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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Tameshigiri at the movies

Tameshigiri at the movies

photo by Naoya Fujii

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There are very few movie productions which feature scenes of tameshigiri. From the film maker’s perspective, perhaps this is natural; after all, depending on the time period, “test cutting” in Japan would either be a very messy business involving cutting the corpses of condemned criminals, or a fairly boring affair, cutting static objects.

Only two classic Japanese samurai  movies that I am familiar with actually contain short scenes of tameshigiri.

In The Fall of Ako Castle (赤穂城断絶 Akō-jō danzetsu ) nee Swords of Vengeance, is the 1978 retelling of the classic  story of The 47 Ronin, also called The 47 Loyal Retainers.  In this movie there is a short scene where one of the ronin is training in a stand of bamboo trees;  in short order he cuts through a number of bamboo trees, some 3-5inches (7.5 – 13 cm) in diameter or more.  For moviegoers with a background in tameshigiri, this establishes the ronin as a skilled samurai, as cutting bamboo is particularly difficult.  Living green bamboo becomes very woody and hard as the tree grows taller;  the wider the diameter, the thicker and more woody the bamboo stalk.  Poor technique in cutting can easily result in not only a failed cut, but a damaged or broken sword.  Unfortunately, no video clip of this is scene is available, but I highly recommend the film.  For those with an interest in jidaigeki (Japanese period films), I highly recommend it;  among other highlights, it stars both Sonny Chiba and Toshio Mifune in major roles.

Speaking of  jidaigeki, the second film containing  tameshigiri  features Toshiro Mifune again, this time as the main star.  Samurai Rebellion (Jōi-uchi: Hairyō tsuma shimatsu 上意討ち 拝領妻始末), is a drama in which a poor samurai and his father (Mifune) must decide between duty and what is right. In the opening scene. tameshigiri is once again used to identify a character as a samurai of great skill (Mifune), when he tests the quality of his lord’s new sword on straw bundled in the shape of a human figure.



If anyone knows of other films in which test cutting is shown, or used to show a protagonist’s skill with a blade, I’d be interested in hearing about them! [email protected]

O.t. Ray Vaughn mentions that there’s a short section on tameshigiri in Budo – The Art of Killing.  Classed as a “docu-drama”, Budo presents some of the most famous Japanese martial artists of the time (1978), with a somewhat over-the-top narration in the background:  via Wikipedia:  “The film shifts its focus to sword arts with demonstrations of iaido, tameshigiri and kendo by Shuji Matsushita and Tomoo Koide, as the narrator discusses the fear instilled by the Japanese sword”.  Many clips from the film can be found on YouTube.


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