Sleuthing in Search of O-Sensei

“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.

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.

Another adventure that involved quite a bit of sleuthing started with a lead I received from a reader back in the mid-1980s. Apparently, there was an elderly couple living in northern California that had some old footage of O-Sensei. It seemed like just another rumor to be chased down. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me about films of Morihei over the years that turned out to be copies of Aiki News movies! In any event, I found out the name and city where the couple supposedly lived. On my next trip back to the USA, I called directory assistance to see if I could locate a phone number for the retired couple. I was given a number to try and proceeded to make a call. Lo and behold, the lady who answered the phone confirmed that she and her husband were in Tokyo in 1962 and shot a lot of 16mm film footage of O-Sensei and others, and also took a lot of photos. I was beside myself with anticipation!

A few months later, I made another trip to America and was able to arrange to meet the couple in person. They told me their story about meeting the Founder at the Hombu Dojo and Iwama, and how the project had been canceled for lack of funding. The films and photos had sat in storage for some 23 years, and would surely have been lost! They agreed to allow me to purchase their collection of documents. That rare footage can be seen in our “Way of Harmony” DVD. There are countless other stories I could tell, but this will give you an idea of some of the highlights of my continuing adventures in documentary the Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

We live in times where aikido has been practiced worldwide for over 55 years. Somehow the actual techniques, the charismatic personality, and noble message of O-Sensei have taken a back seat to Morihei’s successors and a few of the leading postwar teachers. Today we have incredible technology that allows us to capture in intimate visual and audio detail the teachers of modern times. In contrast, the Founder passed away in 1969, and our film legacy consists of a few hours of mostly silent black and white film. But…. these old movies contain electric images of a true martial arts genius who dominates the screen and speaks to us across the ages!

Here are a few clips that will incite your curiosity and bring into focus the larger than life man that O-Sensei was.

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