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Toby Threadgill reviews “Old School” by Ellis Amdur

by Toby Threadgill

Published Online

Old School by Ellis Amdur

I first met Ellis Amdur during a private visit to his home in Seattle several years ago. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. Ellis and I had exchanged several friendly e-mail’s over time but he was hard to get a line on. His reputation was all over the map. Some people found him abrasive and arrogantly elitist while others gave him glowing reviews for his willingness to share his extensive knowledge of the Nihon koryu world. Everyone agreed he was talented.

Looking back at the first moments of our meeting brings back some amusing memories. I arrived at his home a few moments earlier than planned and therefore waited on his porch since it appeared he was not at home. Soon I heard an auto arrive close by. Appearing from around the corner of the house was a rather frightening sight. Approaching me was this very tall bald guy, missing a front tooth, who could in darker surroundings have passed for an escapee from a psych ward. He reached out to shake my hand and said “you must be Toby” I think I mumbled some intelligent response like “uggh”.

Our first topic of conversation was the recent presentation to me of a teaching license from my teacher, the late Takamura Yukiyoshi Sensei . Ellis explained to me that the reception of this license being postponed until after my 42nd birthday was quite symbolic in Japanese martial disciplines. He reiterated that he thought this spoke highly of Takamura Sensei’s adherence to tradition even though he was viewed by many as somewhat a renegade. You see, I knew nothing of the symbolism associated with reaching the age of 42 before Ellis mentioned it. Thus it was that Ellis immediately began to share some of his knowledge with me, a virtual stranger. Several hours later we parted as new friends.

Since that first meeting we have had several other opportunities to discuss this odd and antiquated obsession of ours. In Ellis’s new book appropriately titled “Old School” he continues this gift of sharing some of his knowledge and experiences with strangers. All serious students of budo owe him a great debt.

The first of three sections of the book begins by covering three koryu traditions, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Maniwa Nen- ryu, and Higo Ko-ryu. I have read these chapters multiple times already. Ellis’s description of Higo Ko-ryu’s Kino Shizue made me want to instantly transport myself to Japan so I could witness her and her intensity first hand. These chapters overall are an excellent blend of information and insight that has largely remained unavailable to most budoka in the west. Covering the history, technique, and politics of these koryu, Ellis demonstrates an erudite knowledge of the subjects at hand. I especially admired his discussion of the challenges these ryu face as they peer forward into the 21st century. These traditions really are treasures that must be preserved. It is thru the insights presented in a book such as this that a few dedicated individuals may be inspired to undertake the challenging task of pursuing entrance into a martial discipline such as Higo Ko-ryu. Who knows? Maybe Donn Draeger’s writings had some small but similar effect on Ellis years earlier.

The second section of this book is probably a much more difficult read for those not obsessed with Japanese budo. Its chapters cover the history and development of several early and influential ancient Japanese weapons including in depth investigations of the Naginata (Glaive), Chigiriki (Flail), and Kusarigama (Sickle with Chain). Although there is significant information available on the Naginata from various sources, the subject matter as presented by Ellis is definitely worth the read. Packed into less than 30 pages is a wealth of information on the history of the Naginata as well as the weapons construction and various technical derivations. The chapters on the Chigiriki and Kusarigama explore these weapons origins and use in a depth uncommon in sources available presently. Although very informative and well written these two chapters will test the dedication of all but the most dedicated budo fanatic.The 35 pages dedicated to these minor weapons will probably be skipped over by the average reader. As reiterated by Ellis himself, these weapons were of minor use by the warrior class and simply do not bring to mind an image as dashing or romantic as that of a samurai wielding his glimmering katana or naginata. However as quality reference material, the chapters devoted to these weapons should be of significant value to anyone interested in the study of traditions familiar with their use.

The last section of this book returns to topics as broadly significant as the first. In three chapters, it covers, Women Warriors in Japan, The Origins of Araki-ryu, and Keppan (blood oath). I must loudly applaud Ellis for his devoting an entire chapter to the women practitioners of koryu. This is quite appropriate for inclusion in this book since both the naginata and Higo Ko-ryu, covered so thoroughly in previous pages are host to women practitioners residing at the highest levels of instruction. I had the great honor of meeting Toda ha Buko-ryu’s Nitta Suzuyo several years ago in Tokyo. Demure and courteous, she was obviously held in very high esteem by those surrounding her. This was not the sort of dysfunctional hero worship occasionally seen in some budo circles, but rather a quiet and profound level of respect. That this tiny and noble woman could garner this type of calm admiration in such an environment, an environment where the swinging of a medieval glaive is generally the measure of ones moxie, says much about the benefits of koryu study by the fairer sex. Ellis’s personal opinions are perhaps more exposed in this chapter than anywhere else in this book and I find his honesty here refreshing. His discussion of the benefits and pitfalls presented by modern competition in naginata apply to all the Japanese martial traditions. This chapter alone should be required reading by all serious devotees of budo.

The chapter on the origins of Araki ryu could easily have descended into painfully mundane minutiae, uninteresting to all but those most hardcore budo historians or members of the ryu. However, through his writing style Ellis manages to cultivate enough dramatic interest in this subject that I found the chapter quite readable. Perhaps in Ellis’s writings I sense a flicker of the drama and edge that I experienced in the historical storytellings of my own Sensei,Takamura Yukiyoshi. The shelves of libraries are filled with historical information so dry in tone that no one ever gets through it all. It is a real credit to Ellis that he makes this information so accessible.

The last chapter on Keppan is excellent because its topic frequently escapes the attention or seriousness it deserves. Ellis does a commendable job with it. Realistically, kishomon and keppan are way outside the grasp of almost all students studying budo in the West. Its whole concept is so far outside our cultural mainline that it’s almost impossible to cover accurately. Yeah, I can just hear some 19-year-old samurai wannabe saying ‘Blood Oath….no problem. I understand it!” Well, no you don’t, pal. And that’s what makes this chapter so relevant but at the same time frustrating. A keppan is so much more than meets your intellect. It should crash into the deepest recesses of your soul. If it doesn’t, you’re not worthy of it. That’s what a keppan is all about, your soul. A keppan is all serious business and Ellis’ writing on this subject manages to put an eloquent twist on it. I wish a little more exploration on the psychological strife properly associated with a keppan had been covered here but I recognize that it’s very difficult to convey what I’m talking about on the printed page. I took my Joden Kishomon / Keppan with Takamura Sensei years ago. With my present position I am only now realizing the tug of its immense power and responsibility. Let me tell you from experience, a keppan strikes back at you if you ignore or compromise it. Ellis effectively conveys that the symbolism behind the blood can easily be marginalized by someone irresponsible or ignorant of its fundamental importance within the ryu. A keppan is a personal thing that is beyond personal. If you only read one chapter of this book, read the chapter on keppan. Then read it again and again and again.

In closing, I must add that it is simply beyond my comprehension that so many clap trap martial arts books fill the shelves of bookstores, some of these published by well respected and reputable publishers. That a book of this quality must be self published is an prime example of the economic insanity existing in the publishing world today. Everyone who considers themselves a serious student of Japanese martial arts should order this book from Ellis Amdur and send him a thank you letter for the effort, dedication and perseverance it took to bring this work to press.

You can get this book (and Ellis’ first one, Dueling with O’Sensei only through his website: www.ellisamdur.com or through www.koryu.com

About Toby Threadgill

Toby Threadgill started his martial arts training in western fencing as a college student. In 1980, he began to practice Wado-ryu karate under J. Gerry Chau. Threadgill later trained with Yukiyoshi Takamura, headmaster of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu. He also studied under Don Angier, headmaster of Yanagi ryu Aiki Bugei. In 1989, Threadgill co-founded the Aikijujutsu Club at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. This club continues to operate as a Yanagi-ryu affiliated dojo under Headmaster Don Angier. In 1994, Threadgill received a Joden Menkyo, Gokui Mokuroku in Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu and founded the Soryushin Dojo in Dallas, Texas. He was awarded a menkyo kaiden in Shindo Yoshin-ryu in February 2001.

Takamura Ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu