There is a stillness in his movements, even as he springs out of his crouch and brings the sword down in a swift arc to cut down yet another invisible enemy. Throughout the demonstration, his expression remains one of intense concentration. He is Superman, a lone warrior matched against a barrage of attackers, thrusting here and slicing there, fending off a blow only to strike almost instantaneously. What does it matter that we cannot see his opponents?
As students, parents and children sat cross-legged on blue plastic mats last Sunday in the ’62 Center dance studio, Thomas Hooper and four other students of the Sei-Zan Kai, a Kendo club, brought us into the worlds of the Japanese martial arts Kendo and Iaido in a demonstration sponsored by the Department of Asian Studies and Lecture Committee. The distant mountains are visible from the window of the dance studio and, for a moment, the scene before us is reminiscent of one in The Last Samurai – save for the jumble of snow-caked shoes and winter coats piled on the couches outside.
Perhaps my eagerness to turn to Hollywood imagery betrayed an ignorance of the spirit of this modern martial art based on kenjutsu, or classical Japanese sword arts – an ignorance that Hooper quickly challenged. The demonstration both elevated my perception of Japanese swordsmanship and demystified the art of Kendo, separating it from the trite, overplayed scenes of misty bamboo groves or showers of cherry blossom petals and placing it in the tangible accessibility of Williamstown.
The demonstration began with an exposition of “Kendo no kata,” a form of practice in which partners attack one another with wooden swords (bokken) according to a prearranged sequence of moves. As Hooper launched into a detailed commentary on the different types of attacks and counterattacks – from striking the opponent’s head to striking his wrist or torso – I began to recognize the level of technical skill and precision needed for such a sport.
While one technique involves anticipating the opponent’s attack, dodging diagonally and then striking the other’s wrist, another involves obscuring the sword behind one’s back to conceal the length of the blade. Even the yells of the attacker can be specific to the target they are striking: “men” for the forehead, “kote” for the wrist, “do” for the torso and “tsuki” for the throat. Later demonstrations involving the shinai, a practice sword constructed from four slats of bamboo held together with leather and cord, were no less exacting. The scenarios enacted – an opponent attacking from behind, or three opponents attacking – did involve fluid pivots and swift slashes, but these were not merely the effortless flourishes I had seen in cartoons or on the big screen. Each move was a blend of precise timing, calculated strength and quiet grace and it was this conscious, painstaking calculation that made each move a work of art.
Iaido, a “sub-specialty” of Kendo that Hooper compared to the “quickdraw of the 19th century gunslingers,” possessed grace equal to the original form. Although the two demonstrators could not actually interact through their weapons (which were actual, unsharpened swords), they nevertheless moved in sync with one another. The two demonstrators tied on their swords, rose from their sitting positions and bounded across the floors as though dancing to a silent rhythm.
Each time the demonstrators prepared to resheath their swords, they drew their blades gently across the hand resting on the scabbard, performing the chiburi, the removal of enemy blood from the blade. Such intimacy and respect for their weapons intrigued me. One particularly striking moment was when the two knelt and bowed reverently to their swords before beginning their drills. The sword is not merely a tool, but a “teacher.” “We are learning from this thing which is not merely an object to us,” Hooper explained during the demonstration. One of the seven sacred articles in Japanese mythology, the sword has come to represent the “very soul of the samurai.” It is fitting then, that the translation for “Kendo” is “the way of the sword.” To learn Kendo is not merely to master the technique. Instead, it is to learn self-control and focus, to pursue self-betterment through severe training, to follow a chosen path.
Aside from the shuffling of the demonstrator’s feet and the swishing of their swords, the only things that interrupted the entranced silence in the audience were the crying and laughter of the children in the audience. Though distracting at times, these sounds and their connection to the ordinary familiarity of the everyday served as a reminder to recognize that the art of sword fighting reaches beyond the bounds of tournaments and scoring points. Japanese sword fighting was once an integral part of daily life, and Kendo, though now universally considered a sport, has in many ways retained this relevance. “Kendo,” Hooper concluded, “is not so much a sport, or a performance, as a philosophy, a way of life.”