Review copyright©2003 Charles Ham
The video Hidden Secrets of Japanese Swordsmanship: Muso Shinden Ryu/Omori Ryu teaches the Omori Ryu kata, the first kata of the Muso Shinden Ryu curriculum. This is the only English language instructional video I have seen on Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido, which alone makes this video worth serious consideration for adding to ones collection. Furthermore its production values were high and the proficiency of the demonstrators was good. However, the video is clearly aimed at the beginning iaido practitioner, so students of that level are really the ones to whom I would most recommend it.
With most iaido groups meeting once a week, beginners learning a new kata are at a disadvantage since much can be forgotten between practices. I can easily envision beginners using this video to help fill the gap until the kata is internalized. Each kata of Omori Ryu is first demonstrated from two different angles. Following this, assistants with bokken help Mr. Wehrhahn demonstrate how the movements of the kata would have been actually used in combat. The quality of the techniques used by both Mr. Wehrhahn and his assistants in these demonstrations is consistently good.
Mr. Wehrhahn also demonstrates the basic techniques (kihon waza) in isolation. Explanations of these movements and their application are explained in some detail. Common iaido terms are also defined and demonstrated. By first defining and then demonstrating them Mr. Wehrhahn makes the concepts easy to understand. One example of this was the terms kami no ashi and shimo no ashi; two confusing terms used in the bowing in ceremonies. By demonstrating the concepts and explaining them in terms of near the kamiza or distant from it he made it easy to understand.
While it was overall a well done educational video, it was far from perfect. Oddly, the most discouraging part of the video was the box cover in which it comes. The hype in the text left me wondering if the author was truly knowledgeable about iaido. The title alone made me snicker since I thought secrets were generally hidden. Furthermore, phrases from the back cover like "ancient Japanese Samurai secrets" and "a master's manual to the Samurai Sword" describing a video teaching the beginner's first kata were clear exaggerations which harmed the author's credibility in my eyes. Mr. Wehrhahn is also referred to as "shihan;" a title frequently used in karatedo, but rarely used in iaido circles. The combination of the above-mentioned facts made me brace myself for the worst. However, once I had put in the tape and started viewing Mr. Wehrhahn's work I was pleasantly surprised.
In the video itself, there are also several disappointing moments. The most striking were some of the explanations of the kata. The kata Koranto for example was explained as chasing down and killing an enemy who has turned around and is running for his life (for those unfamiliar with Muso Shinden Ryu "Koranto" is nearly identical to kata "Oikaze" in the Muso Jikiden Eishin school of iaido. The movements can be summed up as step forward, step and draw into a cut, step forward, step and cut straight down.). I have heard a few variations on explanations for "Koranto", but generally the step in between the cuts is commonly explained as maintaining pressure on an opponent who has stepped back and is readying a counter attack.
There were also a number of smaller problems scattered throughout the video. For example the author translated the name of the kata Seichuto (which is written with the characters for momentum, central, and sword so maybe "the sword of inertia?") as "Moon Shadow." In addition some minor techniques were oddly done. Whenever Mr. Wehrhahn did not have his right hand on the sword, he kept it up at his waist instead of letting it hang naturally at his side was one technique that would have stood out like a sore thumb in most dojos.
Adding a clear statement of his teaching lineage would have also improved the video. In the beginning he acknowledges and thanks his instructor, which is a good sign in martial arts video that the person has the credentials that he claims. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with his instructor's name so I could not place his techniques easily into which branch of the Muso Shinden family he belonged. From many of the techniques I would guess that his instructor studied under Danzaki Sensei (the kata "Gyakuto" for example has a throat slash common to the Kanto region of Japan instead of a throat stab more common to Western Japan). However, I have never seen anyone from the Danzaki branch of Muso Shinden Ryu place the right hand on the waist like that.
In conclusion, it is a very good video on the subject even if it is imperfect. In spite of what the box cover says, this is not a "master's manual of the Samurai Sword", nor would I throw away my copies of Kamimoto Sensei and Tomigahara Sensei's videos to make room for "Hidden Secrets" in my library. On the other hand Hidden Secrets of Japanese Swordsmanship: Muso Shinden Ryu/Omori Ryu does have its own virtues. This video has clear, easy to understand instructions followed by good demonstrations of techniques and kata from multiple angles. For those still working on mastering the Omori Ryu kata, or even for those of us who could use a refresher, this is a very good video to add to ones collection. While flawed, this is a very good beginner's instructional tape, and Mr. Wehrhahn should be congratulated for his efforts. I would recommend that those interested in the subject add this video to their collection.