Film History Essentials: Escrime au Sabre Japonais (1897)

(English: Japanese Sword Fencing)

What it’s about:

Several men in bōgu (training armor) engage in a practice session of the martial art of kendo. A boy repeatedly rings a gong behind them while a man next to him plays some sort of instrument. The master sits, fanning himself, and occasionally shouting directions to instruct the combatants.

Why it’s essential:

Born in Kyoto, Inabata Katsutaro was 14 years old when he got a scholarship to attend La Martinière Lyon. Japan had been forced to end its isolationist policy and enter into treaties with the Western nations less than a decade before his birth. As a result, Inabata had grown up in a Japan that was changing rapidly from a feudal to an industrial society, and he would play a role in bringing about that change. Arriving in Lyon in 1877, he studied technologies related to weaving and dyeing for the next eight years. He also befriended a classmate: the young Auguste Lumière, 11 days his senior.

Inabata returned to Japan in 1885, and started a successful business that continues to exist (as Inabata & Co.) to this day. While visiting France in 1896, he learned of the Lumière brothers’ new cinematic enterprise, and soon became the Lumière representative for Japan. Upon his return home near the end of the year, he was either accompanied or soon followed by Lumière technician François-Constant Girel, a cinematograph, and 50 reels of film. Inabata and Girel gave the first exhibition of motion pictures in Japan on 15 February 1897, in Osaka.

An Edison kinetoscope had only arrived in Japan in 1896, around the time Edison was introducing his film projection system in the United States. However, a Vitascope exhibition began in Osaka only one week after Inabata’s exhibition, and he decided that the requirements of being competitive in show business were not to his liking. Inabata handed the cinematograph over to Yokota Einosuke, who had been touring the country putting on shows with an x-ray machine he had brought back from his travels in the United States. Yokota went on to be one of the major figures in Japanese film production and exhibition for the next 35 years, while Inabata returned to continued success in his own textile business.

Meanwhile, Girel stayed in Japan for the next few months shooting additional films for the Lumière catalog, 18 in all. Of these, nearly half are ostensibly of daily life unique to Japan. However, Daisuke Miyao, a professor of Japanese films, suggests that there are many signs that these scenes were staged (for instance, this scene was filmed outdoors, but kendo is traditionally practiced inside), and their subjects were selected in an attempt “to make Orientalist fantasy authentic.” In doing so, Girel used the first motion pictures filmed in Japan to perpetuate stereotypes popularized by the Japonisme trend that was in vogue in Europe and America at the time.

Why you should see it:

Kendo, or “way of the sword,” is the modern name of the martial art seen here, but it does not seem to have been called that until 1920. At the time this was filmed, it was likely known simply as gekiken, or “hitting sword.” Whatever the term, I suppose this could be considered the first-ever martial arts movie.

The use of bamboo swords and protective armor, as seen here, was a practice already centuries-old as a method for Japanese warriors to train their swordsmanship. However, this specific form of gekiken as a martial discipline originated in the 1820s, prior to the fall of the shogunate and the opening of the country. It saw a rise in popularity during this period for a number of reasons.

One of the most significant social changes in Japan during the early years of Emperor Meiji’s reign was an end to the privileged status the samurai had enjoyed during previous centuries, and a consequent decline in their financial fortunes. This led to the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, and the effective end of the samurai class. (A fictionalized version of this event is featured in 2003’s The Last Samurai.) The government banned the use of swords by samurai, and initiated both a voluntary surrender and a sword hunt to confiscate the remaining weapons.

Of course, there were many who wanted to ensure that the art of swordsmanship would not be lost amidst these upheavals. Such efforts became focused around standardization of sword fighting styles and sword training, particularly for police. It is possible, then, that the combatants seen here are police trainees.

It’s interesting that the melee on display is far more chaotic than might be expected from later filmed depictions of martial arts training. It’s unclear at several points who is supposed to be hitting who or exactly what is happening. But despite what appears to be a great deal of wild flailing, no one seems to hit anyone by accident, and if you watch closely, their movements are more tightly-controlled than they appear at first glance. (It may be particularly difficult to follow because the movements are so fast, likely due to some issue with Girel’s framerate. The movements look much more “normal” if you watch at 0.75 or 0.5 speed.)


~ by Jared on March 9, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: