The business end of the sword

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There is a sport where experience is more valuable then youth. It is called kendo, and is also known as “the way of the sword”, the Japanese martial art of sword fighting. Gábor Váradi, a first-dan kendo master, filmmaker and producer talks about his experiences, the benefits of the sport and the application of its philosophy in business with a BBJ journalist and fellow practitioner.

Movies are what introduced Gábor to martial arts. He became interested in Japanese cinema in his 20s: the films of Kurosawa and emblematic cinema like “Woman in the Dunes” and “Onibaba” had a huge impact on him. It was in these films that he first saw the world of the samurai and the character of the relentless, unwavering warrior. He was overwhelmed by the attitude these people had towards life: the only way samurai know is “the way of the sword”, which includes death. But, unlike those coming from a European culture, for the samurai, death is the pinnacle of this journey.

Martial arts have always interested Gábor, who was born in Budapest in 1953, and still lives in the city, where he manages his own movie studio. Since he was busy and it’s difficult to find a period in the movie industry when one can plan ahead at leisure, it was a long time before he took up kendo. Of course, he pursued sports when he had the time, from table tennis to football and tennis. Sailing another passion of his, but kendo was always in the back of his mind. He really wanted to get around to giving it a try.

Kendo

Kendo evolved into a martial art in its own right from the exercises of the Japanese samurai. The formal exercises, the katas, as they are known, are centuries old and are still taught. In the early 1700s master Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisato introduced bamboo swords (shinai) and armor (bogu) into the practice of kendo. Shinai and armor made it possible to deliver cuts and hits with full force without injuring the opponent. Modern kendo is defined by cuts and stabs. Cuts can only be delivered to target zones, which are on the wrist (kote), the head (men) and torso (do) as well as around the throat (tsuki), all of which are protected by the bogu. The bout is two times two minutes long without intermission. A perfect attack scores one point. The first contestant to score two points wins the bout. When the time limit is reached, the contestant with at least one point wins.

Four years ago, he finally got within striking distance of the sport: one of his movies was invited to a film festival in Tokyo. Strolling around Meiji park, he wandered into a dojo (a gym, hallowed ground) and was immediately enchanted. He asked the dojo’s sensei (master) if he could stay and watch the training. He was amazed by the immense knowledge, patience and dedication of the nearly 70-years-old master as he trained with children of five and six years old. From then on, he went to train two times a week.

In the age of the samurai, fighting was a matter of life and death. But, surprising as it may be, kendo teaches not belligerence, but perseverance, striving for perfection, patience, concentration and knowing one’s opponents. As in the case of most martial arts, the truly great masters are not aggressive. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Businesspeople who want to be successful have much to gain from the philosophy of kendo.

Delivering the blow

Since he began practicing kendo, Gábor says he has found he doesn’t give in as easily when negotiations get tough. He can look into his partner’s eyes longer, he is more patient, more persistent. But this is not something he was aiming for: kendo did it. Of all the sports he has tried and pursues to this day, kendo is the only one that gave him these characteristics. A higher dan grade in kendo assumes more experience and knowledge. The higher ranked kendokas (trainees) get, the more serious they become about perfecting their skills through constant and hard training.  And experience brings higher dan ranks. This is a self-fueling process, and although getting the next, higher rank is not necessarily the goal, once you get on board, there is no stopping. You will do kendo until the grave, learning and experiencing.

“Once, many years ago I saw a documentary about an old master at the first or second dan level. He was more than 60 when he started. He was very focused on his next dan exam, and this is what the movie portrayed. Eventually, he failed. He was older than 80 by that time. The thing that really caught me was that after the results were announced, namely that he did not succeed, the reporter asked him what he would do next. He responded that he would train harder from now on so that he would pass the next time. It was so shocking for me to see someone with this kind of dedication that I was certain I had to start doing it myself. And I did.”

Hungarian samurai

Having returned from Japan, where on and off he has spent six months of the past two years, he continued his kendo studies in Főnix Kendo Klub, learning the craft from sixth-dan kendo master Tibor Bárány, a globally renowned master of the sport. As the others got to know more about his work as a movie producer, his master asked Gábor to make shorts about kendo to promote the sport to a broader public in Hungary over the internet. Altogether, he made six or seven spots which are available on the club’s website. Their release has attracted many new applicants.

“Currently we are working on the script of a feature-length film with an American friend of mine about a story revolving around contemporary kendo. There was also a film shot in the Budapest gym that was an entry at Magyar Filmszemle (an annual Hungarian movie festival): The fourth dan. It was made by a young man who started kendo – he became inspired by what he saw during the shooting.”

Hungarian kendo is in the global elite. In the past years and decades the Hungarian team often came home from international competitions with medals and other excellent results to show.

“I can only encourage anyone – regardless of age or gender – who wants to do sports to try it, and also aspire to compete. I would especially recommend it to young people because kendo brings out positive characteristics that people already have and it gives a clarity of mind, which is much better than going to a shrink. This is one of the key messages of kendo in the 21st century,” Gábor says.

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