I rarely write about my training despite spending three evenings each week on it. The reason is that I do not yet feel qualified to theorize much about the art(*) of the sword. In fact, I am still very much in the state of just memorizing bits of information and putting them together lists much like any beginner in a given subject.
(*) I am actually tempted to say it is more of a science than an art.
I have learned a few things though. First, trying to understand any skilled application as a observer is going to be completely and utterly insufficient towards understanding it. Vision is just one sense. Kinetic awareness, agility, dexterity, are much more important. At a higher level even hearing becomes important as it allows you to sense how fast a person is coming at you. All these senses must be integrated.
When I write about it I am trying to intellectualize the subject. The best way to understand swords is first to realize that there are three kinds of swords. Cutting swords, stabbing swords, and “hitting swords”. Hitting swords are the kind you see in reenactments and when people fight for fun. Here a touch would be a kill even though it would not be a kill in reality. I train for katanas which are primarily a cutting sword. The most important thing to understand is that they are insanely sharp. By insane I mean that if someone held their arm out and you merely held the sword and guided its fall under its own weight, it would take the arm off. However, to do this, the angle must be straight on. If the angle is even slightly out of alignment with the movement of the blade, the blade will “stick” or cut far less efficient. This is why hitting doesn’t work if the goal is to inflict a deadly wound rather than “just” drawing blood. Because of this dexterity becomes important. Since dexterity is important, it means that the hands can not apply the force. The force much therefore come from another body part. The nearest best one are the shoulders. The shoulders then act as a hinge that drops the sword while the hands are guiding it. Ideally though you want to take the force as far away from the dexterity point as possible and thus it moves down into the hips; as you cut you drop your center while the shoulders swing the sword down and the hands guide it. Naturally, this is quite difficult. However, imagine how much pressure can be concentrated at the edge of the blade if done well—the force of a boxer on an edge which is fractions of an millimeter wide. It is enough to cut several bodies in half with one cut. [In feudal Japan, swords where actually tested this way. A sword which could cut 3 bodies would be called a 3 body sword.]
A sword fight—an even more difficult subject—is on a first level similar to stick dangling in hockey, it is about position. First, parries are about 3 times faster than attacks. For an absolute rookie they are about the same speed, so for rookies attacking always beats defending. For an experienced swordsman defending always beats attacking. Victory happens when the attacker makes a mistake. At least as far as I understand it. Back to the hockey. Since each person moves at a given speed it is important to note that people move in physical space, so forget about the Matrix movie. This is all a game of momentum, force, and thus speed and distance. Movie fights use very light foils which allow them to achieve dazzling speeds. Real steel swords are 2-3 times heavier and consequently 2-3 times slower. On a simple level distances thus become important. If I move, my opponent moves. These relative movements are key to winning. On a more advanced level momentum becomes important. If I can steal momentum from my opponents sword, I can get speed without force and if I can do that I can strike faster and more accurately.
At a very high level, which I am very far from, so I am just guessing, each move would have a counter move and so on. A fight thus becomes the equivalent of a chess game. Whoever “thinks”…actually thinking is a bad word because there’s no time for that… whoever senses further moves ahead wins the game. Suddenly the traditional stare down in which two samurais spend an hour facing off just makes sense. Each are making subtle changes in their posture and the other responds accordingly until they are have learned who would have won the fight, even without fighting.
Watching the “game” is a radically different experience. Seeing is very far from doing, not only because of the difference perspective, but also because observing involves far fewer senses. Sailing is a very good example of this. In our modern lives we are wholly reliant on 1) Our eyes and 2) Our intellectual brain. It is very hard to become aware of subtle changes in the wind on our neck or a change in the angle we sit at by a few degrees. It is the same with sword fighting. Things move much too fast to think and often they move too fast to see. We are no longer presuming that the body’s only purpose is to ferry the brain around and the brain’s only interface are the eyes (possibly connected through a computer screen). The whole body becomes integrated and start doing the “thinking”.
An interesting concept is whether there is such a thing as full integration? Clearly our brain is a mishmash of its evolutionary history with the limbic system and the neocortex. We tend to focus on just a few of our senses, quite likely as a result of the way we use technology. It is interesting to note just how much this epistemological orientation misses out on. Is it really living if only one sense is used to gather data and only one part of the brain is used to process it? You tell me.
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