Recounting Experiences with a TV Documentary on Knight vs. Samurai

By John Clements
ARMA Director

Back around 2007, a small television production company out of New York City approached me about doing a cable television special based upon my popular "knight versus samurai" and "rapier versus katana" articles. Such a project has long been a keen interest of mine and I've given the subject a lot of serious thought. After several weeks of discussion on what format the program should take, they flew down to Atlanta for a day of filming. The crew took some b-roll footage of us training, then conducted interviews with myself as well as the noted historian of feudal Japan, Professor Karl Friday (himself a longtime practitioner of budo). To make a long story short, despite considerable efforts, after several months the producers ultimately dropped the project. How come? ...They had difficulty finding an expert swordsman from any noted school or teacher of classical kenjutsu who was willing to participate.

Why was that? Well, essentially, from what we gathered, not one would agree to enter an armored mock-combat session on camera --sparring blunt sword to blunt sword-- against a senior student of mine wearing his 15th-century Gothic harness. Nor was anyone willing to also then do the same unarmored against me wielding my blunt rapier foyle. As soon as it was described that no wooden swords would be permitted, only historically accurate training blades, and that grappling and full-body targets would be included as well as thrusting, they all turned down the offer. Everyone contacted was more than willing to do mere side-by-side demonstrations with us (useless for the purposes of the program's premise), and they were all ready to do the overly familiar, standard routine displays of their own sword art with their own students. But cross-system free-play with actual contact was out of the question.

Knight versus Samurai showDespite my consternation, I agreed to this with the intention that, once we were all on set with weapons crossed, we would start slowly upping the ante, forcing them on camera to either respond in true time and true force or else simply get hit-- repeatedly. The producers agreed this would be ideal for the candid and unchoreographed action shots the program needed. But I suspect our potential co-stars assumed this is what would've eventually happened because no agreement could ever be reached as to when, where, and under what conditions it would all take place. I suppose it was a matter of saving face. They had nothing to gain and everything to risk from looking bad in such an encounter. After all, they would be representing a school, a master, a reputation, and "all of Japanese martial culture," while we were just "amateurs" pretending with "broadswords and foils" (...hard to blame them for such ignorance, given the mediocrity out there that has long passed for our craft). But I like to think that the real reason was that once they saw videos of us in action with our federschwerts (clips which the producers in fact did provide), the shock of our not being what they imagined was also a big factor. This wasn't the first time I experienced such a thing, nor has it been the last.

To be sure, there were plenty of non-traditionalist practitioners from unaffiliated and un-credentialed teachers of Japanese sword arts eager and enthusiastic to participate. Many solicited us for the opportunity to earn some desperately needed credibility. But that missed the point entirely. For a television special investigating the differences in physicality, martiality, and technicality of these historical warriors and their famous armaments, we intentionally sought out legitimate representatives of established schools who were, in fact, ethnically Japanese. We wanted fighters reflective of their own forebears and the fighting craft they devised, instead of some large Westerner representing some modified modern version altered to their physique and temperament. If you are exploring the authentic methods and equipment of a historical warrior then you damn well need to represent their build and stature, not that of someone else's ancestors. I was as uncompromising on this point as I was on the condition of safely performing unrehearsed fighter-versus-fighter counter strikes in contact at full speed using metal blades and accurate reproduction armors and garb, not costumes.

Samurai versus Knight tv showHowever, the only thing any traditional master contacted would agree to, we were told, was artificially facing off in assorted counter-poses --with the blades pressed one against the other in some half-ass watered-down choreographed stage-combat fantasy. But they all had to be assured no actual "un-programmed action" was to take place. They gave all the same excuses for why this had to be: they didn't have blunt katanas, they don't spar, they can't risk their expensive replica armor being scratched rolling around on the ground, thrusting at their more exposed helmets and armor is just too dangerous; target areas shouldn't include fingers or feet because (unlike ours) their armor doesn't cover those areas; grappling holds in armor would be too dangerous to employ; etc. In fact, the less amateur and more qualified the representative, the more excuses we were given for why their skills "only work for real" and not in "mock practice" against those unfamiliar with them. Ahh... yes, of course. How convenient. Sorry we barbarians did not appreciate this cosmic truth.

And when it came to unarmored play against the rapier, we were told such a thing wouldn't be possible because of the need to wear an unfamiliar Western fencing mask, and besides, we were assured "our épée would just be completely cut through" if it encountered a "real" katana, blah, blah, blah. Never mind that we were more than willing to once and for all put to the test all the long-professed assertions of super cutting power, because no one was willing either to perform strikes against one of our shields, helmets, or sword blades to see just what the results would be to both the target and the katana edge. We were assured that no modern replica sword was made to the historical specification of the real thing, and the real thing was (of course) too venerable to be employed in such inconsequential experiment. ...Right.

We were also uniformly told that everything "had" to be done with wooden swords since there is "no such thing as a blunt katana" because by definition "they are sharp" --and being sharp they're capable of shearing through anything on the planet... or in outer space, don't you know. (The reality, in my opinion, is simply that the generally shorter length of the katana would be at a distinct disadvantage versus the historically longer reach of an accurate longsword or rapier. But this could easily be mitigated by using a conveniently longer wooden sword (something that works both ways). Plus, unlike thick wooden versions, metal training swords require that you aim their blunt edges precisely and bind more carefully. Everything is amplified and clarified when using steel to steel, whereas wood on steel distorts and obscures, and I was not about to let that slip past.

Knights vs SamuraisAs envisioned, the program idea was conceived to showcase the major differences in the swords and the highly distinct, yet similar, fencing styles of these two iconic warriors. It was to address something of how the public consciousness of each suffers from both 19th-century misconceptions and 20th century pop-culture nonsense as well as modern-era distortions (and in the case of the samurai, from no small amount of nationalism and credulous hype). The program would have explored how the image of the Medieval knight, by contrast, has suffered today from social and cultural prejudice despite the little known fact that they were experts in their own sophisticated martial arts and enjoyed the most advanced armor ever devised. Additionally, as with my original speculative articles, the intention was to reveal how, unlike European knights, samurai in their own feudal period did not actually focus on the sword as their primary weapon, nor specialize in single combat as their foremost martial concern. The main narrative would have contrasted the curved single-edge sword with the straight double-edge cruciform longsword and their respective abilities to cut, thrust, ward, and apply other techniques. The focus would be on each in the context from which they were originally developed, and not from the perspective of their modern study as a benign civilian pursuit or pastime, but their original historical function.

rapiers versus katanasThe program would also have briefly examined the differences between the respective fighters in their respective early feudal eras as opposed to the later period, as well as their civilianized 17th-18th century counterparts. For this, it would have included presenting the development of rapier fencing as the Renaissance penultimate weapon for unarmored street fight and private duel in the age of emerging personal firearms. The new rapier often did few things better than deceptively out-fighting double-handed cut-and-thrust blades in unarmored single combat. Anyone familiar with the genuine weapon (and my expertise in the authentic methods) would know what to expect from such an encounter.

The plan was to also offer up to our counterparts all manner of Medieval helmets, shields, and blade replicas to be cut at, using whatever katanas they wished to make the attempt with. Of course, I know what the results would be because I've done this sort of thing myself --it would not be impressive. And I know they would not want the edge of any katana that made the attempt be scrutinized afterward. But this kind of contentious myth breaking under controlled conditions is precisely what would have made the whole thing great television. I can't stand it when some TV show on weapons will have some untrained ignorant improperly whacking on something with a poorly made longsword (under the supervision of a kenjutsu practitioner no less) only to then declare it "inferior." ...Bullshit.

One would think finding credible and articulate authorities on traditional Japanese sword arts who would be ready and willing to step up and cross weapons with "lowly amateur Medieval fencers" would've been easy. You'd be wrong. The vast majority we discovered have never done much more than obediently mimic ritualized slow-mo katas and partake in highly structured two-person drills. Maybe throw in some artificial contrived contests with bamboo sticks or occasional slicing of static vegetable matter and that's it. By contrast, none of these things exists as a historical means of producing combat effective fighters within our diverse source teachings. And therein lies the central dissimilarity: While we, following just over a decade now of seriously exploring and recovering our lost martial Western heritage, were prepared and eager to compare what we were capable of, the same cannot be said for our would-be counterparts --who presumably represent preserved traditions and lineages of oh so refined and advanced sword arts. Curious that.

As it turned out, the whole negotiation process with our counterparts was a tedious headache. I concluded the process was conducted throughout in bad faith, since no sooner would we get a concession from one of them on some point then an earlier issue would be rescinded and everything had to start all over again. Sound familiar? As soon as one element for our crossing weapons was agreed on, they'd attempt the classic moving the goal-post trick on us. The whole idea of impartial conditions for a neutral comparative exploration against an unfamiliar method was simply unacceptable to them, I determined. Chivalric fair-play, meet bushido duplicity. So, with the money spent, the footage shot, the project just faded away. Shame too. With the right mix of personalities and good-natured contention it would all have made for an original and entertaining show --and not the typical dry, reverential crap that always seems to get made about samurai, Vikings, or gladiators.

Since this experience I've polished my own treatment of a hypothetical knight vs. samurai duel and have pitched a TV special exploring it to several industry contacts. I'd like to think that somewhere out there are traditional authorities of Japanese sword who would be willing to encourage their senior practitioners to engage in investigating this topic with us in an honest way. I'm not holding my breath though.


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