The rhythm method of cultural identification. – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

An approach to a cultural constant as seen in the tensho karate kata. Jeremie Bride, Inter Faculty, v7, Fragmentation and Divergence (2016) p173-183

Jo Ha Kyu

Bride suggests that movement, that found in dance, theatre and fighting, is culturally specific, that one can identify a culture by the way its members move.

After all, some countries talk with their hands, some can’t jump, some got natural rhythm right? Look most stereotypes have some sort of basis in observation, so why not look at it. Bride looks at the rhythm of jo ha kyu in Noh music and in the Tensho kata of karate.

We will look at the jo ha kyu of iaido, where it was taught to me as one of the most important concepts of the art. The translation I was given was “slow, faster, fastest”. These days I often hear of it as “acceleration” and for small movements like the swing of a sword I suppose that’s good enough.

But for longer times, it is more complicated than just getting your sword or your fist up to speed. Just a note, I seem to be seeing a lessening of jo ha kyu in movements like cutting with the sword. To the point where the acceleration phase of the cut seems to be as short as possible. “Make a light sword look light” is how I’ve described it to myself, instant full speed. This is for tournament iai by the way, from watching video of the all-Japans. Not a fan I’m afraid, it’s too western, too “Quick-draw McGraw” for my taste. Bride states that in Asia the base of practice is kata, in the west it’s combat or assault, free fighting (or competition as I’d put it) as the base.

Bride quotes Akira Tamba (1974) Rythmes et temps musical du Noh. Klincksieck ed. Paris. and (2004) Esthetique de Jo-Ha-Kyu. Ongaku no Tomo ed. Tokyo for his definition of the concept which goes something like this.

Jo is the beginning and the elements of jo are contained only here. Ha is the midddle and the elements of ha are contained only in ha but they also partially host elements of kyu. Kyu is the end and new elements appear here as well as elements of kyu that were in ha. I suspect this would make more sense in a musical composition but we will think about it later.

Kyu contains intensive (fast) techniques (talking about karate kata now I suspect) and exhalation frequency that is only seen here.

Later Bride states that this rhythm is characterized by

1) a first form which is long with slow implementation of the various elements which make the work; and

2) a paroxysmal type completion, short and intense, in which the clocked accelerartion stops quite abruptly.

Bride later compares this late intensity with a long preparation phase to the western preference of a stronger and more immediate intensity.

So there is the paper. What does it suggest for us iai folks? First, the expansion of jo ha kyu past slow faster fastest into three stages of a movement containing distinct elements might be quite helpful to us.

What elements are in the beginning stage of Mae? The tightening of the legs, the movement of the hands toward the sword, the soft exhalation as the sword begins to be drawn. Ha? It would be the moment our movement is inevitable, perhaps, the actual acceleration to beat the opponent, the tip of the sword coming up to cutting speed. Contained within this and yet outside it would be the elements of kyu that apply here, terminal tip speed for instance. New elements of kyu would be shibori, the tightening of the hand, and the application of strength and stability, planting the foot (in ha, continuing in kyu) and the other elements that would mean the sword cuts into the head.

Which would be a sudden stop.

This is a longer interval than what we mentioned earlier, simply moving from furi kaburi (the position we cut from) through the cut. Thus we have two types of jo ha kyu, a single motion and a set of motions from stop to stop. These are segments of an iai kata.

The cut is an exhalation. Bride mentions the connection between breathing and jo ha kyu and the Tensho kata is based on this connection of breathing and movement. We breath out on our cut, but how. If we are thinking about speed we simply blow it out, if we are thinking of jo ha kyu we will breath quietly out as we start, then let the breath come stronger as we tighten the hands and the abdomen to anchor the cut to the ground.

As for the longer movement, there are four of them in Mae, the first iai kata of the Kendo Federation. Nuki tsuke, draw and cut, Kiri tsuke, finishing cut, Chiburi, shake the blood off and Noto, put the sword away. All of these can, and should, be characterized by jo ha kyu. They are all stop to stop movements.

Two general breathing patterns are given to students, the first is to use four exhalations, one for each movement described above with a breath in as jo is begun. This would be a logical way of breathing in a Noh chorus, inspire as you are about to begin the next rhythm, don’t try to breath in as you are singing out. The second breath pattern for iai is to breath in as you start and then do all four movements as you are breathing out.

This might seem to be a disconnection from Bride’s rhythm but perhaps not. If one tries to breath out through an entire iai kata one might be doing it for a minute or more. A good exercise in building lung capacity so go ahead and try. But one can hold one’s breath and one can breath out shallowly, one does not have to do a (silent) kiai for a minute. So even with the one breath per kata idea in your head, you can/ should still connect the jo ha kyu to your exhalation.

The whole kata, with multiple movements separated by stillness can be compared to an act or an entire play which will contain several songs. In other words, there are small build-ups to small climaxes, all of which lead to the final, climactic climax. Then there is the resolution of the kata, the cleaning of the blade and the ending by putting the sword away. Yes, we’ve gone there, right back to public school where you learned the parts of a short story.

You didn’t? No wonder I have such trouble getting this stuff across.

The first two movements are inextricably linked, they are a small climax and then the main climax so perhaps you do them both in one breath. That’s up to you. Since the antagonist is done in after this point, the chiburi and noto can be done in a couple of breaths, the story is over, we’re just cleaning up the mess.

So jo ha kyu is how we move from slow to fast, which is pretty standard stuff in the Japanese arts, as we have learned. But slow and fast, why not go from zero to 100% with nothing between, would this not be the ideal? It seems to be a good thing in combat or competition, hit ’em first in kendo, cut faster in iai.

It is true that fast is related to slow, that fast seems faster with some slow in front of it. That’s sort of why jo ha kyu after all, but to go to 0 – kyu and drop out both jo and ha? That isn’t fast, it’s just startling.

Look, Hitchcock said it best. To have someone jump out from behind a curtain is just startling, it’s just surprise (add a loud noise and a flash), it’s not suspense. No, let the audience know the bad guy is behind the curtain, now you have supsense. Loud noises make you jump, knowing the hero is about to get attacked gives you a sick feeling in your gut.

So jo ha kyu isn’t just acceleration and it’s not just speed. My sensei used the hose in the rain barrel analogy. Stick the hose in there and you can’t see the water coming up, then just at the end you do and suddenly it’s all over your shoes. My favourite is the mile long train. You stand in front of it and there’s noise but no movement, then there’s slow movement that you can simply walk backward to avoid and then you’re flat.

Musashi said we can infect our enemy with our timing.

What else can I say after remembering that?

Kim Taylor
Aug 19, 2017

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