Martial Arts in Man in the High Castle

I thought it proper, after finishing Man in the High Castle, to share some thoughts on how the series portrayed aikido and, to a lesser extent, jodo through two of its characters. All plot points and plot holes aside, it was interesting that the series’ producers chose those arts, as both of them do not appear in the novel, only judo. As the series continued, and the added emphasis on the I Ching grew, the switch from the original Japanese martial art of judo to aikido made a bit more sense, while jodo was added without much context or explanation. However, as the story progressed to tackle the alternative history of the Second World War – the Nazis and Imperial Japanese forces emerging victorious and occupying the East and West Coasts of the United States respectively – the two aforementioned martial arts took a backseat to the developing narrative.

Aikido appears in the series’ first episode with the main protagonist Juliana Crain, where, dressed in a gi and hakama, she demonstrates various throws to onlooking Japanese students and an instructor. Quickly, the viewer notices the fast and short cuts and edits from one angle to another, showcasing the best qualities and aspects of each throw. To a learned practitioner, it is obvious that the actress playing Juliana has not trained in aikido for any long period of time. According to George Ledyard, he provided the actress with a seven and a half hour crash course on four techniques and simple footwork. For Ledyard, she attempted to convey the beauty that was inherent of the art’s movements. As seen in the episode, the actress does try to convey and demonstrate the beauty in the techniques, which is great for the art and to those new to aikido. Unfortunately, the benefits of showing aikido in this series goes south as Juliana struggles to use what she has learned in a life-or-death situation just an episode or two later.

In the third episode, Juliana experiences an altercation with a Nazi spy in the Neutral Zone. The two struggle to gain control over one another on a bridge overlooking a waterfall for what seems like hours. For all the beauty and technical aptitude Juliana demonstrated in the first episode, she has a tough time executing any aikido technique for what seems like hours. Finally, after much uncomfortable and frustrating fighting, Juliana applied a wrist lock and threw the Nazi spy over the bridge and down into the waterfall, only to be frozen in shock (presumably because she killed someone) and comforted by another main protagonist-turned-antagonist. While some view this as a step into character development, others, like myself, view this short scuffle as a telltale sign that aikido – outside of what it does for the story, explained below – was not used or thought of as a fighting art that can assist the protagonist in the dangers that comes with fighting Nazis and Imperial Japanese.

Perhaps one major factor that the producers changed judo to aikido was because of the latter’s more pronounced spiritual aspect. To those who are familiar with aikido and the founder’s background, religion had a great influence on the development of the art and how many practitioners place it into a modern context. Therefore, the spiritual aspect of aikido complimented the series’ usage of the I Ching and meditation. Judo, on the other hand, does not lend itself to the spiritual-ness that the narrative called for – it is more of a physical activity in this context.

The second martial art that appeared in the series is jodo. Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi is shown practicing a few solo kata on the beaches and wooded areas around the Golden Gate Bridge. Here, the actor’s movements with the jo are stiff and choppy when compared to the flowing movements of Juliana’s aikido. However, by not being a practitioner of jodo, I am not knowledgeable in what the correct flow of movements with a jo should be. Besides that point, Tagomi uses one of the kata in a later episode, fending off would-be assassins in his home. However, unlike Juliana’s relation to aikido, there was not an established link between Tagomi and jodo in the earlier episodes of the series, nor is there any reference afterwards, much like Juliana’s relation to the Way of Harmonizing Energies.

By the end of the series, the fact that two of the series’ main characters who did martial arts did we find it that their training did not assist them in their primary mission to overthrow fascist and statist regimes or advert nuclear war between two powerful empires. True, Man in the High Castle is not a martial arts series like Into the Badlands or the Bruce Lee-conceived Warrior, where martial arts are the main focus; Man in the high Castle is an alternative historical drama, demonstrating that many of its characters just “do” activities that do not define them. With the focus, or at least many references to “the dojo” and “aikido,” Juliana readily gives up dojo training to help set in motion plots to dethrone the Imperial Japanese regime on the West Coast. Only once does the series reference Juliana’s aikido, but only after the audience has forgotten about it. Nowhere in between does Juliana attempt to apply the principles learned through aikido in daily life, nor does she attempt to train again to bring back a sense of routine when there is some downtime between blowing up Nazi buildings and Imperial Japanese buildings. Furthermore, Tagomi’s jodo practice comes and goes from the series, further demonstrating that characters only “do” activities that do not define them. One is left to wonder why this approach was used in the series or if other factors affected the continuity of the characters’ training and assimilation of the arts.

For traditional martial artists, martial arts are not a passing fad, but something that slowly becomes ingrained in their lives and daily routines. Both of the instances presented above best demonstrate that the characters did not find a way to apply their chosen arts to their daily lives to better advert war or overthrow the establishment. Of course, there are other aspects to this series that could be discussed to better understand why the martial arts and other parts of the narrative were a certain way, but that is beyond the scope of this piece and transitions into the realm of conjecture. For now, these martial arts – aikido and jodo – could, from a martial arts perspective, have been better portrayed and utilized by both the characters and overall narrative, illustrating the positive aspects and character development as a result of martial arts training.

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