Physical Training Sept 2010
Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

Down to the Count

copyright 2010 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

The draw in the first ZNKR iaido kata (Mae) is often broken down into several steps to allow students to examine their technique.

In my own classes I have usually broken the draw into three parts, 1: the draw, 2: the close of the fingers and 3: the opening of the chest / closing of the shoulderblades. This allows students to understand the shape of the opening cut, which is to draw toward the opponent, then cut at the maximum distance away with power and accuracy. The details are given below in the photographs if you are unfamiliar with iaido.

There is a potential problem with teaching this way, especially if a student is introduced to the concept without subsequent observation by the instructor. He may assume that this is "the way" to cut, and misunderstand that it is a break-down of the mechanics to allow them to be examined separately. In other words, his cut becomes a mechanical 1-2-3 movement where the hand is stretched to its maximum before the arm is moved across the body. The result is a weak cut which is "digital", it has discrete movements, rather than "analogue". The maximum power is traded off to a certain extent with the maximum distance from the body. The hand must be closing through its maximum power range while the sword tip is cutting across the target, and since the maximum power of any muscle is somewhere around 2/3 of its contraction range, that means the hand is not completely finished moving before the shoulders are moved during the cut.

Part of the problem is in what I have called the "fallacy of expanding time in kata". This is the idea that more and more steps can be introduced into a combative movement without it breaking down. I first noticed this in aikido practice where my partner would say "I can do this here" and I would say "well then I would do this" and he would counter with "well then I would do this". The fallacy of course is that if someone is punching you in the head you usually don't have all day to go through a range of movements and counter-movements, he punches, you counter, he falls down is the most favourable outcome... or perhaps he punches, you miss the counter, you go put some ice on your nose. The fallacy of expanding time usually doesn't occur when one is in a competitive art, there is not a lot of time for extended counters and counter-counters when being thrown in judo or being hit in kendo, one movement is often all there is time for. But in arts where the practice is slowed down, in iaido or aikido for instance, one needs to be careful.

Because ZNKR seitei iaido can be done slowly, with more emphasis on correct form and posture than on speed, the student may get the idea that one can spend the time to draw forward, close the hand and then cut across with the back muscles when the reality is that the last two movements actually occur in an overlap. Yes the hand is closed first but the shoulder starts moving before the hand finishes its movement.

Recently, I attended a seminar with a hanshi hachidan instructor. This, for those who don't know, is the top rank that exists in the kendo federation right now. These few people define what the art is, how it is practiced and taught, so they are worth listening to. In this seminar I picked up three more counts for my examination of the initial draw and cut in iaido, otherwise known as nuki tsuke, and I will outline them below as counts 2, 3 and 4.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 1a Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 1b
Fig 1

Here we begin the movement by sitting in seiza with the hands on the thighs. I will take this opportunity to do some self correction and say that the hands should be at the same position, having my right hand ahead of the left is a bit aggressive. The back could be a bit more straight as well, unless the top is not tucked in well enough. In either case it should be fixed. Perhaps I should cut myself some slack, I was posing for photographs and not performing the kata.

At this time the opponent (kasso teki) in front begins to make attacking movements or similar threats.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 2a
Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 2b
Fig 2

Count 1. The draw toward the opponent starts, the right hand comes on in this relaxed position and the left thumb releases the blade from the scabbard. As the blade is pushed out of the saya the hips drive forward (which of course means that they will rise, but it is the forward movement that is important). The blade remains edge up.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 3a
Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 3b
Fig 3

Count 2. Once the blade is half way drawn toward the opponent the toes flip under and the left hand turns the saya so that the blade moves into the correct position in the right hand for the cut.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 4a
Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 4b
Fig 4

Count 3. This is called "saya banari" the position at which the blade is turned to the horizontal position, the toes are flipped down and the blade tip is just at the opening of the saya (the koiguchi). This is the final position at which the opponent can say "gomen", sorry, and the kata will finish without bloodshed. Of course this does not happen with our invisible enemy and the cut is made directly from the scabbard. This instant in time, saya banari or "breaking the scabbard" can be taken as the specific definition of iaido.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 5a
Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 5b
Fig 5

Count 4. I am an idiot, in this sequence we missed a step, where the little finger of the right hand pushes the tip of the blade up to shoulder height just as it is released from the koiguchi. I have inserted other images here to show what I mean, you can see the tip moving upward to horizontal.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 6a
Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 6b
Fig 6

Count 5.  The hand is closed so that the tip moves to the target. Note that in the photograph the hand is extended to its finishing position as the target is reached. This will make the next cutting movement weak as there is no way for the wrist to move except back from the cut. If the next movement is made just before this wrist position is reached, the maximum distance forward will be slightly less, but the power in the cut will be greatly increased.

Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 7a
Kim Taylor : nuki tsuke 7b
Fig 7

Count 6. Finally, the chest is opened and the lower part of the scapula is closed as a strong movement of the scabbard (saya biki) is made so that the tip cuts across the target. Note that the hips should be square to the opponent and the chest at about 45 degrees to the left front. The tip of the blade stops just outside of the target (the forehead or eyes) and so just in front of your right shoulder.

Breaking the nuki tsuke down to these six counts can be very useful to a beginner, as each body motion can be studied separately, but I hope that students of iaido will see the problem immediately. I stated above that cutting directly from the koiguchi to the target is the definition of iaido, The tip is released at saya banari, as the scabbard is broken (hopefully not actually broken since that would mean we just sliced our left palm), and the target cut immediately. This obviously can't happen if we release the tip at figure 4 and move it upward to figure 5 before cutting forward in figure 6. What we really need to do here is combine these two movements, the tip going forward and upward so that the tip moves on a diagonal angle directly from the scabbard to the target. If you examine figure 4 you will see that the line of the blade is more or less at this this angle.

So here we have several photographs which correspond with six counts of the draw and cut. Since this is a continuous movement (whether done slow or fast) these images and my counts are a lie. The breakdown can be of tremendous value to a student, but like most instructions, that breakdown must be understood for what it is. The function of the movement must never be far from the mind, and the function of nuki tsuke is to cut the target strongly, efficiently and at a distance from the body.

Kim Taylor is a nanadan (7dan) in the Canadian Kendo Federation iaido section. He is available for seminars in iaido, jodo and niten ichiryu.

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies
Physical Training