With a subtitle “A normal bloke becomes a deadly weapon” and with the epigraph from Samuel Johnson “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier”, this could have been a relentlessly annoying and macho account of a Westerner in the early 1990s doing a brutal year-long aikido training alongside the Japanese Riot Police.
Early blokey indications are not encouraging
In fact I’d always lacked discipline. Bursts of enthusiasm had partially made up for not sticking at anything, but the pattern of brilliant starts and dismal finishes was beginning to bother me. I remember the banal moment when I decided things had to change. I was on the ‘up’ escalator in a shopping centre. It was so crowded that I had to stand without moving. I was packed in with all the other suit-wearing urban workers, all expressionless, all containing their irritation at being trapped and moving so slowly to their destination – or maybe they just didn’t care. The ‘down’ escalator was just as full. It slowly passed in front of me like a tracking shot in a sci-fi movie – not a horror movie but one of those hopeless, nihilistic futuristic films where minds have been wiped and everyone is content. I started at all the blank faces and realized this is it, your life, you don’t get another. This was it. I was unfit, unphysical, an intellectual, a bookworm, a poet, a sensitive guy. It was time to change.
Fortunately, author Robert Twigger is too thoughtful an observer and talented a writer for that to happen, and the book has real merit asides from the character portraits of his fellow students and their teachers. (He doesn’t spare himself either).
Twigger has interesting things to say about pain (especially the endurance of it – the aikido course is not for the faint-hearted), about culture clashes and about trying to see the world as those from other cultures (in this case Japan).
A guest at a Japanese wedding is expected to part with five thousand yen, minimum, and if you have any pretensions to being a close friend it is more likely to be twenty or thirty thousand – two or three hundred dollars. Being invited to a wedding in Japan is, like everything there, an apparent delight with a nasty sting in the tail. There’s a word in Japanese that covers all such onerous social obligations, especially those designed for pleasure that end up a pain, like drinking with the boss after work or having to buy chocolates for colleagues on Valentine’s Day. The word is mendokusai, the most useful word in Japanese studies you can learn. It’s a word that encapsulates a cultural concept.
The second half is far better than the first, and sometimes the cast of characters gets a bit unwieldy, but the book repays careful attention. You can see how the publisher’s marketing department felt compelled to do a “Fever Pitch gets a black belt” campaign, but people who bought it hoping for a blood and guts blow by kick account of martial arts will probably come away disappointed or confused about all the extras.
There’s a simple test that you can apply to a writer – of fiction but especially of of autobiography/musings “Will I track down his other work and see if it’s any good?” In Twiggers case, I answer “yes”, and I think most other readers would as well.
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