A friend of mine in Japan expressed some sadness a few years ago when reporting on a national iaido championships over the sameness of everyone’s iai. This wasn’t really all that surprising of course, with a set of judges who have standardized idea of what they want to see, you will get a serious attempt by the competitors to show that to them. It is the same for any judged sport such as gymnastics or figure skating, a certain set of expectations that are going to be met by those who move through the rounds so that as you get closer to the finals the sameness increases.
In those western sports at least you will get kata (routines) that mix up the kihon (basic jumps and spins) but in iai there is not even this chance to innovate. The kata are selected from a small set and everyone will perform them. Closest to the ideal will win.
What does vary? When a koryu kata is requested, then it’s your chance to show your individual stuff.
You still have to get the approval of the judges and that means compromise. My sensei is considering challenging for 8dan and has been told that he will need to modify his koryu style because most of the judges practice another koryu style and expect to see things a certain way.
If you want to win competitions or pass gradings you will perform what the judges require of you. That may irritate some but you are free not to compete or grade. It’s not up to you to set the standards, you accept the judgement of those who do when you stand in front of them. Otherwise don’t stand in front of them.
You think a gymnast at an international level says to herself “I’ve got a better way to land a dismount and it involves running three steps forward”? Maybe a diver says “I think this dive calls for a giant splash at the end”? They aren’t going to go very far are they? Yet what difference does sticking a landing make?
The complication comes when you add in the martial aspect of budo, when you start thinking that iai isn’t a set of ideal physical techniques to be approached. I was once compared to a very talented Japanese iaido champion who has won the nationals at just about every rank. As I started puffing out my chest my sensei, who was translating at the moment, pointed a finger at me and said “That’s not a compliment! The style is robotic, you hit every key point but you haven’t developed any spirit”.
At higher rank gradings the judges are instructed to start looking for this spirit in the challengers. By 5dan in my organization you are supposed to be technically perfect so what else do you differentiate on? This is something that you don’t see in the three meter springboard. “OH his spirit was great for that last dive, you could see the intensity in his eyes. He ought to get high marks for that one”. OK you got me, think back to sticking a landing in gymnastics. Think balance and poise.
The focus in koryu iai is something a little different, it has much less to do with standards and obtaining grades and winning tournaments. At least it should. In my opinion.
You see how much trouble I have making statements about koryu? It’s not monolithic, it’s individual and I don’t even teach my koryu the way my sensei taught it to me. Well no, that’s not accurate, my koryu doesn’t look like his but I certainly teach it and perform it as he taught it to me. You see, I’m a different size, I weigh more and my injuries are different than his so he taught me to do things the way he figured I should do them, not necessarily the way he does them.
This includes the little style things, the twitches and bobs that juniors figure are so very important. Some things I was taught and maintain, some things I was taught and my sensei has moved away from, or back to, but where we differ makes no difference. If we can both show how the movement allows no opening, or permits a response to an unexpected attack, we’re both correct. You can tell the same story in two different ways to an adult.
Don’t try that with kids, I found that out when I read mine bedtime stories and changed the words. I was instantly benched and mom put back in because they weren’t interested in hearing a different story. You read it as it was written or you get out of the bedroom. So be it, different situations call for different actions. When in a grading you do what the judges want, when on your own practicing your koryu you do what makes most sense to you at the time. In one case you have the feedback of the judges. In the other you have your sensei and if he’s not there you have kasso teki.
With a grading you never have to ask why you passed or failed, you were close enough or you weren’t. With the koryu it comes down to “I don’t look like my sensei…. why?”