Of Kendo, the Jedi, Lucasfilm and Snow Falling…

I was recently watching The Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel narrated by Mark Hamill. I was very happy that this special featured the art of Kendo – the fighting martial art of the Jedi order.

Karate was the martial art I first learned as a child. My mother put me in private lessons. It was during those primary lessons that I began to develop a love for Japanese Martial Arts. It was around this time that The Empire Strikes Back was in theatres, and it was the climactic duel in the movie that made me truly want to be a Jedi knight. I had no Idea what kind of swordplay I was watching, but I knew I had to learn whatever it was.

It was not until I went to University that I discovered there was a Kendo club there. My first Sensei was Ted Davis. He was an unassuming man, slight and not too tall. He wore the traditional clothing of the Kendo-ka – a dark blue hakama and keikogi. He stood majestically in his robes. It had been six years since I had taken karate, and now in my new school I became a dedicated student of Kendo under his mentorship.

The first several weeks I did not have the privilege to wear the robes I so desperately wanted to wear. I was a beginner and needed to learn the basics. Dutifully, three times a week I would go to the university rec centre and repeat the footwork so necessary to the art. Initially my feet bled over the hardwood floor as I developed calluses. My fingers blistered from holding my shinai (bamboo sword) too tight. I often left the dojo dripping in sweat and limping from the pain of my open wounds on the bottom of my feet. It was difficult. I was determined. I kept going back.

Eventually I was allowed to wear the uniform and eventually the armor of the serious kendo-ka. I learned how to fold my uniform properly to keep it pressed and to keep the pleats of the hakima straight. I was not only being disciplined in the techniques of Kendo, I was learning the respect for the techniques and the history of the art I was devoting myself to. We all took care of our uniforms. After class, no matter how tired we were, we would kneel and fold our uniforms properly and with the respect for our learning. We did not speak during this. We folded our uniforms in silence, allowing us to reflect on the lessons we had learned that night.

I have seen students of other martial arts show little respect for their attire. They practice in wrinkled, unwashed uniforms. I strongly believe this is not the student’s fault. It is the instructor who must take responsibility for the actions and inactions of their students.

Training in Kendo was an honour and a privilege for me. I had no idea that when I went to study in England that I would end up bringing my Kendo armor with me. I also had no idea that I would end up competing on the British Kendo Team. Kendo was providing me with many amazing opportunities. Since Kendo was the art of the Jedi, I readily took advantage of them. It was in Zurich that I competed and ranked internationally. I was taking full advantage of my abilities. I treated my teammates and opponents with respect. I allowed myself to breathe and to focus on my spirit within and through the shinai. Star Wars was never far from my mind. Our Sempai was an amazing Kendo-ka, Colin. He was fierce in tournament. He had four distinct scars – the result of an opponent’s blade breaking during a strike to the head, sending four sharp sections of bamboo into Colin’s face. It was lucky Colin did not get any thrust into his eyes. Yet, there remained the four memories of that event. Colin liked to make the younger teammates fearful. We all dreaded having to fight him during practice. It was impossible, or so we thought, to hit him at all. One night as Colin and I were in the middle of our free-practice we locked into Tai-Tari (a technique where two people come in body to body with each other) I could look straight into his eyes through our masks. He was focused and gazing through me. I could feel his energy pushing through. I looked straight back at him and said in my best Darth Vader voice, “I am your father, Luke”. Colin burst out laughing, and looked down – I took full advantage of this moment and delivered a decisive hit to the top of his head. I had done it. I had landed a point on the unbeatable Colin. My victory was short lived as Colin almost immediately returned a flurry of hits and worked me hard until I was exhausted, battered and bruised. He became a good friend of mine after that, and though I have not spoken to him since I left England, I will always remember his incredible prowess at my beloved martial art.

My first professional role in television was playing a character named Ned on Highlander. I was delighted to work with the famous fight director Bob Anderson. Bob had choreographed the fights for The Princess Bride and even more importantly The Empire Strikes Back. We spent a few days together working out the choreography for my fight scene with Adrian Paul. It was an amazing experience. The following year I was approached by F. Braun McAsh and asked if I could help him put together a fight scene for the producers of Highlander. I did and he got the job replacing Bob who had left to do more film work.

Eventually I decided to pursue a Master’s degree. I attended the same University as I had before, and spent time as a Sempai in my old Kendo club. Ted Davis was not instructing much at that point, but I enjoyed my sessions as a senior member of the club. At the end of my degree I received a phone call out of the blue from an old friend who was working with Kathleen Kennedy in Los Angeles. He asked me if I knew of anyone who could do Kendo. I thought he was pulling my leg. “Uhhhhh…me!” I replied. I had no idea that he was being asked to find a kendo choreographer for the film Snow Falling on Cedars. So a few months later I found myself creating the Kendo scenes for the film. I spent months working alongside Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Scott Hicks. I loved it. I earned my first film nickname on that set – Kendoboy. I had no idea that my love of Star Wars and Kendo would put me in such an amazing position.

kendo scott hicks.jpeg
Scott Hicks with me (Kendoboyon the set of Snow Falling on Cedars

Kathleen Kennedy is now the head of Lucasfilm. I was happy to see the fights in the newest film were still had the essence of kendo. The prequels lacked the form that the Force Awakens has recaptured. Whenever I see someone holding a lightsaber with his or her hands in the wrong position I cringe. I am a lifelong student of kendo and understand the importance in the posture, technique and the ways of the sword. I love the speed and strength that Kendo offers. I miss competing in it. I really miss choreographing it. Perhaps one day I will be able to be in a filmed lightsaber fight. I would have never dreamt Kendo would lead to me being a top fight director. I had no idea that Kendo would have helped me find peace and happiness. I train so I don’t need to fight. I have learned to stand up for myself and to not have to fight. I am a student of Kendo and a Jedi. Kendo has trained my mind, body and spirit. Kendo has developed the force within me. I love sharing my knowledge with the future fighters in film. I truly love what I do.

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