Breaking away from Daito-ryu: “Morihei’s technical
Tour de Force still amazes after 78 Years!”
“The majority of these old films had been long gathering dust in
private hands, their very existence hanging by a tenuous thread.”
The 1935 Asahi News film featuring Morihei Ueshiba at the age of 51 years is one of the rarest and most historically important documents on early aikido history to have survived. Its high quality and superb content provide a rich resource for contemporary practitioners of the art to study and gain an understanding of the evolution of aikido technique.
I had known about the existence of the 1935 film of Morihei for a number of years. A few of the old-timers had actually seen the old Asahi News documentary, and spoke about it in terms that fired the imagination. Why was this precious document being withheld? Since the film was no longer shown and had been locked away, my only hope was to find an outside source; it was like looking for the veritable needle in the haystack. Nonetheless, I undertook the challenge of finding it. One day, a Japanese friend came up with a lead to something that sounded promising. There was a certain prewar film among thousands languishing in a Tokyo archive that appeared to contain some old jujutsu footage. It was titled simply “Budo.” Not much to go on, but perhaps an interesting find nonetheless.
A private showing was arranged for me back in 1979. I sat down in the viewing room while the operator threaded the film into the 16mm projector. Then the lights were dimmed and the projector started rolling making a loud clattering sound. The titles flickered across the screen accompanied by rather grandiose music, and I settled into my seat holding my breath. Then a short, muscular man with a balding head walked briskly onto the mat and bowed to his students. I felt the tears well up in my eyes because at that moment I realized I was watching Morihei at 51 years of age! I felt like I had entered a time machine, and watched the Founder’s amazing technique in a trance state. Within a few week’s time, the precious film had been snatched from the jaws of oblivion and made available to aikido practitioners all over the world. It was a deeply satisfying moment for me on a personal level.
In the film, Morihei demonstrates a number of paired warmup exercises that are virtually unknown today. These exercises are an excellent way to warm up the body for the more rigorous throwing and falling practice to follow.
The first portion of the Asahi News film contains numerous suwariwaza or seated techniques which Morihei practiced and taught on a regular basis. Notice his graceful, yet sturdy movements while seated, and how he is always ahead of uke when executing techniques.
The tachiwaza or standing techniques in the film are full of exuberence. In the above photo, Morihei completes a throw while being fully extended. This moment is called zanshin or “lingering spirit” where one’s concentration continues beyond the completion of the technique.
The weapon being used in the above photo is the juken, sometimes called a mokuju, which means a mock or replica rifle with bayonet. Morihei would teach many techniques using this weapon in his courses at the various military institutions where he taught martial arts and tactics in the prewar period.
Morihei launches a defense against about 12 attackers in this still shot toward the end of the film. His movement is accompanied by a loud, high-pitched kiai which focuses his attention and disturbs the concentration of his attackers.
This is the completion of this spectacular technique where the attackers collapse among themselves as Morihei has escaped through an opening he has created to deal with a single opponent.
The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.