Jul
18

“Reconnecting with the Masters of Old,” by Stanley Pranin

New practitioners of aikido today have vastly more options than those of us who began decades ago. Aikido has grown enormously as an art and many fine teachers have emerged over the years. The march forward of technology has also provided an abundance of pedagogical materials that would have been unimaginable in the past.

But there is something that newcomers have missed. They have been denied the opportunity to study directly under many of the art’s top masters of the early postwar era. I refer to names such as Founder Morihei Ueshiba, Noriaki Inoue, Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki, Gozo Shioda, Seigo Yamaguchi, Shoji Nishio, Kisaburo Osawa, and Rinjiro Shirata to mention many of the best known figures.

At Aikido Journal, we have taken upon ourselves to partially remedy this situation by documenting and disseminating the techniques and theories of these past masters. Today’s aikidoka may not have had a chance to learn directly from these masters, but they do have access to excellent study materials such as the many books and DVDs offered through this website.

One of the approaches we have used is the preservation of seminars conducted during the 1980s and 90s at which point in time the video camera had become a commonly available device. Although many of the early video cameras pale in comparison with modern equipment, they did succeed in capturing lengthy, uninterrupted footage with audio.

If one goes back further in time, all that is found is old 8mm and 16mm film, most of them without a soundtrack. The majority of these old films are choppy because the cameraman was trying to save film and reduce the precious time required to make a reel change in the midst of the action. While silent film gives one an idea of the movements and technique of some of the earlier masters, it cannot compare to what videotape offers in its ability to provide a much more complete record of an historic event including sound.

Among the products we have created over the years, those DVD seminars with detailed subtitles of the teachings of famous instructors are among the records that I think will stand the test of time.

To give an example, the “Lost Seminars” DVDs series, featuring Morihiro Saito Sensei, allow teachers and students today to access in great depth the technical curriculum of this famous master. The subtitles are essential for several reasons. The interpreter–the person serving to bridge the gap between the Japanese speaking teacher and the non-Japanese speaking attendees–has a challenging job.

Morihiro Saito in Italy, 1986

I have served in this capacity on numerous occasions and here are some of the hurdles to be overcome. The teacher addresses the students and usually speaks facing forward toward the audience while the interpreter stands to his side or in back of the teacher. Given that the acoustics in many of the facilities used for large seminars are poor from the standpoint of sound production, it is very easy to miss words of the teacher. Now consider that it would be very awkward for the interpreter to interrupt and ask the teacher to repeat what he said and delay the progress of the class. So the interpreter usually does the best he can under pressure and this often includes “abbreviating” the translation to cover up what he has missed.

Another difficulty is that many teachers tend to speak quickly or at length giving the interpreter too little time to provide an adequate translation in the brief moments available for this purpose. The net result is that those present at the event get only part of the information imparted by the teacher.

Fast forward twenty or thirty years, the available technology now permits us to revisit this historical footage and improve upon the video and audio quality. It also allows us to add the enormous boon of subtitles whereby it is possible to translate nearly every word spoken by the teacher. This gives the viewer a much more complete “picture” of the seminar and the message of the teacher.

Another opportunity opened by subtitles and DVD technology is the addition of titles in other languages. For example, a couple of our DVD offerings feature English and French subtitles to complement the Japanese spoken by the teacher.

Please have a look at the detailed descriptions of Morihiro Saito’s “Lost Seminars” set as an example of our approach to preserving these priceless historical documents.

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