Friday, August 21, 2009

Catharsis by kirikaeshi

Right, to make up for the previous post's fail, here's a vid of the 55th All-Japan Kendo Championship showing the closest thing I've ever seen to a perfect strike in a kendo tourney:

I wouldn't bother past 0:30. After red (Hiromitsu Sato) got that singularly stunning point, he spent the rest of the match being cheeky and turtling and making sure white (RyoichinUchimura) didn't touch him.

As per this year's New Year Resolutions, I've been attending kendo with renewed vigour and especially relishing the Wednesday sessions, where I will come back almost invariably with bruises on my hip, forearm and sometimes head, a hoarse voice and the satisfaction of inching ever closer to Shodan. Beer tastes really, really good after kendo. It's what I tell myself, towards the last stages of a class, when we engage in freestyle training against the senseis. Not "Gotta be stronger, better, faster... Must defeat everyone!" or similar silliness out of some children's anime. Just "Earn your b33r, you bastard." Those are the words that push me past the previous week's limits, that hurl me headlong into crossing swords against sensei who move so fast and hit so hard they leave bruises on my wrist in the shape of my gauntlets.

I don't think I'd be exaggerating to say that I get a bigger rush out of kendo than anything I've ever, ever done. I've dabbled in Taekwondo, Wingchun, Taijiquan, Baguazhang and reached a reasonable standard in Capoeira. Yes, dabbled, never got a black belt or anything like that, just picked up a wee bit of the movements and theory. But I reached the rank of verde in Capoeira under the happy and cool guidance of Grupo Beribazu, which basically meant I was one rank away from being officially allowed to teach under the supervision of another mestre. But none of these ever gave the same sense of release as donning my armour.

Wearing that armour, we all have the same face, with little in the way of distinguishing features - a nicer sword, a slightyly shinier breastplate maybe. But not much beyond our name tags:

Haruka adding some personal touches to my zekken (name tag).

The point is, behind those duralumin bars, there is a sense of being allowed to be someone else, to drop your inhibitions and throw yourself into training with an insane ferocity you'd never dream of mustering outside the dojo.

Behind that armour, there is no fear of hurting or being hurt (bruises don't count), despite the knowledge that every solid strike of a shinai easily translates into a killing blow with a live blade. Another inhibition dropped. The devil inside revels in his moment of freedom. His exhilaration is every blast of your kiai, the twitch of your shinai, he drinks in the satisfaction of each precisely placed blow reverberating through your fingertips.

And when the class ends and helmets are taken off, everyone is a human with a face again, sweaty smiles and polite bows and rigid dojo etiquette. What goes on behind those smiling faces? If they're anything like me, you'd hear something like "W00t! I totally killed Kasahara-san today! Ok, he killed me 5 times before I caught him a good one on his hand, but w00t! Right, where's that b33r..."

In my readings, I've come to the conclusion that for all our big buildings, swish clothes and fancy gadgetry, we are still animals. By which I mean that in each of us is the capacity for great savagery and hate and cruelty and the like. You don't have to look very far to find it. As such, I'm all for taking this monster that lives inside us, then understanding it and, most importantly, controlling it. Not supressing it completely, mind you, that just leads to it leaking out in inconvenient moments, like an epic case of the runs. It should be let out to play. Of course, martial arts aren't the only way to achieve such release, but that having been said, I've yet to encounter any method for indulging one's inner demons as constructive as the martial arts. And among the martial arts I've sampled, I've yet to encounter a release so complete as in kendo.

Some may argue that the armour inhibits you somewhat, that it's a crutch. I think not. I think behind the anonymity of the helmet, we are free to unleash a side of ourselves that usually remains stifled for most of our lives. And in taking the monster inside and taming it, we understand that much more of ourselves, and the monsters inside everyone. This is why no matter how strong my opponent or no matter how hopelessly outclassed I am in a duel, I do not care. The physical part of the duel is not truly the point of kendo.

Before one puts on one's helmet, there's a cloth called a tenugui that you have to wrap round your head, to absorb the sweat and some of the shock of getting hit over the head with a shinai. On it is written a little slogan expressing some key concept of kendo, like 無心 (mushin - empty heart/mind), 不動心 (fudoushin - the unmoving heart/mind), the Heart Sutra or some such. One of the things that drew me to kendo was a popular phrase that turns up quite often on tenugui, and adorns my first one: 交剣知愛. Ko ken chi ai. Roughly translated, it comes out as "Cross swords, know love".

Well, these are the ramblings of a 5th kyu kendoka who thinks too much. It takes at least 10,000 strokes of the shinai to build up the technique necessary to be worthy of wearing armour. I cannot begin to guess how many thousands more I must give and recieve before I can say I'm shodan, let alone how many more before I bear 2 swords into kata practice. I expect when I do, I'll come back to these words after a class, beer in hand and have a good laugh.

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