ensemble that has arrived from the show. They seem completely in control, but I can’t help wonder what happens if a lunge or sithe goes awry. Shimaguchi looks unfazed by the question. “We don’t carry doctors, people look after themselves,” he says matter-of-factly. But has anything ever gone wrong, I probe. It doesn’t seem a laughing matter, but both Shimaguchi and Kawaguchi seem very amused. Maybe I’ve unlocked the story behind Kawaguchi’s facial impalement? Neither man lets on. “Yes there have been a number of incidents, but mainly when people are tired and are not concentrating,” says Shimaguchi diplomatically. “There was one very famous incident in Japan about 20 years ago, though, when someone was killed,” he says, pausing. “But not in this show.”

As we depart I ask Shimaguchi how I can build on my performance. His words of wisdom are clear: “A good swordsmen must be strong and fast but above all he must have great mental strength.”