Friday, February 26, 2010

Playing From Versus Playing To...

A long time ago I wrote about Mac tricking me into a weapons tournament. Been thinking about that, as well as a conversation between acquaintances on the efficiency or superiority of jo versus katana.

I stayed out of the conversation, but it was quickly apparent that I didn’t see the problem the way the people arguing did. It ties back to that tournament. In the tournament (and it wasn’t any big thing, just a small round robin among friends), I stuck with a shinai the whole time. I’m used to katana or boken. The shinai itself is something I never practice with. It is too straight, too long and too light. The other competitors were very skilled and everyone had their pick of weapons- sticks, spears, staffs, shinai, daggers, sword and shield.

The choice of weapon wasn’t the reason I made it through undefeated, though I over-heard one of the other contenders comment that “the katana is a superior weapon.” It isn’t really-- I’d rather use a spear any time I have range, or a pair of short swords if I don’t-- and I wasn’t using a katana anyway.

The thing the others players were doing (speculation alert) and the genesis of the argument about katana and jo, is that everyone was trying to figure out what they could do with what they had. They were playing from their resources, trying to maximize their skill base to win.

The stickfighters were fighting with their sticks with all they had, for instance.

I was looking at what my opponent had. How do you defeat a pair of sticks? Sword and shield? Spear? Another shinai.? Strategizing to the opponent instead of from myself.

The katana/jo thing. You don’t use a stick against a sword the way you use a stick against a stick.

There are people who will tell you that blade and stick are interchangeable, but they haven’t thought about it much. Both are longer than they are wide, but they do damage in very different ways and do their most serious damage to different tissues. Orientation (is it edge on?) isn’t a problem with a club. Things that bleed off power from blunt strikes will still leave you bleeding badly if you try them on blades.

One of the conversants in the great debate, impressed with the might of steel, offered to stand with his katana against anyone who would face him with a jo. He explained that steel was inherently superior to wood, stronger, more dangerous.

But it’s not, really. Wood and steel are strong in different ways. For that matter different types of wood are different. Part of the problem is how to use one against the other. The bigger problem is how to use a staff against a swordsman or a sword against a jodoka.

Jo against jo might be a matter of skill.

Jo against sword? In the first second you will see if he is afraid or not. If he is not afraid, he will come to you. You shorten your grip and the jo has nearly a foot of extra reach and you beat at his hands until he can no longer hold his weapon, circling and angling as he tries to close.

If you see the glimmer of fear, you close, pressing the center of the jo into the blade, hoping it bites, making sure it does because that will buy you the instant to get into the dead space behind his hands, where you can use elbows, the staff and your hands to punish or strip away his weapon…

Sword against jo? The only thing you have to fear is the thrust, and that only at specific range. If the point of the jo strays outside of the triangle, launch an attack pressing the blade, hips and feet all closing. He cannot retreat as fast as you advance. If he angles press on.

If the point never strays, circle (blade high) until you catch his feet slightly impeded, then circle your sword down, gliding his tip to the side as you step in. Use the sword as a pressing blade and do not forget the hilt, your elbows, knees and head.


Steve Perry said...

Um ... In the interest of clarity, a couple questions, since I'm obviously missing something.

If the swordsman isn't afraid, I don't see how it necessarily follows that he would always come for you. He might hang back and let you come to him -- letting you think he's afraid while he sets up a trap. Not an altogether unusual strategy, to pretend weakness or fear.

If all you have to do with the jo is bash his hands until he drops the sword, shouldn't the swordsman fear that, and not just the point? HIm disarmed and you with the jo, that's not the best thing for him, is it?

I would think that skill with one's weapon -- which would include perhaps learning how to use it against unlike weapons -- might be the salient point, hai? Even you disallow that steel is better than wood, then it would seem the more skilled player would have an advantage.

Unknown said...

Minor note: Type of wood? Kamagong, for instance, known in the Malay archipelago as "Iron Wood", is heavy and dense enough to break metal. Especially if you hit the sword from the side.
Eric Knauss, one of the founders of the Dog Brothers, fought against a guy with a bokken on one of the original DB tapes. It was the only time I saw Eric take damage and the bokken broke a rib.
You don't defeat the weapon, you defeat the man.

Mac said...

So much time is spent on complicating the simple. Because, I think, trying to define a feeling is not so simple. But, for brevity, "just HIT the guy!" (Master Bruce Terrill, Shorinryu). Thus, winning, or surviving. Who sees, feels and does beats in time and space those who see, analyze and do. Simple, no?

Steve Perry said...

Indeed, Mac, simple. We have that as, "When in doubt, hit."

Not necessarily easy to master, but not complicated. "If then" is a good exercise to develop one's tools, but there's a corollary -- "But what if I did this?" that seems to be part and parcel of hypothetical instances.

IF he does A, then I'll do B is the theory; as Rory is fond of pointing out, it doesn't always work that way. One has to adjust one's intent to the reality at hand.

Since, as I'm sure you know the saw attributed to von Moltke the Elder -- No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy -- then, He'll do this, I'll do that, he'll respond thus isn't set in stone.

I think one of the goals in training is to gain enough skill so that the what-shall-I-do? question gets answered in the moment and not in advance. One has to start somewhere, of course, and prearranged call-and-response drills offer a good place to begin, but I believe you aren't going to know what the answer is until the question get asked.

Mac said...

"When in doubt, hit," a perfect corollary for directing the decision when there are too many question. Thanx, Steve.

Anonymous said...

"Iron Wood", is heavy and dense enough to break metal."

Really? Mythbusters took on the idea of a sword cutting another sword and came up with a big no. (although cheap modern replicas would break real swords wouldn't). Not directly the same thing butclose enough that I'm suspicious.

Of course things are always spotty with historical metallurgy. Get the wron batch of impurities or screw up the process a little and you can end up with a very brittle metal. So, maybe I guess. Wouldn't count on it though.

"There are people who will tell you that blade and stick are interchangeable"

Well, coming from a fairly extensive background in one of those arts I would bring up a couple of caveats. a) The stick was originally just a way to train the blade, like having a rubber knife. b) The blades that culture had were roughly equivalent to the stick in length. c)While at your level the differances might seem abundantly clear for basic or even intermediate students I think the similarities far outweigh the differances. No point in worrying too much about the subtlties of the tool until you have a firm grasp of basic movement kind of thing. Maybe it's worth growing out of that perception but it seems useful for a certain stage of development.

Maija said...

I've been following your blog with interest for quite while now - I very much enjoy your insights :-)
Felt I wanted to respond here.
I play Eskrima, and some Japanese sword. Started out in Foil fencing many moons ago.
All weapons IMHO have a distinct personality, sticks are not swords and vice versa, just as swords of different shapes move differently in space depending on curve, recurve and length. A stick does not have an edge, but has interchangeable ends ... a sword may have one or 2 edged sides, or just a sharp tip, which changes how you can use your other hand. Then there's length, 2 or 1 handed play etc etc. All have their strengths and weaknesses.
I agree that it is still a human holding the weapon, and that this is who you are fighting against above all else, but I don't think you can't ignore the weapon ... if they are skilled, you have to tactically use your advantages against their disadvantages to prevail - don't play them at their own game.
Like I said, just my experience :-)
PS: Totally agree that length gives an advantage, especially if you know how to shorten up if need be, and I'd absolutely pick 2 weapons over 1 if faced with length advantage.

Rory said...

Interesting what people chose to read.
Technical stuff- different woods are different, as noted in the original post. To reply to anonymous re "Mythbusters" I've only heard of one experiment on wood versus steel (and it has been years since I read it). Donn Draeger was tasked with destroying masses of Japanese swords during the occupation after WWII. The procedure was to run over them with a steamroller. In order to get some data and not waste them, he smacked several of them with full force blows from hardwood jo. He reported that the highest quality swords (those made by famous smiths) shattered. Lower quality swords bent. Interesting, no?

To all, and I'm not sure who got it and who didn't... you can't take the other guy, not his weapon and not even his emotions out of the equation. Solo skills in this game aren't skills at all, only games. Whatever you can do, you need to be able to do it with repect to the other, or else you are only dancing in air, alone.

Maija said...

My Eskrima teacher taught that the first skill you learn in sword dueling is the ability to read your opponent - their state, their personality, their ability, and what they are armed with. He called this 'reading' (no surprise!), though I guess you could include listening, observing, connecting etc.
He called the skill that came from this 'writing', where you are using the opponents tendencies, their strengths and weaknesses (self, weapon, environment), to create opportunities for yourself to prevail.
What you do is CONNECTED to what they do, but is not the same as playing purely defense or simply following.
Is this similar to what you are saying?
Also, do you think this is more important when using weapons, than empty hand? Or has it the same importance in your opinion?
Thanks :-)

Rory said...

I've touched on this here:
and it could use some expansion. All four of the factors are important. All of them can be experienced, understood and manipulated at different depths. And the really good fighters thrive on the interactions between the factors at all depths.

The original argument amused me because people were getting so emotional about the superiority of one tool over another, when all a tool does by itself is sit in a tool box. A tool is chosen by a person and how that person understands/relates/bonds with that tool is often obvious and valuable information.

Just rambling.

Steve Perry said...

Well, my input was not in favor of shadow-boxing, but a belief that before you can deal with somebody else's weapon you need to know how to use the one you have.

If I can't put my foot where I want it, chances are I can't make you put your foot where I want it, either.

And, as Rory has pointed out to me more than a couple times, you aren't going to know which movie you'll be seeing until you get to the theater ...

Maija said...

Thanks :-)