Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tachiuchi no Shinkendo

Japanese swordsmanship has always been a favorite of mine. And as such, I have sought out the Samurai Arts and have trained over the last year and a half at the Shinkendo Honbu Dojo located in the heart of Little Tokyo under it’s founder master swordsman Toshishiro Obata. I consider myself fortunate enough to train under such a renown swordsman of Samurai liniage who once held the title for seven years in the All Japan Swordsmanship Championship. And train we do six days a week!

Under the instruction of both Obata Kaiso and Mrs. Obata Sensei (seen to the right here), I have learned much of what it takes to learn the Samurai Arts. In order write Samurai fiction as I have chosen to do, it is often recommended to walk a mile in your characters shoes or in my case learn the ways of the Samurai in the most practical of means. To do this watching Akira Kurosawa Samurai films with Toshiro Mifune was not going to be enough. For this reason I chose to live Bushido by actually applying it. Though initialy, I did not plan to become a writer. It was by chance during a period of transition in my career that the process of learning swordsmanship had come about. It is often suggested to write about what you know. I knew Japanese history but not the way of the sword. Since I had started my training, my writing has only since benefited from first hand knowledge of leanring how of what goes into actually weilding a sword and the power that goes with it.

It was the works of Yukio Mishima that inspired me to take art and unite it with action. With that ideal I trained in Kendo at Osaka Sangyo University Learning Center in Studio City but felt unsatisfied with my training. In Kendo, we work with Kendo Bogu (armor) that was loosely based on Samurai armor and bamboo Shinai sword. In that year I was only taught three strike points of men, kote, & do. This was fun at first but after some time I became frustrated with some of the kenshi I trained with. It seemed there was less focus on the art of Japanenese swordsmanship and more focus on wining kendo tournaments. I do not blame my former Sensei’s but my own lack of understanding. Neither my limited understanding at the time in Zen Buddhism or the Gorin No Sho could answer this. I had joined at age 37 roughly the age that Yukio Mishima had started. But at 37 competing with 18 year old kids who didn’t work for a living and had never smoked or downed enough sake to kill a horse, didn’t appeal to me. I felt like the odd man out and so I left.

Being away from any dojo can be painful and the older you get the harder it is to return. But to return to kendo didn't seem right. I felt there was more to swordsmanship than just attacking three strike points. I wanted to learn more realistic Japanese swordsmanship but didn't know where. I had considered Iaido but there were no dojo’s that called out to me. I did find an awesome looking school hidden somewhere in Little Tokyo but their hours made training with them impossible. I had considered the Aikido Center in East LA but something told me to hold off on that. During this period in 2007 I had started to watch the NHK Taiga Drama Furin Kazan which I loved ever since seeing the 1969 film version starring Toshiro Mifune.

It was the way Kunske Yamamoto stared at the Kai Domain with great pride and his love for the banners of Shingen Takeda. Swift as the Wind – Silent as the Forrest – Fierce as the Fires – Immovable as the Mountains. It was something about those diamond mon and the Furin Kazan banners itself that awakened the yearning to seek out the right dojo. And in doing so I had found the Shinkendo website while I was doing research on the Takeda Clan.

As fortune would have it, Obata Kaiso descended from not only the Heike Clan but one of the famous 24 Takeda Generals Obata Masamori, Lord of Kaizo Jo Castle. Being a huge Furin Kazan & Takeda fan the lure of being connected to them was quite applealing.

To quote Pulp Fiction, Shit! That’s all you had to say! 
So it was in March of 2008 that I petitioned and was accepted into the Shinkendo Shinkage by Mrs. Obata Sensei. I have trained rigorously since that time and in August of 2008 I had passed my first test and achieved the first rank of Ichimonji in Shinkendo. I did not qualify to take my exams in 2009 due to some unrelated injuries I sustained and some personal drama. However, I am in the running for my upcoming exams for Jiho rank in February 2010 as well as my Kyu Rank in Toyama Ryu. In order to do this Kaiso says ”Practice, Practice, Practice!”
Here to the right I am seen recieving Ichimonji no Shinkendo August 2008. Shinkendo has its liniage in various Ryu such as the famous Yagu-Shinkage. Shinkendo is truly the masterwork of its founder Toshishiro Obata. We primarily work with wooden Boken, Bokto, and now and then Iaito Sword. Should a student qualify or is of higher rank then they can participate in Tameshigiri which is live test cutting with real Katana Shinken Swords. This is exciting to watch especially when Obata Kaiso does this with two swords. I can’t but think of Musashi at Ganryujima when I see him slice through a pair of targets with both swords in hand.
Shinkendo is practical sword art combining coordination, technique, timing, and overall safety. In the time since I had first started my training I have learned multiple techniques in Tarengata (prearragnged solo practice forms) and tachiuchi (carefully choregraphed sparring) Despite some moves being choreographed we learn them for safety. In the days of the Samurai, accidents were both life altering and in some cases fatal. Accidents still take place particularly in the act of chiburi or blood flickering. For this reason the Shinkendo emphasizes heavily on saftey and has one of the best safety records of any weapon based martial art. As a “Shindoka Kohai” we are also taught Toyama-Ryu which was a sword art devised by the Japanese Imperial Army. Toyama-Ryu includes such moves as Batsu-Jitsu and Gunto-Soho. Toyama-Ryu and Shinkendo are tested as two separate arts. Obata Sensei is one of the few people outside of Japan you can learn this from which he has included this into the Shinkendo curriculum. This is awesome when we do this in demonstration style in large groups. If you are at a Japanese Matsuri and see Shinkendo listed under demonstrations, this is something you will not want to miss.
Aside from Toyama Ryu, The Obata’s also teach Aikido/Aikibujitsu as well as Bojitsu – the art of the Bo Staff. What’s good to know in regards to Aikido is that Obata Sensei was the instructor for the Tokyo Riot Police in Aikido and Aikibujitsu. They train in hand to hand combat, work with Bo staffs, Tanto, Sais, and bokto. The Obatas employ strict discipline and a heavy emphasis on safety and tradition. So when considering an Aikido instructor you may want to consider training under the Obatas.

The Age of the Samurai may be gone but the Spirit of the Samurai and the arts that made the Samurai are still with us beyond the shores of Japan. That spirit known as Budodamashi lives on in dojos around the world. I am lucky enough to live close to Little Tokyo to be in range of the Honbu Dojo for Shinkendo.
If you are not in the area, lament not for there are other Shinkendo Dojo’s in America as well as others around the world which you can easily find at the Shinkendo website. It is available in both English and Japanese.
To find out more about Shinkendo
Please visit their website at or visit the Honbu Dojo.
333 Alameda in the Little Tokyo Shopping Center.
Until then,
Jinsei Shinkendo!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

侍映画 - Eiga no Mifune

As you might have guessed, I love Samurai films. Particularly Samurai films with Toshiro Mifune. Now and then I am lucky enough to catch a classic Samurai film in Little Tokyo or when they have a Samurai Film Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. I am a member of the Screen Actors Guild and Film Society. As such, I am fortunate enough to see many film screenings and meet many industry professionals. Recently I have been running into Samurai film buffs and have been engaged in many great conversations. At the recent screening of The Last Station ( a film about the final days of Leo Tolstoy ) I got into a deep talk about amazing scenes from classic Samurai Films. There are so many memorable scenes largely with the legendary Toshiro Mifune and other greats of his era that if I had to name one for this month I will refer to the 1957 Akira Kurosawa classic THRONE OF BLOOD aka Kumonosu-jō - The Spider Web Castle.

If you are not familiar with THRONE OF BLOOD it's basically Shakespeare's Macbeth set in feudal Japan. Toshiro Mifune plays Washizu Taketoki who essentially murders his way to becoming lord. He will stop at nothing to attain power and with the manipulations of his power hungry wife he is driven over the edge by the prohpecies of a ghostly encounter in the Spider Web Forrest. A phantom ghost has promised Tatetoki "You shall reign until the tree's rise against you." This quote comes back to haunt him when his castle is under siege. During the final siege, a moment of cinematic genius fills the screen when Mifune's Tatetoki looks out a gun port and sees in literal LSD vision tree's encroaching on his castle. This freaks Mifune's character out and sends this murderous lord into a panic and ultimately seals his doom.

Now I am not sure if Kurosawa was experimenting with hallucinatic drugs at the time or it just happened that this was a popular theme during the 1960's. But I can say the blurry sight of trees rushing the castle while the quote from the ghost plays out brilliantly!

I am glad I didn't see the tree scene when I was a teenager!
I would have freaked! In any case Throne of Blood is a brilliant use of the Macbeths framework and an excellent adaptation. This film was made on the slopes of Mount Fuji and makes an extensive use of fog in many of the exterior scenes. Filmed in black & white, Akira's creative use of natural elements and dramatic effects gives you a sense of being there.
If you see this for the first time be sure to screen a copy of Akira Kurosawa's RAN. But we'll talk about that another time! In the menatime I highly recommend Throne of Blood. You won't be dissappointed!