Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023
Sunday’s class is three hours long and the last one featured a whole three kata. That’s a kata an hour which I suppose might sound OK if the kata were long, complex things. But they weren’t. The most complex was chudan from the nito seiho set of niten ichiryu.
Put the two swords in front of you, avoid having them struck down twice, cut for your partner’s wrists, then cut up under his wrist while blocking his sword as he cuts for your head.
Not particularly complex, but I got a bit frustrated because I couldn’t teach what I wanted to teach there. It set off a lecture… OK a rant, on paying attention to the partner and doing something other than what my sensei calls a “sword dance”. Especially one that only fits with the sword dance your partner is doing by accident.
Wave the swords around in exactly the correct manner, timing and position as is dictated in the manual and you’ll still end up dead, just with a feeling of the unfairness of life because you did it all right.
Be a bit confused about the movements, fine, I’m OK with that, but there aren’t that many and after you are shown them, practice them a bit and have them memorized, that’s the moment you can start the kata. Up to then it’s just gathering the wood to make the fire. Necessary but no matter how big the pile it won’t get the rabbit cooked.
This is the problem with iaido, it’s so easy to make it a dance. Maybe I should say we make it a boring, poor dance because dancers would say that a mechanical, lifeless dance is just “doing iaido”. Or they would if they knew what iaido is.
Partner kata means you can interact with a non-virtual representation of your opponent. A teki instead of a kasso teki. So that’s where I teach stuff about dealing with an opponent. My sensei teaches that stuff in kendo class.
So out came the lecture on the roles of the attacker (uchidachi) and the defender (shidachi) in Niten Ichiryu. The attacker seems to be pretty dumb. If his left foot is forward the sword is in hasso. If his right foot is forward he’s cutting. Not hard to deal with then. So why do the two sides end up too close or miles apart, and the various attacks and avoidances and whatnot end up mis-matching?
Well if you know the movements why not go ahead and do them and damn the consequences. Perhaps because there are real world consequences to the wrong timing? The wrong distance. The wrong angles and hip shifts.
How do we teach that?
Ah, finally. First, at the beginner level we have to understand that there’s a teaching side and a learning side. Uchidachi, that simple-minded loser, is teaching. We’ve lately had the luxury of having some experienced students around and we almost always put them on the uchidachi side. Beginners stay on the shidachi side. Uchidachi teaches, he leads all the motions, he sets the distances he sets the timing, he never, ever, gives up the initiative to shidachi. Not out of skill but because this is what is supposed to happen.
Shidachi’s job, once he memorizes the movements, is to pay attention to uchidachi. That’s it, no showing off, on jumping ahead to chapter 12, just do the movements as controlled by uchidachi. Shidachi’s side is the simple one, despite what we think, to win is easy. Uchidachi has the tough job, to be at the edge of shidachi’s skill, to be clear, to stick rigidly to the kata, to force shidachi to pay attention.
To mess with shidachi’s head by changing the timing slightly, to pull a long stride out of shidachi, or a short one, to slowly speed up and to speedily slow down shidachi’s motions when necessary.
If uchidachi isn’t on his best job, shidachi won’t learn a damned thing. If both sides aren’t paying attention, I can’t teach the fun stuff, like how to speed up and slow down, how to stretch a stride or shorten it, how to catch an opponent’s movement before he knows he’s moving. Maybe I can do that, maybe not, but I know for a fact that nobody learns that stuff if they can’t do the kata together.
So we dropped the two-sword set and went back to the simplest of one sword kata, hasso hidari. Both walk forward three steps. Uchidachi cuts down on the head, shidachi steps to the right and cuts down on uchidachi’s neck. How much simpler could you get? Every sword school has a move something like this don’t they? Anyone can do this, why not move on to something more interesting?
Because I don’t think there can be anything more interesting than this kata. This is the essence of Musashi’s sword. No flash, no trash, just walk up and kill him. The thing most people forget is that he’s also trying to kill you and that makes a difference. With a complex kata you have a hard time teaching that bit, it’s just too dangerous, uchidachi has to dance carefully so that shidachi can follow and remember all the waving around and stepping here and there. It takes decades to get to the part where uchidachi tries to kill you. With hasso hidari it takes about ten minutes to get to that point.
IF, if, if you can get shidachi to pay attention.