I thought I’d think a bit on what the other “good iaido” stuff is, but to do it I think I have to open it up a bit to include partner practice so that we can look more simply at what good iaido looks like. Partner practice is of course, kendo or what folks call kenjutsu nowadays, a person to person practice using kata.
A list of some things that might define good iaido:
Accurate cuts that hit the target. Right away you see how much easier this is to discuss with partner practice rather than with solo iaido forms, but iaido “has a partner” so we have to look at the invisible opponent in order to work out the correct shape and distance on the cuts. This is very difficult for beginners, who stretch their arms, lean their bodies or shorten their swings because they don’t know what the kata means and they don’t know where their opponent is. In fact one of the more interesting effects of iaido seems to be that the opponent gets closer when the student swings faster, and further away when the student slows down.
Hips are also something that beginners don’t understand, the use of them in developing power in a cut, and the aiming of them at the opponent. Good iaido means good use of the hips. Of course, “hips” is a shortcut for a whole way of interacting with the weapon and the earth and gravity and…
Good timing. Seems a bit silly to worry about timing in a solo kata, don’t we get to decide how fast or slow our invisible opponent is? Well yes, to an extent, but only in a general way. If we have stepped back to avoid being cut and are relying on the opponent’s sword being down so that we can step back in to cut him, we don’t have all day. The kata can be slow or fast but the rhythms inside that kata must make combative sense. Good iaido shows a rhythm that works. A bit of partner practice with a senior who can gently suggest weak timing will demonstrate this point.
Good distance. In a simple way, this is the same as hitting the target, but in a more sophisticated way it means covering the proper distance in the correct timing. If you cut while stepping in you will miss the opponent. If you step in and then cut with too much time between those actions you will be cut. The correct distance must be taken at the correct time. If you are stepping forward from seiza while drawing the blade to cut the opponent’s shoulder you must have both feet on the floor at the point of contact or your cut will be weak. If you put that forward foot down too soon you will lose all the momentum from your body surge and you will be cutting with your shoulder only, again a weak cut.
To go back to the timing of partner practice, a good kata is done when shidachi (the winner) moves and counter-cuts after uchidachi (the attacker) begins his cut and so is committed to a single movement. Good iai shows this sort of movement, a good iaidoist imagines his opponent’s blade moving toward his head before he makes his move, and then makes it effectively.
Unflappable attitude. A good iaidoist is calm, dignified, unruffled by anything going on around him. He can appear confident to the point of arrogance. If he does an incorrect movement you won’t know it by his actions or facial expressions. If you don’t know what he is supposed to be doing you won’t know it at all. The good iaidoist can perform without warming up in any situation. He won’t blame the weather, an injury, poor information or lousy instruction for his performance, he will simply do his best. Not “do his best” in the sense of getting a participation ribbon in lower school, but actually do the best iai he is capable of doing. There is no room for any other performance when we talk of practicing sword in a realistic way. Every performance represents the risk of death and must be done so as to respect this. There are no “do-overs” and no excuses that will do any good in this world, the attitude must be survive or no, rather than “do I look cool in my Inuyasha duds?”.
Iron fist in a velvet glove. A good iaidoist looks soft, the shoulders are soft, the hands are soft, the cut is soft but those with eyes will see the iron fist under that softness. Put a bokuto under the soft swing of an 8dan and the bokuto will shatter. Be partner to the soft swing of a hanshi and you feel the power of a movement that is totally directed into a centimeter of blade. A centimeter through which moves every gram of weight and all the power of a body trained for 50 years.
Kindness and generosity. A good iaidoka will have open arms for everyone, regardless of skill or style. Everyone shares the art, all are to be cherished and embraced. Only a beginner thinks in terms of better or worse, higher or lower. A good iaidoist thinks only of performing the art. In partner practice or a life and death match, one embraces the chance to do one’s best, as a teacher or a student, a winner or a loser. In this world there is no room for talk, no gossip or back-biting, no idle comparisons, simply get on the floor and swing the sword.
When talking about grading and tournaments we can talk about “the book” and many technical aspects of the art, but these are only one measure of good. There are many others.