The Kendo Adventure
Part 3 – Star Wars
By Alex Bennett
New Zealand boasts an abundance of parks and wide open grassy spaces utilised for sports such as soccer, rugby, cricket and so on. It is unthinkable to New Zealanders to play sport on any other surface other than grass. Japan, on the other hand, has few grassed areas. Apart from golf courses, lawns are for looking at, not frolicking on. To my utter disbelief, sports at high school level are generally played on grounds of grit and gravel. Playing soccer for the school club presented the very real prospect of being scarred for life after one of my trademark ‘kamikaze’ slide tackles. My host mother suggested that I forget soccer for a year, and try something “a little more Japanese”; hence, my tentative visit to the smelliest, noisiest room in the school.
I had seen a picture of kendo a few years before on a Weet-Bix card, but that was the extent of my prior knowledge. Basically it was zilch. The school dojo was smaller than any gym found in New Zealand schools, and it had a relatively low ceiling, and foreboding bars on the windows. Inside, hoards of frenzied, faceless Jedi trainees were trying to smash each other with bamboo sticks. To my untrained eye, it just seemed like senseless violence. Adding to the intensity of the experience was the raucous cacophony of tortured screams, and an unspeakable stench in the air.
Amongst all the confusion, my attention was drawn to a scene in the far corner. There was a big, fierce looking warrior with a bigger stick than anyone else. It was Darth Vader. He was being attacked furiously by a lesser mortal, but to no avail. Vader apathetically warded off the would-be challenger as if he was swatting a pesky fly. The suicidal Jedi screamed desperately, trying not to fall flat on his face as the big guy calmly deflected all the blows. After a while, relentless effort paid off as he was allowed to land a few cracking wallops on Vader’s head. The taste of victory was short lived. Vader upped the ante, and retaliated with vicious thrusts, whacks and foot-sweeps, reducing the attacker to a sweaty heap on the floor. Still, just when it looked as if it was all over, the poor little Jedi would find his second wind, and the long painful process started all over again, and again… Corporal punishment had just been outlawed in New Zealand, and thoughts that somebody should ring the police did cross my mind as I stared in shocked disbelief at the carnage.
Suddenly, there was a loud scream above all the other screaming. “Yameeeee!” Everybody stopped, and Vader went and sat down under the small shrine attached to the wall. He removed the mask from his head and waited as the minions lined up opposite him, trying to restrain their uncontrollable puffing. “So that’s what Darth Vader looks like,” I thought to myself. “Scarier than I imagined.” On his command, they all sat down and took off their masks. It was freezing cold, but steam rose from their brows, and sweat dripped from their chins making puddles in front of them on the frigid wooden floor. Unable to see their faces through the metal bars on their masks as they engaged in mortal combat, they did not look entirely humanoid at the time. Now, all the clockwork soldiers seemed so pathetically human. They sat watching Vader without daring to wipe the perspiration pouring off their faces. Then he spoke, breaking the dreamlike silence ‒ the calm after the storm. His expression was contemptuous, and a tirade of what seemed like scorching remonstrance rolled off his tongue and pounded their ears, like his bamboo sword had done to their bodies a few minutes before. The gang of trounced Jedi trainees replied with a unanimous “Hai!” The session was over.
Vader’s penetrating gaze then zoomed in on me, and he headed in my direction. “I’m Sano. You must be the new foreigner. Join!” I felt I was being press-ganged by a ‘gangster’, but I also sensed a peculiar warmth about the guy. But soccer still beckoned, even if it was played on gravel. For a start, I knew what I was doing on a soccer ground, and I figured that a year playing in Japan would teach me some neat new tricks. Still, Sano-sensei’s attitude indicated that I really did not have a choice in the matter. Besides, I had sat and watched the kendo training for one hour, and strangely enough, I actually became accustomed to the initial repulsive stench, and the unbearable hue and cry. I had no idea what the point was, and the ferocity of it all frightened me, but I did feel a pang of curiosity to get out there and have a go myself. I wondered what it would be like to try my hand at ‘playing samurai’. Honestly, that was the extent of my motivation. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but this was the fateful first meeting with one of the most influential people in my life, and without a doubt, the scariest. Whether I liked it or not, I was in.