My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mark Law’s book contains two types of book in one volume, unified by the theme of judō. On the one hand, it’s a microhistory of the martial art and sport of judō–and, no, it’s not redundant to say the martial art and the sport because while these aspects overlap they aren’t identical. On the other hand, the book presents a personal account of Law’s experience as a judōka who began his practice at the ripe age of 50. The two elements of the book are interwoven together, and aren’t forced into distinct sections by the book’s organization. The history is obviously organized in a chronological fashion, but personal accounts are peppered throughout, and sometimes stories appear in history chapters.
As a history of judō, Law begins with the pre-history of the art in its ancestor martial art of jujutsu, he travels through the arts influence on off-shoots like Sambo and Brazilian Jujutsu, and he examines how the art has contributed to mixed martial arts—the 800 pound gorilla of present-day combative competitions. Particular emphasis is given to Kanō Jigorō’s role as founder of the art and the evolution of judō as an Olympic sport. Interestingly, besides founding Kodokan Judō, Kanō’s other claim to fame was in being the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, he never saw judō become an Olympic event, and—ironically–at least a few among those close to him doubted that Kanō would’ve been pleased with his art’s inclusion in the international games.
While Japan dominated judō when the sport first entered the domain of international competition, it wasn’t long before there were a number of other countries including the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Cuba, and Korea that were producing first-rate judōka. Law devotes considerable discussion to the global blossoming of this sport, including entire chapters on some of the more prominent nations. The book discusses the double-edged sword that Japan faced. On one hand, the Japanese were heart-broken when other nations started beat them at their own game. On the other hand, it was clear that this had to happen for the sport to retain a global following. (Otherwise, the sport might have gone the way of baseball—being pulled out of the Olympics because only a handful of North American, Caribbean, and East Asian nations had any interest in it.
There are also chapters on women’s judō, a development that no doubt faced a good deal more misogyny than many sport’s bi-genderifications. There’s always been resistance to encouraging women’s participation in combative activities—even judō, a martial art whose dangerous edges were supposed to have been rounded off through rules, equipment (e.g. sprung flooring), weight classes, and close monitoring. Law discusses the hard fought evolution of the women’s side of the sport.
As a personal narrative, Law talks about the lessons he learned from training in judō and from testing for rank—an arduous process that requires beating other rank-pursuers in randori (free-form grappling, i.e. the grappling version of sparring.) Many of these lessons will be familiar to anyone who has practiced a martial art (e.g. while it’s more intimidating to fight someone who’s much more experienced in the art, it’s usually vastly more safe—both because senior players are more in control of their bodies and because they have less need to prove anything—i.e. they won’t injure an opponent to protect a fragile ego), but much of this discussion is specific to the culture and practice of judō.
If you’re interested in the history and development of judō, I’d recommend this book. I found the book to be at its most interesting when it addresses the history and globalization of the sport. However, those who haven’t practiced martial arts may find Law’s personal insight to be useful—particularly if you’re considering taking up judō and all the more if you intend to take it up past mid-life.
It should be noted that—judging by the identical table of contents and subtitle—this book was also released under the title Falling Hard: A Journey into Judo. The book does is annotated and provides references. Law is a journalist, and the niceties of that discipline are followed throughout.