“Dashing Duels Fuel A Young Man’s Fancy,” by Stanley Pranin

A poster from the 1962 film starring Toshiro Mifune

I have described elsewhere the circumstances surrounding my beginning aikido in 1962. There was, at the same time, another influence that served to spark my imagination, and spur me on to attend aikido class regularly. Let me tell you what happened.

Among my mates at the aikido dojo was a man about 35 years old named Bill. Bill was among the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and he opened up new worlds to me at a time when I was very impressionable. One day, Bill invited me to drive up to Los Angeles to see a “samurai movie.” “Watch the heck is a ‘samurai movie’,” I wondered. At 17, I was game to try anything. He wouldn’t tell me very much about what we were going to see, and he purposely tried to create an aura of mystery.

So we drove up to the Toho La Brea Theater in Los Angeles one Saturday evening to see my first samurai flick. I don’t remember what movie we saw, but I certainly recall the laser-focus and emotion that engulfed me when I saw my first dueling scene! The stirrings that welled up inside me were almost overwhelming!

Bill pointed out to me how the physiognomy of the noble samurai differed from the characters from the lower caste. He stressed their self-control and discipline, and how this was essential to battle strategy. This was really a new world for me! And fortunately, I now had somewhere to go to act out the fantasies paraded before me on the big screen–the aikido dojo! It was a potent combination. I was really motivated to return to training  with a new intensity and seldom missed a practice!

Of course, before long, I began to know who Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune were. I saw all the famous samural flicks: “The 7 Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “Red Beard,” “Miyamoto Musashi,” and so on. Oh, and another film whose title I will never forget, “Katame no Ninja” (One-eyed Ninja), introduced me to the world of Japan’s “secret agents,” who were polar opposites of the glamorous James Bond who was so popular at the same time.

Everyone who was studying aikido seriously at the time went to watch these samurai movies. We went not just to entertain ourselves. We would enter almost a trance state with our eyes glued on the movie screen. We imagined ourselves becoming the modern equivalents of these incredible and exotic warriors of the Far East. We too would come to exude the same super-cool as the samurai heroes dashing about before us on the giant screen. And to make these dreams a reality, we had to put in our time on the mat training.

Last night, I scoured youtube for a good dueling scene for you to watch. Most of the better ones I came across from that era are too long. Then, just before retiring, I ran across this excellent sword fighting clip I think you’ll find interesting. A ronin–an itinerant samurai–shows up at a kenjutsu school to present a challenge. This is the kind of thing that Sokaku Takeda was doing in the late 19th century when he roamed about Japan honing his skills.

Click here to see the sword fight scene

And lest it be thought that nothing equivalent exists in western movies, have a look at this sword duel from “The Mark of Zorro.”

Click here to watch Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone battle to the death!


  1. WOW! That Zorro clip is the best western fencing I have ever seen in a movie. Clean technique, full speed, very nice. I wish more actors these days took the time these guys did to truly learn the weapons they are using in the movie. The samurai films usually do a good job of this, but not western films, sadly.

  2. Hey Stan
    I agree with Jim Clark above. From the movie appearance I would say they are both professional fencers. If they were not, their teacher must have been phenomenal.

    The place where I teach has a fencing academy with classes often running at the same time as mine. They are more intent to going in rather than blocking so much. They are also on an electronic touch system that ultimately makes it roughly equivalent to the Kendo matches in Japan. One can win even though both would mutually loose if it was real.

    The Japanese clip went to a site with lots of samurai fight scenes. Very interesting.

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