Iaido has a large portion of embu in it, or so I was once told by a hanshi, and I believe it. The first iaido my mother ever saw was from Mitsunari Kanai sensei and her comment to me was “I could see the blood flying when he cut”.
There are a couple of useful concepts to think about when you are using “story” to work on your iai. The first is the difference between suspence and surprise. To startle someone all you need to do is make a large noise or jump out at someone. In movie terms this is just about every hack horror flick going. I can’t remember Hitchcock’s exact definition but it perhaps involved a bomb, the hack director simply has a bomb go off, actors and audience alike are startled, that’s just surprise. Suspense is when you show the audience the bomb but not the actors, now the audience is in tension and it builds until the bomb goes off.
Iai should be suspenseful, it should build to an explosion and then fall off like a good story. There should be a balance between hard and soft, the audience should see where it is going but still enjoy the explosion which they know is coming but they don’t know when. That’s why folks who know a kata can still enjoy an expert. It’s not the story itself, that’s well known, it’s the way it’s told.
So build slowly, reach a climax and then balance that with the smooth, refined finish. Hmm, what does that sound like? Sounds like a good story, get your mind out of the gutter.
How do we do it? By using the various story telling tools we have, jo ha kyu for instance, the “acceleration to a stop” that one of our post-grad physics folks says is impossible. Another is meri hari, the balance betwen fast and slow, hard and soft.
Let’s take the seitei iai kata Soete Tsuki, a one handed cut and a thrust, then a really weak chiburi. There’s no sudden explosion of a hidden bomb in this kata, not like Morote Tsuki where there is a one handed cut and a thrust, but followed by two big overhead cuts to impress everyone. Lots of flash and noise possible there, but not poor old Soete Tsuki. So how do we sell this kata?
Let’s look at jo ha kyu and the first cut. If it’s done at a steady speed its just small, a flick of the wrist and a whack of the shoulder with the tip of the sword. On the other hand, if it’s done as a slow discovery of a threat to the left, a turn to disrupt the attack and finally a cut that accelerates from the scabbard to the chest it’s impressive. After a bit of stillness (we’ll come back to that) there’s a pull back to the hip and an equally powerful thrust forward but this time combined with the entire body moving with everything stopping at once.
So the climax isn’t just a single explosion, it’s two of them, one larger than the other with a small space between. Of course you can make this story dull by dropping the tension between the cut and the thrust to zero, but it’s your job to avoid that.
After this we come to the chiburi, the worst of the entire seitei set as the right hand moves a tiny distance. We can compensate for this lack of drama in the right hand by making some secondary business happen with the left. In other words, make a big saya biki to compensate for the small chiburi. That’s a start, but the real secret is the meri hari, the difference between stillness and movement.
If you’ve got a small twitch for a chiburi, and no way to make it bigger without breaking the story (without doing what you are told not to do by “the book”), you need to make the movement bigger by comparison. You need to be slow, smooth and still just before the chiburi, stretch the tension, build the suspense and then “drop the bomb”, or rather the squib, but think about a hand clap in the dead of a still moonless night. It makes you jump out of your skin.
Use your tools and tell me a story.