Posted by Tommy Hackett on 26th February 2014
Last weekend at UFC 170, the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo, Ronda Rousey, successfully defended her UFC bantamweight championship for the third time. Rousey is a polarizing figure; but her greatest detractor would respect her ability: simply put, she’s a piece of martial arts history. Her star is rising elsewhere too, with movies and television roles on the way.
Another (and very different) female pioneer of the judo world was the subject of a recent film, released in December on DVD. It’s a rare, and often beautiful, look at judo history. It would be represent something of a departure for MMA fans, but I think it’s worth a look for them.
Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful chronicles the life of Keiko Fukuda, the first woman to receive a 10th degree black belt in judo (from the US Judo Federation, in 2012), and the final surviving student of judo founder Jigoro Kano.
Keiko Fukuda was followed by the filmmakers for several years, as she approached her 100th birthday. The film gracefully explores Fukuda’s unique story: her early life in Japan, to her pioneering days an instructor in the US, and her first trip to her native Japan in 23 years, as a special guest of the Kodokan.
One might guess Fukuda to be born into “The Gentle Way,” as the name judo is often translated. Her grandfather Honnosuke Fukuda was a jujutsu instructor for the samurai of the Tokugawa shogunate, and later in life, his students included Jigoro Kano himself. As the film progresses, we learn how Keiko Fukuda originally was brought to judo by her family in hopes of finding her a husband. Instead, Fukuda find herself “married” to the art she loved – and devoted to it to the end.
After learning her trade under Kano himself, Fukuda rose to teach classes at the Kodokan during WW2. Competition was unavailable to Fukuda, but she performs kata — a judo tradition often overlooked today — in an exhibition at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Later, Fukuda relocates to San Francisco, where, among others, she trained the Bay Area’s first female police officers.
Several members of judo royalty, including world and Olympic champion Toshihigo Koga and Kaori Yamaguchi, make appearances in Mrs Judo to express their admiration for Fukuda. They also offer perspective on issues of gender in the art.
In some ways, Fukuda’s beloved judo seems so far ahead of its time, as we see men and women training virtually identically at the beginning of the 20th Century. In other ways, as when we find her unable to rise in ranking to match her male counterparts (courtesy of the Kodokan’s old refusal to allow women past 5th degree black belt) it seems to drag behind the times.
The tone of the film is more education than entertainment. Its soft tone, following an elderly woman as she sets about the last days of her life, is long on history and short on action: more at home on PBS than Spike-TV, and in fact I understand the film’s creator in fact offers a discount to schools. But it’s lyrical style is compelling from start to finish — graceful like one of Fukuda’s own kata — and Mrs Judo sails through its one hour running time.
Of course, it’s best to focus on what Mrs Judo is, not what it isn’t; and it’s best to keep focus on Fukuda herself.
Approaching 98 years of age, Fukuda was still on the mats despite triple bypass surgery. This remarkable figure of history instructs her assembled students towards the end of the film:
“Through training you become a good person. If your judo is only about mastering techniques – when your life is finished, that would be a shame. It’s more important to be a good human being. Don’t forget, that is good judo.”
Bonus material includes more discussion from the film’s cast, as well as brief footage of Fukuda’s memorial last year. She died at the age of 99 in San Francisco.