As was noted about a month ago, Hatsumi-sensei has chosen Togakure Ryu Ninpo as the 2008 training theme. One of the reasons for this, according to Internet speculation, is that 2008 is the Year of the Rat according to the Asian zodiac, and the centerpiece of Togakure Ryu training is the Santo Tonko no Gata, or Forms of the Escaping Rat.
In February, our dojo will be hosting "He Who Shall Not Be Named" for a seminar on this series of kata. This will be the second time I have covered this material with HWSNBN, so I blew the dust off my old notes and thought we might review some of the lessons prior to the seminar... and then review what we learn in a post-seminar article.
Santo Tonko no Gata is the main series of Togakure Ryu taijutsu kata. Although taijutsu implies the Tori is unarmed, in fact Tori makes extensive use of shuriken and metsubishi, or blinding powder. According to HWSNBN, the goal of Togakure Ryu is to survive at all costs. A dead ninja can not relay the vital information he has gathered to the people depending on him.
The Togakure Ryu kata have several aspects that make them different from other kata we study. One aspect is that as the series progresses, the number of Uke increases from one to many. I recall being completely surrounded by a dozen or more Uke at one point of the last seminar.
Another difference is that in many of the initial kata and in the last few, the Uke are threatening the Tori when the kata begins. Although in some of these there is physical contact between Tori and Uke, there is no overt attack in the same way we see a punch, or kick, or cut initiate in other kata. Just as Uke does not attack right away, the Tori does not explode into an immediate counteraction. Instead there is a brief, but noticible, pause as Tori observes the situation. An everyday circumstance you might use to appreciate this is an argument in which one person levels an accusation, and the second person considers very carefully before responding. It isn't that the second person isn't acting during the pause, just that the action isn't readily visible.
What makes this pause possible is that these kata are not, primarily, for the battlefield. These are for survival combat by an information gatherer intent on escape. It is even likely that both sides would prefer the Tori to finish the scenario alive; albeit, alive under very different circumstances.
The ultimate goal in every kata is Tori's survival and escape from the trap. The means to this end is:
1. Sow confusion and chaos to mentally unbalance the Uke side.
2. Find a weakness in Uke.
3. Apply precise force to exploit that weakness.
To this end, in most kata Tori unleashes a torrent of blinding metsubishi powders and uses his hidden shuriken to open a path to escape. The metsubishi is an interesting tool. I'm always intrigued when we get to see some truth behind the ninja stereotypes. We've all seen movie ninja throw an explosive smoke bomb at his own feet and then disappear. In reality, the ninja used the far more efficient method of throwing the blinding powder at the attacker's eyes. The metsubishi acts less like a smoke grenade and more like pepper spray -- especially if the sneaky ninja included irritating agents in his powder mixture.
Another aspect worth considering is that as the number of Uke increases, the kata become less rigid. The movements are no longer tightly scripted. The Tori is expected to react appropriately within the parameters of the scenario. This is very much like modern "reality fighting" scenario training.
Finally, the Togakure Ryu kata have strategic application as well as tactical application. To some extent, every kata has a strategic application, but it is especially true of these. These kata teach reliance on a pattern of observation, reaction, use of deception, and precise application of force against a more powerful opponent. This isn't just how a ninja brawled, it is how he lived day-to-day.
I apologize if you were expecting a step-by-step breakdown of the kata. You'll need to attend the seminar (or buy Hatsumi's book -- good luck understanding his cryptic description!) for that. I believe these thoughts are far more useful than instructions on where the left foot is placed at any given point.
If you are coming to this -- or a similar -- seminar, please bear in mind that these are my current interpretations of notes I took about ten years ago and are not necessarily word-for-word from HWSNBN. I updated my thoughts as I drafted this, and I'm sure HWSNBN has also evolved his opinions over the years. So this may or may not bear any relation to what HWSNBN declares are the important lessons of his seminar next month.