Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Forms of the Escaping Rat

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.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Few More Gripes

Now that I've "chastized," in my small way, those who seem to habitually tear down other martial arts, let me voice a few other gripes based on things I've seen. Here are some items I'd like to see a moratorium on -- if I were "Master if all things Martial Arts on the Internet."

1. Denigrating schools with kid's classes. This isn't the same as enumerating the reasons why you choose not to teach kids. There are many, many sound reasons why a school would make that choice. But I do think it is wrong to pick on a school simply for having kid's classes. Maybe a kid's class is less serious or focused than adult's class. You can't treat modern kids like little Spartans.

Is it appropriate to mix kids and adults in the same class? That's another isse -- and just to throw it out there: I would try not to do that... If I owned a school. But that's a long post for a different day; and I'm not going to say there aren't reasons to allow it.

But reaching out to kids is important for any activity. Kids are the future of martial arts. We need to interest them early, even if they don't stick with the art in which they start. And, of course, there are many physical and mental benefits for kids.

2. Posting somebody else's video in order to pick on them and say nasty things about a whole style.

I've seen this several times, and it drives me crazy. OK, admitedly, I see it a lot because too many of these videos seem to include masked ninjas stalking each other in the woods and throwing talcum powder into the air. But often the video is of students in a class learning a technique. Below the video, the trash talker will describe how poorly the students are doing, why he thinks the technique is rubbish, and that the whole system is a lot of bunk because it has such lousy students and crappy techniques.

Listen: they are students. Here's my standard line for easing the mind of a student frustrated in class; " I don't expect you to be able to do it. If you could do it, you wouldn't be training -- and you'd be teaching me." You're going to see mistakes in a video of a class, and I don't care who you record.

Is the technique inherently bad? I don't know. Sometimes you just try to isolate a movement and drill it -- even if it isn't optimum for combat. Sometimes you teach an easy version to a beginner who isn't ready for the most effective and efficient version of the same technique. (I know this is against the teaching philosophy of some instructors... but it's still a legitimate method of instruction.) Possible you teach a technique from a historical perspective, even though it doesn't have a practical application today. There are plenty of reasons the drill might not look great to you.

It might even be as simple as: the teacher sucks.

But to extrapolate five to ten minuts of video into saying an entire art is worthless? That's a huge logical leap. It covers hundreds or thousands of people. It discounts all the many ways an art can be of value. It ignores differences in history or environment. And it ignores that the art has survived decades or centuries already for some reason.

3. Closely related to the previous gripe, please don't post video of yourself beating somebody else in an inter-art match and then proclaim the other art sucks.

Congratulations, Tough Guy, you won. Nothing can take that away from you. It was the result of good instruction, hard training, tenacity and preparation. But chances are excellent you aren't undefeated. So all we can be sure is that on that day, you were good enough to beat that guy. Are you absolutely sure you can beat everyone that practices that art? Be honest. If you still think so, I direct you back to Human Weapon: Tae Kwon Do and Big Bill Duff getting clobbered by that tiny Korean guy. Still feeling like yours are big, brass, and shiny? Think hard about hpw much luck really plays into any fight and watch Jason Chambers take on that same Korean guy. He spins wrong, pops his knee and is forced to concede the fight.

You know what they say: there's always someone tougher than you.

Actually, I'm okay with you posting the fight online. I like to watch them. But as soon as you start saying, "My art is better than your art," it begins to sound very familiar to me. And you really don't want me to accuse you of LARPing the plot of about half the Kung Fu Theater features I watched as a kid... Do you?

A few of my Lilliputian Friends...

These are some of my Black Templar Space Marines. Every last one of them was painstakingly hand painted by yours truly.
In the future, I'll post pics of my small Sisters of Battle, Grey Knights, and White Scars armies, plus some of my one-off units.
My project this year is a full company-sized Imperial Fists Space Marines force themed for siege warfare. So far, I've got my Captain Lysander, Librarian in Terminator armor, a Dreadnought, and a tactical squad painted. Maybe I'll post works in progress...
Man does not live on Martial Arts alone...

Shinken Gata: What I've learned about fighting from the Bujinkan

There's been many a negative comment thrown around about the ability of the average Boojie to fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Many of these comments are even deserved. We do spend a lot of time working on historical methods of combat that may not directly relate to modern reality.

On the other hand, here's a rundown of a few lessons passed to me by various folks within the Bujinkan:
1. Combat will not look like kata. It will be quick. It will be messy. Mistakes will be made.

2. Winning means... making fewer mistakes than the other guys, finishing with more energy than the other guys, and surviving to wake up on the right side of the grass the next day.

3. Fighting is immensely dangerous for all involved. You should only fight for the most important reasons. When you fight, fight all out.

4. Martial arts are something you do with people. Combatives are something you do TO other people. Don't be nice.

5. The best plan is: Use a weapon to kill the other guy while he's still standing up, and preferably no later than as he hits the ground. If you're wrestling around on the ground, it's taking too much energy, too quickly. The longer you wrestle, the more llikely you'll wind up as the dead one.

6. It is better to be lucky than skilled. It is best to be lucky and skilled.

7. No one is invincible. Don't believe me? Just ask any of the dead personnel from Task Force Ranger, who fought the Black Hawk Down incident. Oh, you can't... They're dead. These guys were Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and Army Rangers -- some of the toughest, best trained soldiers in the world. But untrained, malnourished, drug-addled bozos with rickety AK-47's killed them.

Our old friend MLK may take issue with us as "hobbyists" considering "real fighting." But the fact is, martial arts divorced from an understanding of martial reality are nothing more than dancing. Even if we don't ever intend to engage in actual hand-to-hand combat with an angry adversary, we need to keep the truth of combat in our minds as we train.

Friday, January 25, 2008

That is some handsome devil, isn't it?

Guess what? That's me...

I know you've all been starving for some pictures after a couple of weeks of plain text blog posts. Remember how I told you there would be some changes coming to the blog? Well, this is one of them. I'm going to do my absolute best not to stea... I mean "borrow" pictures from elsewhere on the vast World Wide Web. This will, of course, mean that I need to build up a photo library. That could take some time, so be gentle if you see the same photos over and over for awhile.

So I thought it would be only fair of me to share such a high-quality photo of myself as the first personal photograph. So... There I am.

Please not that I am geared up for sparring. Yes, we DO spar in some branches of Budo Taijutsu. All this gear is for stand-up sparring, not rolling on the mat. We do roll; though our efforts are still pretty novice level. I'm sure the hard-core MMA/BJJ guys would merely giggle like little schoolgirls if they saw it. Hey, we all start somewhere.

You'll also note that:
a.) My stance is way too high. I've still got to learn how to bend my knees.
b.) My guard is too low. Sure, I could lie and say the guard is intended to sucker my opponent into striking me high. The truth, however, is that I was dog tired at this point. The arms are dropping. This was Hour 18 of my 24 hour sparring challenge... Okay, okay, minute 18 of my 24 minute challenge...
c.) I'm leaning slightly forward.

So... that should put to rest any rumors that I am some kind of martial arts master with vast skills and knowledge. No one is perfect -- but we all try to get just a little bit better each time we hit the mat.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Let's all play nice here.

Not withstanding my rhetorical flourish about Tae Kwon Do in the next post, I've been a little miffed by all the trash talk on the Internet between martial arts styles. It's always existed to some degree, but the anonymity and ease of the Internet has allowed the dialogue to really plunge into the toilet and get trapped in the septic tank.

I find it sad, given that we're living in a golden age of martial arts. You can't spit without hitting a martial arts school. (And believe me, from what I've seen said online, there's plenty of spitting going on...) But not only are there plenty of schools , there's also a diversity of arts available.

That gives a person many choices to start out. You can easily find an art that suits your needs and interests whether you want to compete, learn self-defense, achieve physical fitness, or learn a particular cultural or philosophical slant. It seems many of the trash talkers forget that there are many benefits to martial arts, and not everyone comes into the arts with the same goals.

At more advanced levels, the availability of many different martial arts allows a serious artist to explore a second - or third, or fourth - art and learn new skills, while hopefully developing new perspectives on old skills.

I was heartened, for example, to read an interview with a professional MMA fighter in which he said he'd like to learn Tai Chi next. Although he didn't expect to cop a Tai Chi movement inside the cage, he wanted the benefits of spirituality, relaxation, and meditation the art is famous for.

A serious student of the martial arts will tell you that all martial arts are simply variations on a theme. Each is a theory of movement tied to a combat strategy, laid over the same principles of biomechanics, physics, and psychology shared by all humans. In other words: there are only so many ways for a person to punch, kick, lock, or throw. There are only a limited number of angles to strike or cut with a weapon.

Rather than denigrating other arts, we should be looking at them more closely and asking the simple question: "Why does this art do it this way?"

One of the things I respect about the modern MMA concept is that they are very willing to look for and borrow techniques from any style. If their approach suffers from a limitation, it's that most of the application is designed for a one-on-one confrontation against a single opponent in the ring. This seems to blind many of them to the utility and effectiveness of arts originally intended for battlefield combat against armed or armored opponents. They have trouble understanding this context.

Of course, traditional arts don't have a monopoly on good ideas to explore. Modern arts offer innovative methods for conditioning. Modern arts may also address more contemporary methods of attack.

So while we may have some strong opinions about the martial arts, let's try to maintain some respect for each other. There is much we can learn from one another.

Here's a Question...

We've all followed the various explanations (and it is hard not to spell that E-X-C-U-S-E-S) from our Buyu in the Bujinkan about the Human Weapon's challenge match against the two MegaDan Boojies. One explanation is that the challenge was suppossed to highlight the hosts for this popular entertainment television program.

Unfortunately, the next episode matched Bill Duff and Jason Chambers up against a South Korean Tae Kwon Do champion. If there is one martial art in the United States with a reputation for "Craptastic" quality (rightly or wrongly), it is TKD. However, no one seems to have passed that memo to South Korea. The Champ offered to fight Bill and Jason back-to-back -- pretty gutsy. Then he proceeded to knock Big Bill Duff, easily twice the Asian's weight, unconscious for over a minute. Jason entered the ring visibly shaken, but game. Then, he landed wrong and popped his knee.

So, my question is: how silly do we look now?
What, if anything, does it mean?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Last Blood?

Sly Stallone apparently thinks there's still some life left in Rambo. I've had a couple of Vietnam Era vets tell me they're interested in seeing this. Why not? Old guys can still kick ass too. I watched Las Vegas on TV for the first couple of seasons because James Caan is still an old school tough guy. Too bad he realized he was slumming, or maybe he got tied of hanging out with hot starlets all day long?

Stallone use to be a pretty good screenwriter. And given the times, we could use a movie about what draws some men to risk their lives as warriors. This could've been a vehicle for that kind of rumination. Especially since the last time we left Rambo, he was happily helping to install the Taliban as the power in Afghanistan. And we, naively, we all proud of him at the time. But from all I've seen, this looks to be a hyper-violent action fest with only a veneer of social value.

Strike that -- if the official marketing use's death metal chanting "Let the bodies hot the floor!" then there's probably no socially redeeming value.

This is pretty cool bonus footage I found and have no other real place for right now...

The Dark Knight (Returns)

Whoa! The interest in the new Batman movie: The Dark Knight grows and grows. Heath Ledger's version of The Joker is super scary, and bears no resemblance at all to the semi-parody of previous on-screen incarnations.

Back in the 80's, everyone gushed about Jack Nicholson's portrayal. Although, overall, I liked thr movie, I was actually disappointed with Mr. Nicholson. I never really felt any menace seeping off of him. At the time, it was rumored one of the other actors up for the part was Willem DeFoe. If you ever want a glimpse of what his Joker might have been like, check out the movie, Streets of Fire. The movie is worth your time for the awesome street fight challenge match with sledgehammers. Yeah -- sledgehammers.

Anyway, getting back to the Dark Knight. Heath Ledger's Joker seems much closer to the mental image I've carried around of what could've been with a DeFoe Joker back in the 80's. Sick, Nuts, Anarchic, and Ruthless.

Check out all the currently available with these links. This has nothing to do with the new movie, but was famous from a couple of ComicCons ago. I apologize that whoever posted it to YouTube spoiled the surprise with the title. It's still worth watching; it's far above the average FanFilm.


One of the hottest and newest blogs out there is:

What is io9 all about? Anything science fiction. How cool is it? Well, they're hip enough to recognize the brilliant genius of Flash Gordon: Savior of the Universe. And they are up-to-date on the latest movies coming out.

I've also started reading Smash Pass, an opinionated Judo/BJJ blog. How opinionated? Check this post out... Ouch, that last one kind of hurts. But I still like browsing through his old posts.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

History Channel's Other Cool Show

My interest in Human Weapon already well-documented here on the Blog, I thought I'd put in a plug for the other cool show on the History Channel: Monster Quest!

I grew up watching "In Search Of..." and still get excited about 30-year old reruns when I find them on the air. So this show hit a soft spot for me.

Now, let me state upfront that I don't necessarily believe in the phenomena. After all, the simplest explanation is usually the most likely in these weird situations. Fortunately, half the fun for me is to hear and see the stories; the other half of the fun is suspending my disbelief for the length of time it takes to watch the shows. And a small percentage of the fun comes from hearing from folks who make comments like this.

And before I start to look like some kind of shill for the History Channel... The Discovery Channel has decided to pay the ultimate compliment to Human Weapon by coming up with their very own version of the show -- Fight Quest! Here's a listing of the upcoming episodes. Check out the FAQ's in which one question actually is: How will your show be different from Human Weapon?

Who cares? We all get to see two more guys' perspective on training in some of the major martial arts styles on the planet. That's awesome. I've also caught a couple of episodes of Discovery's Last One Standing, following a group of athletes around the world as they compete in native sport competitions, including several wrestling events.

What I'd love to see next is a show that puts one or two people into a single traditional martial art and follows the training for a whole season. Every season, the show changes arts. Hey! Maybe I should pitch that idea to Discovery or the National Geographic Channel?

Human Weapon and the notorious ninjutsu episode...

Let me start with something that may seem completely unrelated...

There was a fantastic episode of the classic TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" which starts with Buffy on one of her regular patrols of the Sunnydale cemetary. She encounters a small group of nameless Vampires and starts a fight. She kills the first couple with little effort and even trades a couple of quips and one-liners. Suddenly, one of the Vampires stabs her with one of her own stakes and she barely manages to dust the punk before he kills her.

Buffy gets patched up by her Watcher, Giles, and is dumb-founded that some low level, pissant Vampire had snuck a basic attack in on her. This shouldn't have happened; she's The Slayer, and has survived longer than any other Slayer in history.

Buffy finally decides to bring the problem to Spike, a powerful Vampire who she with whom she shares a strained friendship. Spike killed two Vampire Slayers in the past, so if anyone can tell Buffy what mistakes were made, it should be Spike.

The rest of the episode is Spike recounting how and why he came to kill two Slayers, but Buffy isn't prepared for his answers.

Spike explains that part of his success was that he wanted the victory more. And the rest, and really the better part of it, was that the Slayers both just had bad luck.

And that's the lesson. It doesn't matter who you are, or what your training is... in the end, you're just human and can be defeated.

Much has been made of the Challenge segment from the Human Weapon's Ninjutsu episode. I've watched it maybe a dozen times, and come away from it each time with a different opinion.

If you haven't seen it: both hosts, Bill Duff and Jason Chambers, got to spar with two senior students of the Bujinkan. The sparring match consisted of a three round point match with mostly fukoro shinai (padded bamboo training swords), although other weapons and unarmed techniques were employed.

Bill Duff came out of his match against a 13th Dan Boojie the winner on points. Jason Chambers fought a 15th Dan Boojie and technically lost on points, but showed extremely well. Jason provided the most fodder for the Internet's Monday Morning Fighters when his opponent chose to throw away his weapons and close for grappling. Jason, apparently a BJJ Brown Belt, rather handily tripped his 15th Dan opponent, mounted his back, and instead of choking him out, chose to retrieve a shinai and "stab" the Boojie for a point.

The internet has been a flutter with comments. Everybody seems to think the challenge validates their own point of view. And on the Internet, Dueling Agendas are much like Nuclear War -- nobody really wins. After repeated viewings (including one simultaneous with writing this post), I have mixed reactions. Even after reading and meditating upon the (rather brave) explanation from Jason Chamber's opponent about his decision to grapple an MMA fighter, I still don't know what to think. I do think the episode was eye-opening for many Bujinkan practitioners.

I choose not to comment more directly on the episode. Some may consider this the coward's way out. Beyond saying that anyone can lose, no matter what offical rank certificate has been issued to them, I do not want to become a Bujinkan apologist in this instance. My long experience with Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu and first hand knowledge of people who have used their Bujinkan training in dangerous occupations (military and law enforcement) makes me confident that it is a martial art of value.

I prefer to answer the challenges and issues raised by this episode in my own training rather than empty words on the Internet. You'll see plenty of posts on my training in 2008. So if you want to know what I really thought of the Human Weapon: Ninjutsu episode, keep reading the blog...

Happy New Year!

Wow. That was some break. Sorry about that.

I was spending some quality time with the family.

I checked in once, only to find a challenging comment left on my post regarding Kris knives. I did leave a response there answering the question about my research. If anyone has anything legitimate to add to this discussion, I'd appreciate it.

I do try to research my posts about substantive subjects, but my research is only as good as the sources to which I have access. Since this is a web log, not an academic setting, I don't typically cite my sources in MLA format, but I'm usually happy to mention my sources. If you have different information, I want to hear about it (assuming you'll be polite...) and it's even better if you also can describe your sources.

Recent events -- such as the challenging (sometimes rude) comments, the recent discovery of a person "cut-and-pasting" several posts, and some issues in the larger blogosphere about intellectual property -- caused me to consider the future of this blog during my break. I'm considering several changes over the course of the year. Stay tuned.