Kendo is a uniquely Japanese martial art. Like judo, karate, and aikido, this modernized version of a traditional art has numerous practitioners both in Japan around the world. And while some may approach it with more, um, zeal that others, it’s generally viewed as being more like chess than raw fighting.

But if you ever thought that kendo lacked in brutality or purely comedic tomfoolery, this 117-year-old video of a kendo practice session in Kyoto will put you in your place. And then smack you across the head with a big bamboo stick!

While kendo evolved over many centuries into the sport-like martial art we know today, there’s no doubt that it was, at one point, the domain of people whose jobs involved swinging large pieces of sharpened metal around. And so you might expect its practitioners to act accordingly, with absolute focus and deadly accuracy.

But you would be entirely wrong, as this video–the world’s first video recording of kendo from 1897–so clearly shows! It’s less highly trained warriors deftly parrying and counter-attacking and more a Buster Keason-esque garden brawl! Apparently, the video was originally recorded by a French film crew in 1897, as the introduction below shows.


The YouTube video descriptions also contains this information:

According to the deleted french narrator the film was shot in Kyoto during a kind of warming-up training of a kendo competition at the end of October 1897 by Constant Girel. Louis Lumière was apparently not satisfied with the work of Girel, for unknown reasons.

Well, we’re not sure why Lumière was unhappy with the video, because we found it pretty entertaining! For example, the scene features not a single pair of kendo practitioners fencing, but three groups who inadvertently crash into each other–and keep swinging unabated!


Also, while it’s hard to tell in the screenshots, one of the practitioners isn’t even weilding a shinai, the bamboo sword used in kendo! Instead, this fellow seems to be swinging a kusarigama, or chain-sickle!


These warriors are relentless even in practice–quarter is neither given nor requested even after one of them has been flung onto the ground. In fact, it almost looks as if everyone is just swinging at whomever happens to be in range!


It’s hard to capture the chaotic, frenetic energy of the video with screenshots, so if you’re at work (tsk, tsk!), be sure to come back and watch the video as soon as you can!

However, it looks like there’s a bit of controversy about the authenticity of the video, at least in the video comments. Now, obviously, no one should ever take YouTube comments too seriously, but we thought there were some salient points raised.

  • One user, posting a message in both Japanese and English wrote: “This could be a staged work. Look at the arrangement of people, a conch shell, a drum. In early motion pictures of Lumiere, we can see this sort of dramaturgy a lot.”
  • Another commenter seemed certain that the practioners were actually just extras: “These are just extras employed for filming.  At the very least, they’re not experienced practitioners of kendo or kenjutsu (sword-fighting art which was a precursor to kendo), as you can clearly tell from their footwork.”
  • One of the most engrossing aspects of the video is the hyperactive movement of the fighters, but it may be a trick of the videography, according to one commenter: “At that time, film was recorded at 18 frames per second, so playing it back at 24 frames per second, their movements look fast. I wonder if it was played back properly at that time.”
  • Well, regardless of the veracity of the video, we completely agree with this guy! “Am I the only one who thinks this kind of looks fun?”

Here’s another of the Lumière Japan videos: A 19th-century Japanese family having some tea.

Finally, while not about Japan, this 1895 comedic short by the Lumière brothers is better than some Adam Sandler movies. We just had to share the laughs with our dear readers!

Though photography and videography still seem like relatively new inventions, we are incredibly grateful for the old but beautiful artifacts that can show us precisely what life was like at the turn of the 20th century. It’s almost as good as a time machine. It might even be better, since this way we’ll never run the risk of falling in love with any of our grandparents!

Sources: YouTube, Yahoo! Japan Topics
Images: YouTube