The Iaido Journal  Apr 2006
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Review: Iaido: Muso Shinden ryu

Iaido: Muso Shinden ryu
by Kyou Ichisuke
2004 paperback.  158 pages (illus.).  (Japanese language)
Airyudo, Chiyoda ku, Tokyo  03-3233-2525  Fax 03-3233-2526  ISBN4-7502-0252-5

review copyright © 2006
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Kyou Ichisuke's Iaido: Muso Shinden Ryu is an outline of all three levels of Muso Shinden Ryu practice, from the shoden Omori Ryu, through the chuden Hasegawa Eishin Ryu, to the okuden Okuiai.  It is one of several MSR books recently brought out by Tokyo publisher Airyudo. 

Several things struck me about the book from the beginning.  First, Kyou is very young.  I have done Muso Shinden Ryu iaido for 20 years, and while I think he has some talent, I had some reservations that someone so young could successfully put out such a comprehensive work.

Secondly, Kyou does not mention his teacher.  Though I cannot be sure, the omission suggests he did not have his instructor's permission to write the book.  That may not affect the quality of the techniques he presents (at least, not any more than youth or inexperience), but in a tradition-bound art form like iaido, one expects the tradition to be observed.  That Kyou saw fit to disregard his teacher indicates a certain lack of respect.

Further, there is no example of opening or closing reishiki.  To non-iai practitioners, this may not seem important; however, each style of iai has its own particular manner of bowing and handling the sword.  Leaving out reishiki suggests to the uninitiated that there must be some ordinary bow involved that is not worth concern; to real practitioners, who know one can fail a ranking test with poor reishiki, it seems a crucial omission.

That said, the text and layout are clear and well-organized, beginning with some basic techniques, such as noto, kirioroshi and furikaburi.  A brief, preliminary essay notes the common characteristics of each level of kata.  Each kata in each set is described in a brief text description and photos.  A text box comments in more depth on each one.  Though his descriptions are very straightforward, Kyou habitually compares aspects of MSR to other styles he has studied in the intro essays and commentaries.  Outside of being a poor writing technique (readers can't comprehend what he is saying if they don't know the styles he is referring to) the name-dropping of other styles throughout an MSR text seems, especially in the absence of any reference to any teachers, hubristic and annoying.

While the descriptions of various kata are clear, they are limited.  There are no photos of bunkai (application of technique) to give us additional context for the actions in each kata.  For someone who is already familiar with MSR and the specific kata, this is not much of a problem, but the book serves as a poor introduction to anyone not already familiar with the forms and techniques.

As is the case with many recent works on MSR, the clearest set of forms is the shoden set, the Omori Ryu.  There are fewer photos as the book advances through the chuden and okuden sets.  For example, the okuden kata Kabezoi has an unusual noto.  Though Kyou describes the noto in his commentary, he does not show it.  Since the Kabezoi noto really is quite different from others in the set, and there was no effort to save space earlier in the book by having fewer photos, I wonder why such an important point was not illustrated.

Muso Shinden Ryu has had no soke (headmaster) since Nakayama Hakudo, who died in the 1950's having (perhaps deliberately) not named an heir.  There are therefore some technical differences in MSR ha (branches) according to how different senior teachers interpreted or altered the forms.  These differences are generally small, and never so much as to prevent two MSR practitioners from reaching some sort of gentlemen's agreement in order to practice together if they wished.  So it is with Kyou, and if I was more acquainted with the different MSR ha I might be able to figure out exactly where he is from.  Kyou's MSR features no overhand draws, which figure in one kata in each level where I come from.  Kyou illustrates an extra form in the okuden suwari waza, Misumi, that is sort of between Towaki and Shihogiri, that I have not seen in other sources.  As also often happens, the arrangement of forms here is slightly different, and some of the nomenclature varies.  However, these variations really do not change the character of the forms overall.

On the other hand, though talented for a young practitioner, Kyou shows some technical errors that any teacher would correct.  He has the common habit of raising his left hand at the end of a cut in order to lower the kissaki of the sword, rather than evenly finishing a cut with both hands.  Raising the left hand takes some of the power out of the cut, since the shibori (literally "wringing out") of the cut is weakened.  In the photos of the chuden section, it looks as though Kyou is not altogether sure where his target is in the three central kata: Ukigumo, Yamaoroshi and Iwanami.  This is a common error in practicing Hasegawa that utilizing bunkai could correct.  The multitude of photos shows the difficulty in photographing or explaining the Hasegawa forms in two dimensions; however illustrating the bunkai would have made this section much clearer.

I feel Kyou's stances are too high in the okuden tachiwaza, though nowadays it is not unusual to see someone standing up straight when performing these forms.  Kyou's interpretation of the okuden tachiwaza kata Sodesurigaeshi is definitely suspect, however.  In this kata, the swordsman is clearing the way through a crowd of people in order to dispatch an enemy with a single cut.  In order to do this, he draws his sword and extends his arms wide, holding the blade flat to avoid injuring bystanders before making the large, overhead cut.  In Kyou's version, the blade tip is extended straight back behind the swordsman (I guess any stragglers would have to duck or be skewered). 

As always, I tend to ask myself two questions when looking at books of this type: why write this book, and who is it for? 

If the reader does not understand Japanese, the book's usefulness as a reference is limited to the technique and Omori sections, which are the most clearly laid out and photographed (though a couple of times the photos are out of sequence).  There is one section where Kyou illustrates proper furikaburi for MSR and how it might be different for another style, which may create confusion for the non-reader of Japanese who has no other indication of which is correct.  Like lots of different ha, most of the differences are in chuden and okuden sections.  Unless one comes from the same MSR lineage, some of the variations in technique will be hard to explain to anyone who thinks there is only "one" MSR, so the book may therefore be less useful for a teacher. 

For readers who already know Muso Shinden Ryu, there is not much new here, but for those who are intellectually curious about what others do in their MSR practice, the variations in details of kata, and especially for readers who can read some Japanese, the book can be worthwhile. 

As to why write it, that's a good question.  Though he is talented, the author is too young for a senior practitioner to take seriously.  The disregard for traditional aspects of practice, such as reishiki and honoring his teacher, are disturbing.  On the other hand, Kyou's youth and good looks might attract younger people to an art form that has an increasingly small number of practitioners, and that's not bad.  Perhaps, with ten years more experience, Kyou will be a positive presence in the iai world.  At the moment, he is more of a novelty, and perhaps, weirdly, a rebel. 

However, for those searching for references, there are better books out there.  One of the best for Muso Shinden Ryu is Yamatsuta Shigeyoshi's Iaido Hongi: Muso Shinden Ryu, both the original and the bilingual English version (translated  by Sheryl Hogg, also from Airyudo, 2004).  Though there are fewer photographs overall, the book is more useful (especially the bilingual version for English speakers).  Yamatsuta shows proper MSR reishiki and the bunkai for many forms.  Also, as a long-time iai practitioner, Yamatsuta's technique is very very good (I particularly like the photos that show his powerful hands).  Putting the two books side-by-side emphasizes a real contrast.  Kyou's book is nicely produced, but Iaido Hongi shows what age and experience can accomplish.

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TIN Apr 2006