The age of the samurai has long since ended, but does its spirit live on? You might well feel that, despite everything, the flame of the samurai still burns in Japan today after watching the swordsmanship skills on display in the clip above. Or perhaps we should call it swordswomanship: the modern-day warrior executing those perfect cuts is the daughter of grandmaster Fumon Tanaka, and her bearing and self-possession bring to mind the onna bugeisha of old Japan. And as we see, gender matters not at all in the stark reality of blade on bone — or in this case, blade on a similarly dense stalk of bamboo.
Tanaka, showing an imperfectly cut piece of bamboo, explains that its curved edge means “your left and right hands are not balanced. If a samurai decapitates a man with this bad technique, it would cause great pain. It has to be one precise cut. That is the way of the samurai.”
His daughter then demonstrates just how handily she can attend to any of your decapitation needs, halving the bamboo with what her father deems “a perfect straight cut.” Though it only takes a single stroke, that single stroke comes as the culmination of years and years of work toward mastery — and work that, in this modern onna bugeisha’s case, no doubt began early indeed.
The Smithsonian Channel produced this video as part of their series Samurai Headhunters, more of whose material on “how these elite knights actually lived, loved, fought, and died” you can watch on Youtube. If you’d like a more in-depth sense of how their sword techniques work, have a look at Masayuki Shimabukuro’s video series on samurai swordsmanship, which begins with an episode on the basics and continues on to subjects like postures, two-hand cuts (as seen executed on those bamboo stalks), and flicking the blood — that last perhaps more useful in feudal Japan than 21st-century Tokyo, or for that manner everywhere else, but a good samurai has always known how to honor the past.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.