Zen and the art of swordsmanship

Finally got to see a film I have been waiting eagerly to watch for a few months now, Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai. It’s been widely tipped a hot contender for Oscar glory this year, and it’s not hard to see why. Quite beautifully shot, this is an alluring tale of a dying age meeting the new, industrialised world (personified by the US government desperate to sell weapons and training to the Emperor to bring his forces up to date – quite a brave anti-Imperialist stance on US foreign policy to take at this time). A man haunted by his past deeds in the service of his country, another man (the extremely strong Ken Watanabe) trying to hold onto his traditions and honour. Yes, you kind of know these two are going to come together somehow, but this is far from a clichéd story.

Director Zwick, who brought us Glory – the touching tale of immense bravery by the first coloured regiment to fight for the Union during the Civil War, brings a fascinating period to life, managing the small details and the sweeping epic nature of the tale deftly, giving Cruise both a good action role as well as a meaty piece of acting that most thespians would love to get their teeth into, with lush, beautiful cinematography (shot in widescreen). There is a wonderfully unspoken and unfufilled romance going on between Cruise and the widow one of the samurai he has killed, culminating in one of the most intimate love scenes on celluloid without any nudity, sex only the slightest hint of a kiss as she dresses him for the final battle – it’s wonderfully romantic and beautiful, veyr much in the vein of the Medieval Romances where the chivalric knight would love his lady from afar with a pure, unsullied passion (indeed the parallels between the Bushido code and the European code of chivalry are strong trhoughout).

And despite all his detractors, I can’t fault Cruise for the effort he puts into his movies. He spent months training for the role and is quite believable as a swordsman. As someone who has spent years fencing he seemed natural to me, whereas most movie swordplay is obviously bogus to anyone who has fought with a sword. Cruise moves easily into the correct posture and balance before engaging, it’s quite authentic. The way the sword duels are shot after he has trained with the Samurai show the still point that is necessary for the finest blade work; a friend tells him of his technique in broken English that he has ‘too much mind’. He needs ‘no mind’. When he approaches this point it is handled very well, the slowing down of time but with the total awareness of everything around you, the body moving effortlessly.

Watching those scenes I was pretty sure that either the principle of photography or the director had duelled before. When you achieve the perfect bout this is exactly how it feels. Over the 8 or 9 years I fenced in foil and sabre only twice did I ever achieve this state. It’s not something you can will yourself into, it just happens, just as Cruise‘s character finds. Utter stillness within yourself, ironically at a moment when your body is reacting with the most rapid and graceful movements. No conscious thought but you are still aware somehow.

It is difficult to verbalise such an experience – the only truly Zen moments I’ve ever had in my life. It’s like the Buddhist notion of the extinction of ego and self to embrace everything. Absolutely no conscious thought, no awareness of self, you just are. And everything around you is revealed in hyper-clarity. Every detail, every movement – I know it sounds like new age bullshit to many of you, but it’s not something you’ll understand unless you’ve experienced it. Everything was so slow, I could see every move my opponent was making and see my own sabre easily deflecting them, cutting under his guard again and again, without any thought or will directing it. All so slow that I had no concept of time passing. Needless to say when you act on this level without any conscious thought in a duel you are pretty much unbeatable. In a martial art where parries and ripostes are measured in milliseconds, the person who acts without thinking is as fast as it is possible to be. There was none of this ‘the sword seemed to be part of my arm’ nonsense you get in hackneyed fantasies. Such a concept misses the point – there was no sword, no arm, no me, no distinction, just everything.

It’s quite remarkable to me that in the middle of a ferociously fast sabre duel I could slip into this state of grace; it was the most peacefully still few moments I have ever known. I would dearly love to experience such a moment again, but it’s not something that you can really will yourself into. You are either in the right moment for it or you are not, but I am grateful to have experienced it – I suspect many people go through their entire life without ever experiencing such a moment of clarity or spiritual purity.

The film itself is an original script, but drawn from a true historical event. There is an interesting Hollywood versus History page here which realates the fictional cahracters to the historical ones who inspired them.