Monthly Archives: September 2013

Lefty Combat at the Movies: Samurai Swordsmanship Vol 2: Intermediate Sword Program

If you have a Netflix account, you may have seen martial arts videos listed in their catalog. After seeing these myself, I decided to rent them and watch them, viewing them from the perspective of a foam combat fighter to see what could be gleaned from these videos on other styles. Having watched one in the past, I hoped to pick up at least one interesting new idea. My biggest complaint with a lot of martial arts systems is that their instruction focuses on the what, not the why. Don’t tell me how your kata is done, tell me why you end with the off-hand foot kicked out in a cross-step at the end.

Part 1: Pants

So, with mixed hopes, I popped “Samurai Swordsmanship Vol 2: Intermediate Sword Program” intro my DVD player. The DVD starts with a ten minute video on how to get dressed. Knowing how to tie an obi with a flat knot would be handy if I wore a hakama because the flat knot prevents the obi’s knot from being pressed into your body by the hakama pants. Sadly, the video doesn’t point this out; I deduce this from my own experiences. My optimism wanes.

After a short video on sword etiquette, the video talks about three sword postures, or stances.

Part 2: Stances

Migi Waki Stance

Migi Waki Stance

The first is Migi Waki, which is a sideways posture. Off-hand foot is forward, feet are about a shoulder-width and a half apart, and the sword is held at the rear (dominant hand) hip, with the blade angled down. No explanation is given for the stance, but I’ve fought numerous people adopting the stance. However effective it is for a Samurai with a real sword, it gets you killed very quickly in foam fighting; your defense is behind you, your attack angles are too predictable, and your weapon has to travel way too far to hit your opponent. The initial upward angle of your primary attack is likely to be problematic for your opponent if he is also using a two-handed sword, but the additional flexibility and reach of a single-hand stance removes this problem in foam fighting. (To demonstrate, hold your hands together, extend them as far in front of you as you can, then reach towards your left while holding your hands together. There will come a point where you can reach no further left unless you left go, and then your left hand can move much further to the left. )

Hidari Hasso Stance

Hidari Hasso Stance

The second stance is Hidari Hasso, which is a stance where the shoulders are square to the opponent. The feet at a shoulder width apart and the sword is held against the off-hand shoulder. This is another classic example of how other martial arts do not translate to foam fighting. The hips and stomach are exposed, and the dominant hand shoulder is idea for a stab, as the blocking device is not only on the wrong side of the body, but the head is in the way. With the dominant-hand arm across the body, it is also extremely vulnerable to a quick chop to the forearm. The block for the forearm is going to not only be difficult, but is going to force you to bring your own weapon across your eye-line right in front of your face, which you generally want to avoid. Not only will this disrupt your vision, but movements across the eye-line tend to instinctively draw and focus the eye, and you really don’t want to be distracted by your own weapon. Most likely, the opponent in this stance is going to backpedal and trace, throwing a chop at you when you attack them. The predictable angle of this attack from this position makes them ripe for either a stutter-step to draw the attack (leading to a block and riposte) if your opponent is extra twitchy, or an attack with a return to guard through the block against this attack.

Hidari Waki Stance

Hidari Waki Stance

The third stance is Hidari Waki, which is essentially a mirror of the Migi Waki. The dominant-hand foot is forward, feet are about a shoulder-width and a half apart, and the sword is held at the read (off-hand) hip. Note that the hands are now crossed. This crossing limits shot options even more and decreases overall flexibility; at some point you have to uncross those arms. Essentially all the same problems that existed in Migi Waki are repeated here. The two best attack options against this stance are a quick chop at the exposed forward arm of the dominant hand followed by an aggressive block to the off-hand side of the fighter or stepping in with an aggressive block to stuff the sword of the opponent followed by a short hared chop to the body and returning to an outside guard to keep stuffing the opponent’s sword so he doesn’t hit you late. No one likes being hit. If fighting single sword, holding your sword in the hand matched against his off-hand side will allow you to stuff the opponent more completely without having to reach across your own body. Reaching across your own body means you’re stuffing him with an inside block, and ideally you want people stuffed with outside blocks so they’re deep into the outside lane.

Part 3: One-Hand Cuts

Kiri Age Strike

Kiri Age Strike

Next the video moves on to talk about cuts. At last, some combat. The first cut is the Kiri Age, which is a rising cut. This cut, like many others, starts with a sheathed weapon. Sadly, I’ve seen people holding their weapon at their side to simulate a sheathed weapon. Attacks done from this starting position never work on anyone with a clue; the attack is completely telegraphed and is easily stuffed or baited. So I’m just going to focus on the actual strike here.

The strike image shows the start, middle, and end positions. The strike starts with the blade point down. The arm straightens to give initial power to the strike, but the majority of the rotation comes from the wrist. The arm rises at the end of the strike, using the shoulder to pull the strike through. As a stand-alone shot, this is a terrible idea; predictable, monochromatic, and with an awkward starting position. However, there is something that can be gleaned from this. The mechanic of the snapping upward strike can be used as part of a sequence, such as a riposte from a deep inside block (where it might be an ideal riposte). It would be important to finish the move not with the arm held above, but with rotating the hand from palm-out back to palm-in and bringing the hand back down to the standard high guard.

The second cut they demonstrated was Tsukikage, which means “Moonshadow.” I will pause briefly while a bunch of Japanophiles change their game name to Tsukikage. Go ahead, I’ll wait. This strike is a simple one-handed rising diagonal chop from the off-hand hip. It is aimed at the eye-line of the opponent, assuming the opponent has the stereotypical over-the-head Kendo stance. The intent is to strike at the wrists and menace the eyes. The strike itself is predictable, slow, and not legal in any of the foam-fighting games I’m aware of. Also, people with their swords held over their heads can be stabbed so hard in the solar plexus that they fall down so you don’t need this shot anyway and I’m not even going to show a picture of it.

However, the concept of moving things across the eye-line is worth noting; people tend to track and flinch away from things that cross their eye-line at close range. Also, while they blink they are losing contact with their changing fighting environment for a fraction of a second. You can use this moment to alter your attack, surprising them in their moment of disconnect.

Part 4: Two-Handed Cuts

The first cut is the Migi Gyaku Kesa. It is the almost inevitable attack from the previously mentioned Hidari Waki stance. It is a rising two-handed chop from the off-hand hip up and across the body. No new information is added from our discussion of the Hidari Waki stance, and the demonstrated strike has all the drawbacks and weaknesses that I speculated about earlier.

The second cut is the Hidari Gyaku Kesa. It is the almost inevitable attack from the previously mentioned Migi Waki stance and mirrors the Migi Gyaku Kesa chop. It looks a lot like golf and would be about as effective in foam combat. The less said the better.

Part 5: Thrusts

Three thrusts are mentioned in this section. The first is a “draw and stab the guy behind you” move. It is somewhat awkward and is probably useful if you’re carrying a real sword and get ambushed, but has no relevance at all to foam fighting. The third is a full-lunge stab to the face, which is a terrible idea for foam fighting.

Step Thrust

Morote Tsuki

The second thrust is Morote Tsuki, a simple body thrust that is worth looking at. The sword is held two-handed directly ahead of the body in a neutral middle guard (which traditionally in foam fighting means “chop me in the forearm repeatedly) and is executing by stepping forward and using the body to provide the majority of the forward action of the strike. The arm movement is minimal and is only completed at the end of the strike.

The idea of body movement before weapon movement is worth extracting from this attack. Moving the body first allows the closing of range without giving away the specific attack and will prevent people from keying their defensive actions off of blade movement. It also allows you to keep your guard position and allows you to react to people’s counters as you close without having to counteract the attack movement of your own weapon. The downside is that you give up some element of the initiative; you may be forcing them to react, but you’re leaving open the choice of the form that reaction takes. In the final analysis, initiating your attack’s body movement before your weapon movement is a good option, but it is not a one-size-fits all solution for closing and attacking.

Part 6: Katas

Don’t get your hopes up; I’m not going to break down all the Katas. The whole idea of katas needs an entire article just to begin to address, so you’ll have to wait for that. Stringing specific strikes together into specific multi-stage actions has the advantage of drilling in complex motion which can be reproduced at high speed with great precision, but has the drawback of having to address the vast diversity of combat scenarios. I’ll talk about his another day.

Part 7: Drills

The first drill is called Tsukikage, which is the same name as an attack mentioned earlier. I note a distinct lack of creativity here. The drill is much more complex than the classic block-strike drill so well known in Amtgard. The drill begins with the attacker in the moving into the aforementioned “sword next to head” stance out of range. He steps in and cuts in a downward chop. The defender brings his sword up in a hard block, rising at the hips to absorb the force of the blow. Both opponents step in, ending up corps-a-corps with the swords at mid-height. They exit this scenario by pushing out and up, raising their swords to a high guard and stepping back. Both step back to the “sword-at-dominant-hand-hip-with-off-hand-leg forward” stance. The attacker then chooses a target; knee, hip, or shoulder. He steps forward and throws a flat chop at the chosen target. The defender uses range control to evade the attack and counter-attacks with a chop to the head, which is the “kill” in this drill.

Ultimately, the specific attacks of this drill (or the second drill, which follows a similar pattern) are not what is interesting. What is interesting is the complexity of the drill. There are two discrete attacks that make up this drill, all of which incorporate transitions, footwork, range control, and timing. The drill is complex enough to practice all these things without being so complex that it requires a lot of practice in order to be able to practice the drill.

This is the most useful thing I’ve gotten from this video, and proves to be the one “golden nugget” I always hope to find when I encounter a lecture where I already know most of the material. Finding a middle ground between mechanical drills like “block strike” and free-form practice like  “sparring” would be useful in my training. I’ve often worked out specific shot sequences to work through a flaw in my partner’s technique, repeating the actions until the issue is corrected, but the concept of specifically chaining entire attack sequences into a single drill is worth addressing.

The Recap

As I expected, there isn’t really very much “why”. I’m not getting any theory which I can use to build my own fighting; I’m getting a cookbook of moves I can replicate if I want to fight exactly the way they do. However, using my own experience I can extract some basic concepts from behind what is shown in the video. I don’t recommend this video to anybody trying to improve their fighting; you’re only going to be able to extract lessons you already know, though you can, of course, share them with others.


Body Alignment

If you’re uncertain about a term used in this post, please check the Terminology page.

Revised 09/18/2013

As a lefty, there are some concepts that apply to the majority of your combat that do not apply to the majority of righty combat. One of these concepts is body alignment. Body alignment is the term for where your center line is relative to your opponent’s center line. Your center line is an imaginary line projecting directly ahead of you from your center of mass. How this line matches up with your opponent is something which can be manipulated not just in dynamic combat but in static guard positions.

There are a couple important caveats that need to be made. I am assuming both fighters are fighting shield leg forward. If they are asymmetrically, with one sword leg forward and one shield leg forward, the dynamics change drastically. The changes in alignment discussed are also specifically lateral; changes in rotational alignment, such as by switching between sword and shield leg forward, are an entirely different issue.

Righty Aligned Center Lines

Righty Aligned Center Lines

When righties line up, they tend to off-set their center lines slightly or match them up. This gives them better defense against the other guy because his sword is within their shield borders, but since the other guy is doing the exact same thing he gets the exact same advantages.

Righty Offset Center Lines

Righty Offset Center Lines

If the righty decides to offset his center line, he gains the angle on his opponent, giving him better access to throw shots around the outside of his opponent’s shield. Unfortunately, his gives the exact same advantage to his opponent.

For the righty, manipulating how his center line interacts with his opponent’s never gains an him an advantage. It is still worth doing and being aware of, since it changes the dynamics of combat, but these changes are always a zero-sum game.

Lefty Aligned Center Lines

Lefty Aligned Center Lines

For the lefty, however, manipulating body alignment is a useful tactic for gaining an advantageous position in combat. In the default case, where both the lefty and his righty opponent have matched center lines, there is no advantage to either player. Both players have the same angles and the urge to foolishly high-cross is theoretically equal in both fighters.

Lefty Offset Center Lines

Lefty Offset Center Lines

Altering body alignment for the lefty provides a substantial combat advantage. By offsetting his center line, the lefty gains a better angle to throw to the righty’s sword side and simultaneously denies the righty a good angle to attach the lefty’s sword side. The righty is given increased exposure to the shield side, but this side is already well defended by the shield. The righty might even be more tempted to throw a high-cross to the shield shoulder, which is a low-percentage option.

Conversely, the lefty can shift his center line in the other direction. This creates an extremely attractive opening for his righty opponent by giving his opponent a good angle on his sword side while simultaneously making his shield side considerably less available. This can be used as a strong bait to encourage the righty to throw a specific, known shot to a known location, giving control of the fight to the lefty.

The alteration in body alignment can be subtle; even a slight shift gives the advantage to the lefty. Subtle alterations have the benefits of being less noticeable, and it can frequently happen that the righty is not even aware of the now altered body alignment and will attempt to throw the same shots, now with notably less success.

The core concept is that, for a lefty, lateral motion against a similarly positioned opponent creates unequal combat advantages and disadvantages, while for same-handed people it does not.

Throwing to the Outside

If you’re uncertain about a term used in this post, please check the Terminology page.

Someone recently asked why throwing to the outside is wrong. They correctly pointed out that throwing to the outside on a lefty draws a somewhat predictable return and that there is potential to capitalize on this predictability; the righty can throw to the outside, block the predicted return, and riposte for victory. Therefore, let me address the question of “Why is your default advice to righties not to throw to the outside?”

There are a few answers to this question. The first, and most basic, is that “Don’t throw to the outside” is good beginner advice, like “Don’t start a sentence with a preposition.” Good fighters, like good writers, learn the rules, and then actively choose to break them for specific, intelligently-chosen reasons. You can throw to the outside, but you’re breaking a basic rule so you better have a good reason for doing it.

The second is that it is simply dangerous. Reactive actions are faster than initiative actions[1]. Worse for you, the lefty is accustomed to this exchange and likely has it drilled to a higher degree of skill than the rest of his game. You’re throwing his favorite combo. Generally you want to avoid giving people their best-case scenario and look for weaker areas in the fighter. So you shouldn’t just do it willy-nilly. Of course, as you get higher-skill lefties, the skill-variation between this shot and other shots narrows as they equalize their skill at all areas of their game. Likewise, as the righty grows in skill, this becomes less risky simply because he knows it is risky and has planned accordingly.

The third answer is that you can use people’s habits and reflexes against them, and in that scenario throwing to the outside is acceptable. This gets into the “chess game” of fighting, where it is not just a matter of physical ability, but of mental preparation and planning. You plan to throw to the outside, draw the inside return, block, and riposte for victory. That works, until the lefty plans to draw a shot to the outside, block, counter to the inside to draw a riposte, block, and then riposte for victory. That works until… you get the idea. Of course, the other guy may not follow into your plan, so mental flexibility remains important.

So, in brief, “don’t throw to the outside” is a “combat rule.” It is permissible to break a combat rule, but you need to know what rule you’re breaking, why you’re breaking it, and what the repercussions of breaking the rule are.

Addendum: Brett pointed out the value of off-timed shots, and made an excellent point. I have included his comment, slightly edited for terminology.

I don’t think you take into account off timed shots. Assuming I am sword and board, I usually throw outside to trigger a predictable riposte and kill them in the riposte. I’m talking about an outside beat into a counter attack. I don’t want to block and then exchange; I want their reactions to be automatically wrong.

[1] Andrew E. Welchman, James Stanley, Malte R. Schomers, R. Chris Miall1 and Heinrich H. Bülthoff.  “The Quick and the Dead: When Reaction Beats Intention“. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2010 Jun 7;277(1688):1667-74