Aside from numerous 70's documentaries about bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and the Bermuda Triangle , I also grew up with a steady diet of martial arts docs, including one of my faves Fighting Black Kings, which was a US blaxspoitation-friendly edit of director Hisao Masuda's The Strongest Karate. Masuda was the also director of Budo: The Art of Killing (1979) which was overseen by mono-minded Brutes and Savages producer Arthur Davis.
Budo: The Art of Killing focuses on martial styles developed in Japan. The film takes the very basic documentary approach, dividing its scenes between different martial styles, some beautifully staged, some simply observing training sessions, with an omnipresent narrator occasionally adding some color. For instance, in the karate segment, we get various scenes of a karate master honing his skills, hitting sandbags with his fingers, breaking boards and concrete blocks, and increasing his hand and leg strength by hitting a tree and (no joke) a train. In the Judo segment one sparring session appears to end when one trainee chokes his opponent into unconsciousness. Aikido practitioners slap and toss each other around. Sumo wrestlers bump bellies. A few different kendo styles are shown, including the actual, delicate forging of a katana (samurai sword).
The film is more based on the montage approach. It isnt exactly Koyaanisqatsi, but Budo is more about showing you the skills rather than going into great detial explaining them. It is no bottom of the barrel production either: the image was given a lot of attention, and the film features some wonderful settings and cinematography. Its opening scene, two feudal era samurai are against a black background performing a seppuku (samurai suicide) ritual, suggests the films penchant for cinematic staging as well as its attempt to comment on the philosophies attached to Japan's fighting arts.
First, I'm the kind of person who salivates over this kind of stuff. I probably cannot explain the joy I get when I see a guy with nunchuks knocking a cigarette out of another guys mouth, karate masters practicing their forms on snowy hillsides, or stalks of bamboo being surgically cut by an expertly wielded sword blade. Any fan of martial/the fighting arts or just well photographed documentaries should check this film out.
That said, I do have some complaints about the narration. It does overdo it with the dramatics like "...as real swords are used, great skill is required because the least mistake could mean certain death..." or "...both pain and agony to the body and mind are basic to the training in judo..." or "...while they fight freely with wooden swords, should one of them forget to hold back just before making a hit, the other would surely be maimed for life..." Yes, the mondo scripting does add a certain flair, exoticism, and danger, but honestly, if it were true we'd be seeing more kendo-related deaths every year. Also, along those lines, though made by a Japanese crew, it contains some outdated cultural stereotypes, like, "The samurai lived to die a beautiful death. In this philosophy of the samurai lies the typical mind of the Japanese man." Again, all fine and well, but it is the sort of thing that separates art from cartoon, pulp from fiction, and mondo from documentary.
The DVD: Synapse.
Picture: Standard, 1.33:1. Considering the material and its age, Synapse gathered decent elements for the transfer. Sure, some general wear and tear is present, the occasional spot here and there, and some graininess. But, overall it s a nice job. The colors really stand out, and the sharpness is detailed.
Sound: Mono. English language. Good sound quality. Narration is always clear. The soundtrack is a real winner. Although dated, the prog rock and Korg synthesizer score adds a lot of nostalgic charm to the film.
Extras: Liner notes— Original press kit
Conclusion: A mondo martial arts gem. Thankfully we've got companies like Synapse who do a good job with such fringe cinema. Entertaining film that should spurn martial film lovers into diving into their library of karate and samurai flicks.