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The Martial Artist on Stage

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by David Lynch

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Aikido demonstrations should have a clear purpose; they should be educational; they should reflect the actual daily training of a dojo; they should not be merely for entertainment or the promotion of a school.

This was the gist of an Aikido Journal bulletin board essay by Patrick Auge, veteran aikidoka of the Yoseikan school. Most other contributors to the discussion agreed with him.

Mr. Auge divides demonstrations into four different categories, which, paraphrased, (with apologies) are: “Mindless” (having no clear purpose), “Entertaining” (just to please the crowds), “Promotional” (to increase membership), and “Educational” (truthful).

Demonstrations should, he felt, also reflect the true personality of a teacher and the ethos of his school. They did not need any special preparation.

The four divisions above are fine in theory but I find it difficult to pigeonhole in this way some of the senior teachers whose demonstrations I have witnessed in Japan.

In the first place, there is more to a demonstration than entertainment, promotion or education. There is also artistic expression. In this respect, the martial artist is like any other artist, and his audience is likely to judge him by the impact his art has on them on some deep level, regardless of other factors. He need not be motivated by mundane considerations at all.

It is from this largely subjective viewpoint that I recall the demonstrations of Gozo Shioda in the 60s when I was living in the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi. Some of Shioda Sensei’s demonstrations, both in and outside the dojo, seemed to me awesome (in the original meaning of the word). They lifted the game, so far as I was concerned, to a high level.

They were not planned, though they usually followed a similar pattern: Sensei would begin by outlining the history of aikido starting from “600 years ago” with Shinra Saburo Yoshimitsu, not with Morihei Ueshiba, although the latter’s vital contribution was always acknowledged.

He would then use one or two ukes to illustrate basic principles (non-resistance, “concentrated power”, etc.) in a dynamic way. While talking to the audience and cracking jokes he would toss his ukes around, sometimes using his whole body in a kind of atemi to “bounce” an attacker backwards. There would usually be a weapons segment including sword-to-sword, and empty-handed defenses against sword and tanto attacks. Ukes would be replaced as he worked his way through his repertoire, until the finale when five or six ukes would attack him at once.

Shioda Sensei responded to these multiple attacks with exquisite timing and rather frightening atemi and nagewaza, making one feel a mixture of excitement and concern for his ukes. Backstage after the demonstration he would always kneel and bow deeply to his ukes and thank them for their participation, then everyone would relax, though we all felt we had been part of something extraordinary.

For their part, the ukes took the demonstrations very seriously and seemed to be prepared for any possible outcome.

I remember one of them coming away with his face muscles twitching uncontrollably as a result of receiving at atemi to the neck. When someone said this could be serious and recommended calling the doctor, he replied, “I don’t care if I die!” Perhaps this was sheer bravado, perhaps not, but it illustrates the serious atmosphere surrounding these demonstrations.

Uke would attack hard and fast and then have to be skilled enough at ukemi to save himself from the consequences, like a racing driver going into a corner at 100 m.p.h., knowing he had to come out of it even faster to stay in control.

Injuries did occur, some of them serious, but they were accepted philosophically and they were not deliberately inflicted. In fact there was a standing joke about it being “just as well” there was a hospital practically next door to the dojo.

I remember one demonstration in which Shioda Sensei threw his uke heavily, then immediately turned around to talk to the crowd. Several members of the audience began to stare open-mouthed, as they could see uke still lying, motionless, where he had landed! Sensei turned back and quickly revived him with katsu resuscitation, to a round of relieved applause.

I was Sensei’s uke only a few times in public demonstrations, as I was not experienced enough to take ukemi from his techniques, and I certainly wasn’t breaking my neck to participate. I probably would have if I had!

As I say, the difficulty I have is which of the four categories Shioda’s demonstrations would fall into. A Zen priest who witnessed one of them said it was an example of “mushin” (“no mind”) but he obviously did not mean “mindless”. He was referring to the ideal Zen state of mind in which thought and action are not separate, the mind and body are one, and things just “happen” without any effort.

The better demonstrations by Shioda Sensei in those days were superb expressions of a master artist at work.

And yet there were other demonstrations by the same sensei that seemed to me to fall well below this standard. Sometimes the timing was a bit off and the multiple attack sequences less convincing, and there was a lot of “playing to the audience” that I found embarrassing.

He would apply a strong nikyo or yonkyo, and have his ukes writhing in pain while he grinned and made jokes at their expense. Certainly, it appeared sometimes that the ukes were “putting it on” and need not have made such an overt display, but that only made matters worse. One was left wondering why this sort of “show” was necessary.

Despite the sincere backstage acknowledgement of uke’s role after most demonstrations, there were times when it appeared to me uke was treated with scant regard. Like the time we did a demonstration at a TV studio and one of the ukes came away obviously concussed, literally asking who and where he was. He had done his level (or aerial) best to make Sensei’s performance look good, and was already on his way to the mat from one throw when Sensei applied a thrusting tsuki to his jaw, in such a way that his head struck the mat hard. There was no way uke could have saved himself from this.

Afterwards Sensei simply said, “Are you OK?” and then, “Where can I get another driver?”

I took the victim back to the dojo in my car, stopping for a coffee en route, and he gradually recovered. Perhaps Shioda Sensei anticipated this outcome but, if so, he showed little sign of concern one way or the other. He seemed more interested in getting to his next appointment.

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