This is the account of Robert Twigger, an expatriate English teacher living in Tokyo who, with two friends, decided to enrol on a martial arts course run by one of the foremost Aikido Dojos (academies) in the world. Challenging as that might seem in itself, Twigger quickly goes one better when he learns of, and enrols on, the full-time, year-long specialist course run for officers of the city's elite Riot Police. A complete novice, if he passes the course he will graduate as a black belt, and a qualified martial arts instructor in the space of a year - which gives some measure of the intensity of the course. This seems analogous to sending the school rock climbing club up the north face of the Eiger, with the promise of life-long membership of the Alpine Club and an instructor's certificate for the survivors. But this is compelling stuff, and like those ghastly nature programmes in which a field mouse blunders around blindly over the loops and coils of a watchful Fer de Lance, you just can't look away even though you know it's going to be very grisly.
Twigger writes evocatively about the external, everyday aspects of life in Tokyo and in the Dojo, and he can describe abject pain with a facility that will have you grinding your teeth. But all this serves as only a backdrop to the real story of the book, which is his inner, emotional journey. He offers fascinating insights into the complex and sometimes very unsettling psychology of the relationship between the Senshusei (the name given to pupils on this fearsome course) and their instructors. Senshusei train unremittingly, day in - day out, and must obey the instructors immediately and unquestioningly. The instructors use alarming physical force in their demonstration of techniques, and serious injury is a dark and ever-present threat in the Dojo. Infractions of the rules are punished swiftly with excruciating exercises and remorseless stints of kneeling for the lucky ones. The less lucky are more likely to be injured deliberately in the next demonstration.
Twigger's relationships with the various instructors therefore become of central importance to his quality of life, and he becomes finely attuned to every nuance of their behaviour, comments and demeanour. Inevitably, he finds himself flung around as much emotionally as physically by these titans of his new world. You must understand - this isn't running ten more laps with the medicine ball for talking back to the football coach, this is more like a broken arm and smashed nose for being late for practice.
What I found so baffling is that a man as manifestly intelligent as Twigger (a poetry prize-winning graduate of Oxford University) could so completely place himself and his safety in the hands of these instructors and some of the Walter Mitty types with whom he was forced to spar. The instructors are not the zen-like, almost saintly ascetics of martial arts lore and Hollywood legend. There are no harsh-but-fair wizened old men here. They are instead on the whole an unpleasant bunch with some rather serious character flaws here and there. Some are brutal, arrogant nihilists, autocratic even when the situation does not require it. Some have filthy tempers. Some of the Japanese ones are overtly racist and contemptuous of westerners (which isn't a good start, as you might appreciate). These guys smoke and get drunk (not while training - but still, shouldn't they be home, balanced between two chairs, meditating?). They are also surprisingly emotionally immature in some places. In short, these are not men one would be inclined to trust with one's long-term health. Reading as Twigger and the other Senshusei are rounded on by these incomplete but lethal individuals is like watching a small infant playing with a loaded pistol: you have the same sensation of tragedy rushing to embrace the participants. You just know something awful is going to happen to someone. And then it does. But I won't ruin the book.
As a lighter, but no less compelling sub-text, Twigger writes very amusingly about his two flatmates and his various romantic dalliances and peculiar work-mates (he works one day a week teaching English to pay the rent and the course fees). His two flat-mates are Fat Frank and Chris. Fat Frank, a one hundred kilo Iranian on the lam from the immigration authorities, keeps his Whiskey bottle in the fish tank for want of storage space, and restlessly paces the streets rescuing consumer electronics from peoples' rubbish. Chris is intellectually brilliant and a mentor to the other two, dispensing wisdom and caution, arbitrating in all matters relating to the maintenance of good order in their tiny flat and putting food on the table. He also does modelling work through an agency that specialises in finding odd looking people. Twigger has two splendid friends and if I have any criticism of this book (though it's not a criticism as such, more a regret) it is that Fat Frank and Chris are not featured more. You will ROAR with laughter when Fat Frank unveils his Iranian mountain climbing technique and you will shudder with delicious dread at the mental game he and Twigger play to amuse themselves. It's absolutely toe-curlingly exquisite - I'm smiling now as I type this.
The Senshusei course is extremely arduous both physically and mentally, and the pressure on Twigger's body and mind mounts inexorably. You will find yourself wondering when the inevitable collapse in one or the other will come. Throughout, you suspect it may all end with a carefully crafted cop-out, the small-but-significant injury that forced the brave author to withdraw much to his chagrin and only weeks before the end. But it never comes. I won't ruin the end for you, but pass or fail, Twigger is still standing at the final bell. Put this one in your shopping basket and proceed to the checkout immediately.