Sleuthing in Search of O-Sensei by Stanley Pranin

“These old movies contain electric images of a true martial arts genius
who dominates the screen and speaks to us across the ages!”

My fascination with the life and martial art of Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei has been the motivation for the existence of Aikido Journal and its predecessor, Aiki News. I have always enjoyed telling the epic story of the events of O-Sensei’s life to aikidoka all over the world.

One of the most powerful means of disseminating the Founder’s marvelous technique and timeless message is through the medium of film. From an old 3-minute reel that I received way back in 1965, to the several hours of footage professionally offered as DVDs, I have watched O-Sensei move on the screen thousands of times. Sometimes in slow motion, sometimes even frame-by-frame. For me, these films hold the secrets to O-Sensei’s genius and provide constant inspiration. I can play one of Morihei’s movies after a long hiatus, and make new discoveries of clues that have always been there, but have eluded me until that moment.

Locating these films over a period of nearly five decades has involved a series of meandering treasure hunts. This span has been marked by countless moments of frustration, punctuated by a few experiences of pure elation. The majority of these old films had been long gathering dust in private hands, their very existence hanging by a tenuous thread. Some of the most exciting moments of my life have involved the discovery of these elusive old O-Sensei movies. Let me tell you about a couple of those occasions.

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.


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