“So far in my film career, I’ve been an SS trooper, a submarine commander, and the fastest gun in the East,” said Doug Rogers of his part-time work in Japan in the early 1960s. “But I’m getting tired of being the villain. I want to be a hero for a while.”
And so, he became the hero. Doug Rogers not only won a silver medal in the first Olympic Judo championship ever at the Tokyo Summer Games in 1964, he starred in a short black and white documentary by director Josef Reeve – “Judoka“. (This link takes you to the full-length high def version.)
Rogers moved to Tokyo at the age of 19 in 1960 after learning all he could about judo in Montreal, Canada. The birthplace of Judo, Japan, was where judoka from all over the world aspired to train. Rogers was part of a small but growing number of foreign judoka desiring to train in the Kodokan, and grapple with the university students and policemen who made up the most competitive pool of judo talent in the world.
The documentary is a wonderful look inside the mind of Rogers as he reflects on his five years in Japan, on the judo training regimen, and more broadly, on life in Tokyo in the mid-1960s. The scenes of Rogers resting in his small apartment, walking his neighborhood streets and attempting to get in a crowded train are impactful, cleanly framed on black and white film.
It’s the training scenes, up close with occasional slow motion takes, that demonstrate the intensity of the judoka’s training – the opening scene when they are running barefoot shouting “ichi…ni”, when they are doing push-ups, or when they are sending each other tumbling to the mat. Rogers talks about how fortunate he was to be able to train under legendary judoka sensei, Masahiko Kimura. Kimura’s training regimen was brutal, but effective. Rogers explained that they would do 600 push ups a day, sometimes a thousand, explaining that they all knew it was unreasonable to push their bodies that far, except that, they did indeed get stronger.
As Rogers said in the film, “No one before Kimura, no one after. I’m the only Westerner he ever taught. He said I could be champion. In fact he says I must be champion. I don’t think Kimura recognizes physical limitations. He just trains beyond whatever happens to come up. For me, he says he stays up nights thinking of ways to make me stronger, better. With him I can win now.”
The humbleness of the documentary’s production is echoed by the humility of Rogers’ words, when he ruminates on life in Japan. The film is only 18 minutes long, and yet you get a quick sense from the narrative that Rogers grew from a boy to a man in Japan. In a wonderful passage where he and another judoka named Morita are filmed at an empty Budokan (the stadium built for the Olympic Judo championships in 1964), Rogers reflects on how his thinking matured.
“I went into judo trying to be tough and be strong. But I found as you get more and more skillful, the desire to act big and tough, sort of works the other way. I know I have the skill now. I don’t have to talk about it.”
Rogers would go on to become a judo champion as a member of the Takushoku University team in the All-Japan University Championships, as well as at the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro in 1965. He returned to Canada that year, refined his capability as a licensed pilot, and started a long career as an airline pilot in Canada, where he is now retired. While most of his life has been in Canada, Rogers no doubt would be a different person if he had not moved to Tokyo in 1960.
“I often wonder if I made a mistake coming to Japan,” Rogers said at the end of the documentary. “I wonder what I gave up? Security? A car, a BA that ten million other guys got? But I would have missed good things as well. Maybe I was wrong. I don’t know. I’ve got a good girl. I live in a country I like. I live in two countries I like. Sometimes I don’t eat too well. And sometimes I live pretty high. My friends are good people. My teacher is the best that ever was. I guess a man anywhere can’t ask for any more than that.”