There are two sides to kata, the striker and the winner. That’s the usual form, the one who attacks “loses”. I can think of one or two kata that we practice which might look like the winner initiates things but further study would seem to indicate there is a step missing which is present in another set from the same school so again, attacker loses.
The attacker is uchidachi, striking sword. The defender is shidachi, receiving sword. The definitions would pretty much dictate who attacks and who responds.
A kata is not to be “broken”. There is no free-form movement built into a kata, there are no places to improvise. This is for safety and it’s to preserve the story that holds the lessons of the kata.
The two sides of the kata are getting different lessons. Uchidachi is called the teaching side. This is true in that uchidachi sets the pace, the distance, the rhythm and cuts in such a way that shidachi can perform the actions that let him “win”. Shidachi follows, reacts, and responds.
This is NOT a formula for learning “how to do this when he does that”. Nor is it uchidachi teaching shidachi how to use a sword. The kihon does that. At the recent jodo seminar the juniors and those who were grading went with one hachidan and were put through the kata they were going to demonstrate for the weekend. The seniors? Not more advanced kata, not even the basic kata, but the kihon. We spent three days on kihon. The jodo section of the CKF has added kihon demonstration to all the levels we test because we mean for our various dojo to practice kihon. A lot.
Kata are not for learning how to swing your weapon, they are for other things.
For shidachi they are to learn how to read an opponent, how to react and respond to attacks. How and when to get off the line, how to get to the right distance to strike. Shidachi follows all through the kata except for the final strike, and then follows after that. Shidachi picks up the timing and rhythm from uchidachi, shidachi struggles to keep up, struggles to keep still and present a target when every fiber of the body wants to move offline NOW.
You know this.
Uchidachi, well they just walk in and swing right? They are the senior because they know the kata and are there so shidachi can learn the kata, that’s why they are sempai right? Well sort of. That’s the “tate mae” the face of it, but there’s more.
Uchidachi has the harder job. He has to figure out exactly what shidachi can handle and give a small bit more than that. Exactly that. Too little and shidachi can’t learn. Too much and shidachi is crushed and again, does not learn. It’s the same as weightlifting, if you don’t lift to failure you won’t gain strength very fast. If you fail immediately, if you can’t get it up, you may as well not be trying. (Yes, there will be some strength gain trying to lift something you can’t lift and some gain by lifting a bitty bit of weight, but we’re talking efficiency.) So uchidachi has to read shidachi. Each time, each kata, because shidachi can learn in jumps. Shidachi can “get it”. Uchidachi cuts to the correct target, makes a big cut, so shidachi can get in there. Eventually the cuts come a bit faster, a bit smaller as uchidachi teaches. Not too much, not too little.
But wait, there’s more! Uchidachi controls the kata and so controls shidachi. Or should. This is where uchidachi learns, this is what the uchidachi side teaches uchidachi, control of your opponent. How do you make shidachi stand and wait for the strike? First charge in there and scare him, make him want to move too soon, then stop dead still and make him wait on high alert for too long. He moves! Now uchidachi can track him and strike him! But does not. Uchidachi knows the kata, uchidachi can simply strike to where shidachi is going to be but he must not. Uchidachi could strike to miss shidachi and help keep him safe just in case he doesn’t get out of the way. WORSE! He must not! Uchidachi swings for the target and stops if shidachi is not out of the way. Uchidachi watches shidachi move too soon and does not swing… the humiliation of stepping offline too soon and NOT getting hit is worse than getting hit. Shidachi learns.
Uchidachi doesn’t react to what shidachi is doing, uchidachi controls his little puppet, a shift in weight here, a tiny squeeze of the hand there, clues for shidachi, tools for uchidachi. Musashi speaks of the ruler and the string, uchidachi uses them to move shidachi forward (push on the ruler with your hara and shidachi moves back), and back, (pull the string with your hara and shidachi follows). If the skills between uchidachi and shidachi are similar, or uchidachi is not very experienced, uchidachi studies this distance, learns how to move as the distance closes or opens until he can control it. To within an inch. This isn’t done with the eyes and the brain, it’s done through the hara, the gut, it’s a feeling. He’s moving now. Eventually, I’m moving him now.
Uchidachi doesn’t just lead, he controls. Shidachi doesn’t just follow, he struggles to escape, to resist that control.
All within the kata. The kata must not be broken, yet if both sides are working hard and the kata breaks there should / will be a reaction. Uchidachi will swing! Shidachi will not be there, his sword will be in uchidachi’s suigetsu. Shidachi cuts the wrong target! Uchidachi will not be there, but an inch out of range. Smiling.
You think thirty years of doing the same old boring kata is ahead? Do your jobs and both of you will be exhausted in the next thirty seconds. You will struggle to do a brand new kata each and every time you walk toward your partner, not wondering if you will live or die, but wondering how you will kill him this time.
Did I say thirty seconds? A third of a second. It always comes down to a third of a second. Did I? Is he?
Each and every kata, shidachi learns how to live. Important stuff for sure. Uchidachi learns how to die. Tough lesson, to die so someone else can live. This is not your “gun-fu” martial-looking art. This is not your “unbeatable techniques learned fast in the next seminar”. This is not your “beware old men who know (insert name here)-do” t-shirt.
Big boy pants on, go get your sticks.