A review by Walker Ryan
About a month ago my grandmother bought a book for me entitled Zen in the Art of Archery. Grummy, as she’s known to all of her grandchildren, recommended the book with the foresight that I might find some parallels between my experiences as a skateboarder and the experiences of the author Eugen Herrigel. In 1924 Herrigel, a well renowned German philosopher at the time, set out to understand what was required of him to find “Zen” in shooting a bow and arrow. Today he is regarded as one of the first to bring this ancient doctrine from the East to the West through his writings, from Asia to Europe. In this short and delightful book Herrigel spends five years in Japan practicing the art of the Japanese bow with a Kyudo master named Awa Kenzo. The basic idea behind finding “Zen” in archery, or any other physical activity that requires a similar mental focus and control of one’s motor functions, is that with the right approach and dedication to practice the body must learn to shoot the arrow from the bow while completely freeing itself from the mind. In this way, the “pupil” must learn to perform complex movements with out thinking about what the movements are, without focusing on them. Archery as an art becomes “ the unmoved movement, the undanced dance,” (64) as the master professes to Herrigel. “For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself.”
Archery, in this context, does indeed offer many parallels between skateboarding, as Grummy predicted it would. From my experiences as a skateboarder, the mind tends to be the greatest enemy one can encounter, be it from fear or just simply over-thinking everything. Some of the most magical moments I’ve had as a skateboarder are the times when my mind seems to shut off and the tricks feel as if they happen on their own. These moments can be anything from a difficult trick I’ll spend hours repeatedly trying or a last second life saving ollie over a crack while racing through some car crowded street. Unfortunately these occurrences are rare for me, as I’m nowhere near what could be called a Zen master in the art of skateboarding, as I will refer to it from now on. But is skateboarding worthy of such a title? Is this activity we all love in so many different ways actually an art form, one like archery or swordsmanship or even painting? Are the veterans of the stunt-board thus Zen masters in their own way?
After watching the new video from Magenta, Soleil Levant, I was reminded of this book through out the film, as the film makes an effort to bridge a connection between the East, in this case Japan, and the West, in this case Europe and the United States. From the locations of the clips and the origins of the skaters, we move back and forth through out the video between the West and the East. The format of the compilation of skate tricks is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, something unorthodox for a full-length skate video. Instead of individual parts, the video features montages, mixing and mashing skate clips with b-roll shots that cover the varying cultural backgrounds of the skaters in the video. These spliced together clips include a Martin Luther King speech, great works of Impressionist art, video clips from a symphony, shots of traditional Japanese Taiko drumming, and moving images showing Japanese martial arts, sword fighting, sword making, and even archery. The title of the video, Soleil Levant, is also the title of a Monet painting; one that apparently kick started the entire Impressionist movement. Don’t worry, my art history is not that well informed, I learned this from an interview from issue 202 of Sidwalk Magazine with one of the founders of Magenta, Vivien Feil. “Soleil Levant,” as I also learned in this interview, in its French translation means “rising sun,” which coincidentally is one of the national symbols of Japan. Be it in symbolism, art appreciation, or skateboarding, this video brings together the significant cultural influences and backgrounds of the East together with the West in a way that I’ve never seen in one single skate video.
The video begins with a shared part from Zach Lyons and Jimmy Lannon, the two Americans on the team, omitting of course Ben Gore who is a newer addition. “Rising East Shining West,” as this section is titled in the Chapters menu, first introduces us to the Eastern/Western culture blend with b-roll clips showing sword making, martial arts, and archery in between the skateboarding. Zach and Jimmy kill it, skating in their simple yet clever but still powerful manner, finding ways to skate obstacles and street alleys other skaters might not even look twice at.
After “Shining West” the viewer experiences “Philharmony,” a mega montage cut with shots of musical pulsations and video footage from every rider and homie connected to the company. The aesthetic of filming in these sections is in true Magenta form, with tightly filmed lines and singles captured on the classic VX death lens in cities around the world by day and more often by night. Yoan Taillandier is a master of this style of filming and it’s refreshing to see it still so alive and well, despite its age and ultimate take over by the HD camera invasion.
There is a Zen like quality to this style of skating, something I greatly appreciate in this era of oversaturated, never ending online video content, where quantity has outshined quality tenfold. In Soleil Levant, along with other Magenta videos, the aim is not to impress you with mind-blowing tricks, geared to push the envelope of what’s possible and scare you more than inspire you. Magenta videos accentuate the beauty of just skating down the street, working with whatever happens to lie in front of you as you skate through a crowded city. Quick lines fly by, where the changes in foot placement from one trick to the next have to be so exact that only a skateboarder who grasps hold of a possible Zen could accomplish them. In Soleil Levant, Zen in the art of skateboarding is offered by the smooth conduct and fluid maneuverings of the simplest tricks by these potential masters of the board. “If one really wishes to be Master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the unconscious (Daisetz Suzuki).” I think an “artless art” is the best way to describe this style of skating in its live form. In its edited presentation, with added clips from other art forms, does the “art” of skateboarding then become the “artsy artless art?”
As Soleil Levant moves on, we are introduced to the unofficial Zen Master of the film, Takahiro Morita. Takahiro, as I’ve learned, is one of the pioneers of the Japanese skateboarding scene and can be credited as one of the most influential skateboarders and skateboard video-makers in Japan. Since 1994, Takahiro’s videos have opened the eyes of the Japanese skaters in a creative light, encouraging innovation and self-expression, independent from what might be conventional at the time. His inclusion in this video is more than just a video part. Takahiro is more of the protagonist who at first visits the West (Paris) to see what it can offer him. Later in the film he welcomes the Westerners to the East, only conditionally, requiring them (his pupils?) to wear all white as they skate through his city. Directly following Takahiro’s part, there is a section focusing on several other Japanese skaters where they take the boundaries of combining the creative with the gnarly a bit further as they skate to a Taiko drum set remix. I like to think of Takahiro, with his OG status in Japan and his innovative approach to creating skate videos, as the true master of Zen in the art of skateboarding in this feature. Takahiro keeps it simple, as the artless art suggests, cruising along with spontaneity and trained precision pleasantly intertwined.
Before Takahiro takes the Magenta team to Japan, there is a final montage that introduces the French trio behind the company, the visionaries who started the entire brand. As a segue to this three man montage, a clip plays of an older Frenchman speaking with respect to the French and their appreciation for cooking. The monologue ends appropriately with this quote; “A true chef doesn’t use a technique. He works instinctively, using his senses.” In this section, the keen senses and instinctive skating of Vivien Feil, Leo Valls and Soy Panday take us through several different cities with more quick lines and artsy cutaways. The skating is fast and free flowing, most of the spots unrecognizable from any other skate videos. Epic eclipses and more of Monet flash by in between tricks as a vibrant new age jazz song keeps the pace. I always appreciate it when the owner of a skate company like Vivien, who owns the brand with his brother Jean, includes himself in the video, shredding right there next to his riders. Even the artist behind most of the graphics, Soy Panday, has not skipped a beat with his skill and style on a skateboard. Soy rules and I don’t care how many backside 180s he whips out in a single video part. It all looks amazing. These guys hold my favorite section of the video.
I understand it comes off as rather pretentious to talk about skating in this way, as an art or a vehicle for grasping hold of Zen. I wonder if for Herrigel skateboarding would have sparked his interest the same way archery did. The only thing I couldn’t understand in reading this book, as the author grieved over his failures in finding Zen, is why he was so rushed? Could you imagine if someone came up to a skater like Takahiro and asked him, “Will you teach me how to master the skateboard?” It would be absurd! I don’t know Takahiro, so I can’t speak for him, but if I were presented with this question I would say, “Start skating, watch some videos, and come back to me in five years and we’ll see how you’re doing.” Zen should just come with doing something long enough, for a lifetime. But in addition to practice and patience, Zen in the Art of Archery is a reminder for what is truly important in activities like archery or skateboarding; along with freeing oneself from the mind, one must also free oneself from ego, despite the self-gratification the success of mastery may reward. “Once you have grown truly egoless can you break off at any time. Keep on practicing that” (51).
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