Physical Training Dec 2011
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From the Teacher's Corner 18:
Lost in Motion

copyright © 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

Katori Shinto Ryu is famous for having kata that are long and complex. On average, each one of the basic sword kata (the omote-tachi) consists of around 25 movements more or less.

Here’s an example from kata 1 of the omote-tachi. This synopsis comes from Yoshio Sugino’s seminal book on Katori Shinto Ryu and the following excerpt is the one paragraph summary of the movements in kata 1:

Take SEIGAN, 2 steps back, MAKI-UCHI twice, 2 steps forward, make TSUKI, strike MENUCHI, go back to GEDAN, block MEN with KOGASUMI, strike down sword coming to cut DO, cut up with GYAKU KESA, make OGASUMI. The sword is hit down so make HIDARI GEDAN, escape from MEN NOZOKI, strike MEN UCHI, sit down SUWARI GEDAN, block MEN with TORII, stand up to left cut DO, come to cut neck to the right KUBI, move back into IN NO KAMAE, when he comes to cut the neck, cut up the wrist, then cut KESA to finish.”

Extract from:
Sugino Yoshio & Ito Kikue (1941). Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu Budo Kyohan.

So, we see that the Katori Shinto Ryu kata consists of a series of exchanges between attacker and defender. In this particular kata, about 10 exchanges or so, depending on how you interpret an exchange.

Compare that with this excerpt from one of the basic sword kata of Ono-ha Itto Ryu. This excerpt comes from my own notes from my training days in Japan so please do not take it as gospel. I am no master, nor pretend to be, so these notes represent only the trivial thoughts of a student’s mind.

Kata #3
Tsuba Wari (Break the Swordguard)

Overview: In this kata, both swordsmen approach each other in seigan (chudan). As the defender comes into range, the attacker attempts to knock down his sword with a strike from hasso (uchi-otoshi). The defender evades this attempt by retreating momentarily (still in seigan), then drives forward to finish the attacker.

In the case of Ono-ha Itto Ryu, we see that this one kata consists solely of one exchange. Now, granted, there are roughly 50 katas in the basic sword section of the curriculum (the O-Tachi section) but most of the katas consist of anything from a minimum of one exchange to a maximum of three exchanges, on average.

Now, compare those two katas with this one from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu:

Choutan Ichimi

When your opponent is a little too far from you and continues to assess your moves but does not strike, seize an appropriate opportunity to lower your sword, hold it below your belly, and put your left shoulder forward. The moment your opponent strikes at the shoulder, thrust your sword forward with full force and defeat him.

Extract from:
Sato, H. (trans.)(1986). The Sword and the Mind, (p. 30). New York: Overlook Press.

Again, one exchange. We could examine other kata from other styles but I have the feeling that we would probably find the same thing, more or less.

Now, many students of Katori Shinto Ryu love the style precisely because the kata are so long. Some say, “Wow. It feels like a real swordfight.” I think that maybe they feel this way because that is what they envision a swordfight to be, a furious exchange of swordplay, of swords clashing and banging, bodies moving to and fro, sword tips describing beautiful arcs in the air. That’s what they see in the movies, so that’s what they come to expect as a swordfight.

I see them all the time. Students practicing the kata like a choreographed dance, twenty, thirty moves. Looks great. Bodies moving to and fro. Swords banging and sword tips coursing through the air in lovely arcs. They’re sweating and feeling good about themselves.

I step in and interrupt. OK, let’s do the kata, I say to one student. We start the dance. He’s going through his movements, I’m going through mine. We are dancing nicely and in synchronicity. We soon arrive at this point in the kata:

“… The sword is hit down, so make HIDARI GEDAN, escape (from the men cut by doing) MEN NOZOKI, ...”

He hits my sword down so I make HIDARI GEDAN. He comes to cut my head.

He raises his sword to cut and comes in. I should do MEN NOZOKI (escape the men cut), according to the kata. Forget it. I stab him in the belly as he comes into range. That stops him cold. A thousand emotions race across his face in that fleeting moment: puzzlement, outrage, shock, utter surprise, confusion, and finally, a realization.

He knows he is dead. He has made a fatal mistake in his approach and he now realizes it. The expression on his face mirrors the question running through his mind: “What happened?”

I take the question out of his mind and ask him, “So… what happened?”

Yes, what did happen? Well, he got so caught up in the dance, he forgot why he was at the dance in the first place. I, however, have not.

It reminded me of a scene from Bruce Lee’s famous movie Enter the Dragon, when he remarks to the student:

It is like a finger pointing to the moon…”
(the student focuses on the finger so Bruce Lee slaps him on the head)

Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

That’s the danger of long kata. Caught up in the dancing, we forget why we are dancing.
I have to keep reminding my students that Katori Shinto Ryu kata are really an amalgamation of discrete, singular exchanges between attacker and defender. That’s essentially what it is; a bunch of single exchanges strung together. Attacker comes to cut, what do you do? Basically, that’s what it is.

But of course, it’s not as much fun to think of it this way. There’s no magic or mystery in thinking of it that way! It’s too simple. The long, beautiful dance is gone and so is the pleasure of experiencing that form of dancing, so complex and intricate and aesthetically pleasing.

I know that beginner students don’t want that black and white, cut and dried type of thinking. They are attracted by the spectacular nature of a long, intricate dance of death with blades flying through the air.

But I write this article for the teachers in training. Long kata (like in Katori Shinto Ryu or in karate, since I have some friends doing karate who tell me the same thing) are basically a collection of techniques, a collection of exchanges. There is nothing extraordinarily mysterious about it. A + B + C + D = long kata. In other words, a long kata is basically made up of technique A + technique B + technique C + technique D. Or in terms of sword kata, a long sword kata is basically made up of exchange A + exchange B + exchange C + exchange D.

At its most rudimentary level, an exchange is basically the following scenario. Attacker attacks, what do you do? Block, evade, or counter. Or a combination of these: block and counter, evade and counter, etc…

In a similar vein, string together 15 kata from Ono-ha Itto Ryu, add some transitions between the katas to link them together coherently, and presto, you have a long swordfight kata.

If you look carefully at the Katori Shinto Ryu kata above, it is composed of 10 or so simple exchanges. There is nothing mysterious about it. Master the exchanges, you master the kata. A lot of novice students get so swept away by the superfluous movements that they forget about the core issues. Artistic merit has superseded technical merit.

Why is this important? Because once they are outside the kata, free-form, they don’t know what to do. I have seen it happen many times. They get lost. They stop and can’t figure out what to do. They can’t figure out what to do because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do because they have never had to think about it before; to think about the simple exchanges, to think about what each point of exchange in the kata represents. They have been so comfortable in the dance, they know nothing else. But the dance is not there to guide them anymore. They have become so ingrained in the kata, they cannot exist without the kata. That is when kata becomes a debilitating factor.

Kata is a tool. A tool for learning. A tool for learning what? A tool for learning techniques and tactics. In terms of technical skills, it is a tool for learning how to block, how to cut, how to move. Tactically, it is a tool for learning how, when, and why to attack a certain way, and how, when, and why to defend a certain way.

It is a starting point and a guide. But it is not the final destination. Kata is a nice way to frame the practice of techniques and tactics but that’s all it is, a framework. So, for our beginning teachers, we have to be careful not to get lost in the motions. Or worse, just end up “going through the motions…”

It is like a finger pointing to the moon… Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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