Friday, December 30, 2011

The Way of Holmes

Just viewed the new movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Highly recommended. Holmes' character, nicely portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. and originally penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is part sleuth, part whack job and all martial arts extraordinaire.

Holmes' "curse", as he calls it, is an all encompassing, all consuming sense of acute awareness that gives him surveillance of his surroundings with impeccable scrutiny and detail. His ninja-like methods of stealth includes cross-dressing and "urban camouflage", the latter of which allows him to blend in with anything from a bookcase to a sofa. The cinematic Holmes also possesses a form of strategic precognition that plays out in his consciousness how an altercation with one or more adversaries could likely happen. Similar to reenacting kata in your head, so to speak. Sans for his irrational fear of horses, Holmes is calm and steady regardless of circumstances.

Holmes' martial prowess, on screen played out with typical Hollywood flair, gets comparatively short shrift in the original written version. Doyle does mention on one occasion that Holmes is a practitioner of "baritsu [sic], a system of Japanese wrestling."

In truth, Bartitsu was developed in 1898 by E.W. Barton-Wright, a British judoka who combined elements of grappling, la canne (stick fighting suitable for a walking cane or an umbrella), fisticuffs, and any other nasty method of street fighting he picked up during his long travels abroad working as a civil engineer for railway and mining companies. Barton-Wright spent three years in Japan studying jiu-jitsu and then judo under Jigoro Kano. Kano-san would've been more than happy to give his English disciple a black belt with the promise of bringing judo back to the United Kingdom. But the promising student had other ideas.

Upon his return to England, Barton-Wright promptly established his "new art of self defense" and the popularity of Bartitsu quickly spread throughout London. Barton-Wright was interested in promoting his style as a combative system; he felt sports such as boxing were hampered by rules and favored attributes such as size and strength. As such Bartitsu was also marketed towards women's self defense.

The Bartitsu Club was also a haven for boxers, fencers, savateurs (French kickboxers) and grapplers of various systems including jiu-jitsu and schwingen, a style of Swiss wrestling. In addition to self-defense, Barton-Wright provided physical therapy at his venue.

By 1903 the apparent novelty of Bartitsu had lost its steam. In its place, jiu-jitsu and judo continued to thrive in England. Barton-Wright eventually resumed his physical therapy practice but continued to teach Bartitsu privately until about 1920.

In recent years there has been a revival in interest in Bartitsu, due in part I'm sure, to the relatively recent development of MMA, (the ancient Greek art of Pankration underwent a similar resurrection) and will likely get an even bigger surge from a pair of really cool Sherlock Holmes flicks. The "new art" of Bartitsu is new once again. It's elementary.

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