Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Who? Kelly Hu


Thanks to the Ninja Craze back in the Eighties, most martial artists know all about the ninja method of kuji kiri, or ninja magic. The legend says that the ninja would weave their fingers into various patterns in order to trigger particular "mindsets." Sometimes, if cornered, the ninja would create the kuji symbols with their hands and scare those superstitious samurai, who believed the ninja were a mix of super-warriors and wizards.

Don't you believe it. As with most legends, there is always an element of truth to the hype. But let's start with this little tidbit, kuji were not unique to the ninja. In fact, many traditional martial arts (Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, for example) dating back to the Japanese feudal period contain these hand signs, known throughout Buddhist thought as mudra, but under several different names according to the different martial arts.

Mudra were part of the Buddhist mind-spirit technology that modern, Western science is only recently begun to explore. They are similar in some ways to yoga. Each position is supposed to be part of a meditation. As the person practices the mental part of the meditation and physical position, it becomes easier and easier to fall into the state of suggestion. Eventually, the person should fall into the associated mediation almost as soon as the mudra is formed.

So, for example, if the mediatation is a typical warrior's self-affirmation of "I am invincible; woe to all who face me," it would be accompanied by a particular hand sign, and probably also a guided visualization of the practitioner acting invincible. So, let's say that cornered ninja decides he needs a little confidence boost before he faces those samurai guards. He would form the mudra, or kuji, and fall into the feeling associated with the self-affirmation. That would help. A little. Maybe. But it is better than peeing his pants. Which is why warriors adapted this technique from religious practice to martial application. Hope is a universal human virtue; and we can all use a little more hope in our lives.

This concept is not completely foreign to Westerners. The most common Western mudra is the clasped hands of prayer. Notice too that we have a few variations on this form that have various "meanings" associated with them. The palm/fingers touching flat tends to connote piety. Clasping the hands together with the fingers clenched and curled back connotes a certain desperation to the prayer. See, it's not so weird.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Inspiration for Halloween?

Leah Remini

Leah, Queen of the King of Queens.

Deus lo Vult!

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Well, Halloween is coming, and I suppose I should pull the trigger on this little item...

News from the Vatican.

What can you expect when they elect the former High Inquisitor to be the Pope?

In theory, of course, if you believe in God, there's no good reason to discount the Powers of Darkness. So I am loathe to make too much fun of the idea that once in a blue moon demons might attack a human being. But with all the suffering and pain we folks cause each other all on our own, I don't think the citizens of Pandemonium really need to be working overtime. Heck, they might as well have been on vacation in the Carribbean through most of the 20th Century. (Hmmm, that might be as good an explanation for this year's hurricane season as any other...)

Arrgghh! Avast!

A few weeks ago, I spread the gospel on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

I came across this article on the BBC website about a recent incident in the Indian Ocean.

Pirates are not a thing of the past. They still exist and still cost international shipping millions of dollars a year.

Far from being romantic figures of swashbuckling legend, modern pirates are little better than thugs.

Prom Night Hijinx

I don't know who these people are. It's amazing what you get when you Google certain phrases, like, "Prom Night."

I wen in search of an image to match these two stories about a school in Long Island that has decided to cancel the Prom. The reason? They are fed up with the financial decadence and sordid activities that has taken over the event. In their own words, "we are willing to sponsor a prom, not an orgy."

Now, this picture (not related to the school in the article) doesn't include the sex, drugs, and alcohol that have come to be prom night staples, but I do think it hints at the conspicuous consumption that has gripped the Prom experience. An SUV Limo? Yikes.

Maybe I'm just old, but I remember begging my dad to borrow the "nice" car to drive myself to the Prom. Limos weren't unheard of, but still rare. I balked at the $50 it cost to rent the tux. What do you guys think? Has Prom Night become something far different than it was intended to be?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Killa Cap'n K

I'm betting that few of you are familiar with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, a Hammer Film released in 1974 starring Horst Janson and Caroline Munro as the not-seen-often-enough Carla, a gypsy girl saved by the Captain and his hunchbacked sidekick, Prof. Hieronymos Grost -- Expert on All Things Vampiric.

The plot is as thin as it gets: a mysterious, cloaked vampire-figure is sucking the life and youth out of the young girls of a 19th Century village somewhere deep in Central Europe. Fortunately, the valiant Capt. Kronos is riding to the town to visit his old army buddy, Dr. Marcus. Kronos is a fearless vampire killer, and no creature of darkness is safe from his cleansing fury.

That's it.

There's no exposition about Kronos' origins; how he got into the vampire hunting business, why he carries a Japanese samurai sword, or why all these continental Europeans all speak the Queen's English are unanswered questions. But there is no shortage of gloomy gothic atmosphere, buckles being swashed, or bodice-ripping.

My favorite scenes include: Kronos is confronted in a tavern by three bully boys in a vignette pulled from countless cliched Westerns. With lightning quick reflexes, Kronos dispatches them before they, or indeed the audience, relizes he's drawn his katana. The only hint we have before the thugs crumble to the floor is a shot of Kronos' hand on the sword hilt, and a soft click as the sword slips back into the sheath.

The other scene is an extended torture "gag" worthy of Quentin Tarantino. Kronos is fishing for information from a vampire. One of the movie's more ingenious conceits is that different breeds of vampires must be killed with different methods -- fire, stake, hanging, etc. The relentless earnestness with which the scene is pursued usually elicts a chuckle from jaded horror movie fans.

Captain Kronos is an early attempt at mixing horror's traditional tropes with those of other genres such as action and comedy. It largely succeeds. Released as it was in 1974, it was slightly ahead of its time, and perceived as a real oddity as horror films moved to more contemporary settings in The Exorcist, The Omen and The Amityville Horror. The genre mixing plays rather better today than it did back then, however it has a somewhat slower pace than modern audiences expect in either action or horror films. This lends it a fairy tale quality and it seems to unfold at a dreamlike pace.

Really geeky fans will recognize some images as reminiscent of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane character, a dour Puritan swordsman given to vengeful quests and battling the supernatural. Anime freaks may see parallels with the Japanese film Vampire Hunter D. Some have even identified similarities to Wesley Snipes' first Blade movie.

And did I mention that it features Caroline Munro?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Rachel Wiesz

Hmm... Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, British, Cultured... Is Rachel Weisz still too Toolbox lid?


The Art of Japanese Knifefighting is a sort of "holy grail" among martial artists. I myself, have spent a fair chunk of change on information regarding this esoteric sub-discipline of bujutsu.

One reason there is such interest in this art is that it seems readily applicable to modern day needs. Take a look around the next time your're out and about and check out how many folks have folding knives clipped to their pockets or waistbands. Other types of knife-based martial arts -- Sayoc Kali, escrima, arnis, etc. -- from elsewhere in the world have gained popularity, but little has been forthcoming about the Japanese arts. This has lead some to believe that tantojutsu is a super-secret, unbeatable art. As always, there have been those willing to fraudulantly pass on the "secrets" of fictitious techniques. Others have claimed that tantojutsu is a disreputable art inextricably linked with the shadow world of the Japanese Yakuza.

The truth is, as usual, different. Tantojutsu certainly does exist as part of the teachings of various ryu, but not necessarily in the fashion many non-Japanese expect. We can tell from contemporary art that the ability to use the large fighting knife was very important to Samurai in earlier periods of history. There are a number of paintings, screens and the like showing samurai wrestling Mongol invaders to the ground and finishing them off with the stout tanto. It even appears that the knife was a preferred weapon in these close encounters, even over the sword. The clue to the truth lying in this evidence is the wrestling actions of the warriors involved. Rather than being a distinct, stand-alone art (think archery versus swordsmanship), many knife-fighting techniques were taught as an adjunct to jujutsu skills. Takenouchi Ryu, one of the oldest jujutsu schools, incorporates knife and short-sword techniques. Curiously, many formal techniques are actually defensive in nature and take for granted a certain knowledge of knife use. In fact, the knife technique was probably given a short side description by the teacher so that the "proper" technique would be appled for the defender to counter. Many modern martial artists usually think the "defender" in a given kata is the sole focus of the technique, but in traditional martial arts, both sides have important lessons for the participants to digest. The Bujinkan does not have specific tantojutsu techniques, but teaches practioners to use knives in conjunction with their unarmed fighting techniques. This was quite likely the common practice throughout history. The knife adds to the effectiveness of martial arts techniques, and is especially useful if snuck into an encounter.

Tanto techniques were also taught in conjunction with sword techniques. Swordsman quickly learn that the secret of their art is timing and distancing, which is dictated by the length of their blade. The traditional Tanto was a purpose made fighting knife, not a tool, and was considered the smallest size true sword. So the distinction between using the sword and using the knife was not quite so great for swordsman. Many schools of the sword did teach specific techniques for short swords to better use the unique qualities of the length of the blade. Many schools teach that short weapons, even knives, are in fact the best way to counter long weapons, such as spears.

I have a video tape of the Yanagi Ryu Tantojutsu techniques, which appear to be as demonstrative of general knife techniques as any martial art can be. The knife techniques do seem to bridge a gap between Kenjutsu (swords) and jujutsu. The Yanagi Ryu techniques also seem to share a common pattern. The defender first uses the knife against the attacking limb (usually at the joints), then targets a vital area. After careful examination, you can see that the vital target areas -- throat, kidneys, subclavian artery, femoral artery, Achilles Tendon, etc. -- were also exposed through gaps in the Samurai armor. This is fairly typical of Japanes martial arts techniques, which often are designed to be used against armored and un-armored opponents. These characteristics match with a handful of other tanto techniques I have cataloged in other sources.

It isn't so much that tantojutsu is a deliberately hidden art. It isn't that it doesn't exist at all. And tantojutsu is not part of a secret underground. It is simply that "tantojutsu" is part of several different Japanese martial arts traditions, and not generally a separate and discrete martial art. The information that is out there about the remaining tanto techniques is often unrecognized and misapplied.