Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe may be raking in big box-office bucks as The Last Samurai, but a rival claimant to the title has emerged in the unlikely form of a sword-wielding British TV producer.
Karl Beattie, 36, from Stockport in England, has sensationally laid claim to being the only living samurai outside of Japan, and says that he is one of only eight foreigners to have ever been awarded the title.
Beattie’s story has provoked a flurry of coverage in the British media, but anger among martial arts enthusiasts, who are furious at what they say is a con trick that may undermine the credibility of their pursuit.
Beattie, who has studied martial arts since age seven, says he was awarded the honorary title after becoming the first non-Japanese to become World Traditional Full Contact Martial Arts Champion. And in order to become a samurai, he says he was adopted into the family of his martial arts teacher.
He also claims to hold a 4th Dan in Ryukyu Kempo and Wado Ryu Karate, be a master swordsman and have trained extensively in Goju Ryu, Iaido, Aikido, Jujitsu, Wing Chun and Silum Kung Fu.
Beattie appeared on British daytime TV last week, where he claimed to have been made a samurai and presented with a set of armor by the emperor himself.
“Being a samurai is the ultimate honor,” he said.
“It’s a code, a way of living your life.”
In “The Last Samurai,” Cruise plays an alcoholic Civil War hero who joins forces with the samurai class to protect the emperor.
And Beattie imagines a similar role for himself.
“The samurai is there to protect the emperor from attacking forces. If anything were to happen in Japan, aside from being at war with Britain I’d have to drop everything and go and protect the emperor.”
However, the Office of the Imperial Household has told The Japan Times that it has no practice or system of granting such titles.
The samurai class ceased to exist 130 years ago, with the abolition of Japan’s feudal system at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868.
But some believe this shouldn’t deter Beattie from pursuing his claim.
“Samurai do exist,” says Vincent Perry from Gallery Samurai in Minami Aoyama.
“Some people are really serious about it and respect the samurai spirit. One of the reasons they buy (armor) is that they have respect for that way of life and want to become a samurai,” he says.
Others are not so sure.
Martial arts fans have been flooding Internet discussion boards to criticize Beattie, with many questioning the existence of his world fighting title and Japanese credentials.
“This man is an obvious fraud,” believes American Ray Correa, a student of Japanese swordsmanship.
“He is wearing two swords. That’s not unusual but they are the same size,” he says.
“Even an inexperienced martial arts beginner knows that the ‘daisho’ (set of swords) usually consists of a ‘Katana’ (long sword) and a ‘Wakizashi’ (short sword),” he explains.
“This man can do a lot of damage. We’re talking about losing a finger,” he argues.
However, Karl takes his responsibilities seriously and says he he would never abuse his fighting skills.
“I once had a rather fat policeman want to fight me,” he recalls.
“That was quite comical, as he was clearly in no shape to fight a cold, let alone a world fighting champion.
“When these things happen, you think to yourself, I could tweak a nerve and render you unconscious within a tenth of a second, but they don’t know that.
“So you just have to put up with these sad individuals every now and then.”
But it’s not just the way of the samurai that keeps Beattie busy.
He has worked on music videos for Madonna, Michael Jackson, Oasis, Paul McCartney and Elton John, among others.
And he runs a successful production company in the U.K. with wife, Yvette. The company currently makes popular cable TV show “Most Haunted,” in which Yvette travels around Britain attempting to prove the existence of ghosts.
Beattie says he was in discussions with Cruise’s production company at one point over a possible role in “The Last Samurai,” but had to pull out as he was already committed to a new series of “Most Haunted.”
Beattie began martial arts training aged seven, when he stumbled a cross a local dojo on his way to cub scouts.
“I saw a small man moving from side to side with so much power yet so much grace. I knew that no matter what else I did in my life, I had to do that.”
The man was Otsu Maeda, Beattie’s teacher and mentor for close to 20 years before his death in 1997.
The flurry of interest sparked by Beattie’s claim reflects a growing interest in the West for all things Japanese, and for martial arts in particular.
Sword collectors and sellers have been doing brisk business in the wake of the success of “The Last Samurai” and Quentin Tarantino’s recent Tokyo-based ‘Kill Bill — Volume I.”
And “chanbara,” a form of samurai combat involving foam swords that was invented in Japan 30 years ago, has become the latest fitness fad among the health conscious in Britain and the U.S.