With my recent exposure to both Sumi sensei’s renzoku waza drills and Inoue sensei’s take on kirikaeshi, I am starting to think more and more about the importance of being instantly ready to attack at any stage in our keiko.
There is a tendency, particularly amongst senior, older kendoka to walk away and start again after exchanging a single attack. Although this allows you to conserve energy, it is long way from the ideal of being “constantly in full spirit”. Keiko should be short, sharp and intense. Far better to do 30 minutes of full-on keiko than two hours of leisurely posing.
The key technical requirements are that your back foot needs to be in the right place for you to attack throughout the practice and you need to keep within attacking distance. When you attempt to strike men going forward and your movement takes you past your opponent, you should turn quickly, bringing your left foot into position with hikitsuke and attack again. If you make a failed attempt on kote, push off immediately while you are in front of your opponent and go for men.
With hiki-waza, there is even more of a tendency to reverse into the distance. You should work on learning to keep you balance between your feet so that if you take one step back you can instantly take one step forward, by pushing off from your back foot. That’s not to say that you should always do it, but if you see an opportunity, you should be able to take advantage of it even though it might mean a lightning fast change of direction.
To do this your left heel should at all times be slightly raised so that the sole of your foot forms a 15 degree angle with the floor. If it’s much higher that, you will lose traction as your left leg will slip out behind you when you try to move. If your heel is on the floor, you will stay firmly rooted to the spot.
Here’s the bad news. The best way to educate your left foot is through lots of kihon. Footwork drills, suburi, kiriaeshi, uchikomi geiko, kakarigeiko; they all play their part. Your objective when you do get into the short intense jigeiko sessions that we are talking about, is to become an effective kendo machine that can see it and hit it, all in a fraction of a second.
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Nearly all kendo teachers include renzoku waza in their training sessions. We are told that ni-dan and san-dan waza should be demonstrated by second and third dan candidates in examination and no kakarigeiko practice would be complete without a few attempts at kote-men.
Thinking it through however, kendo focuses on ippon – one point for one successful attack. Modern day shiai is decided on the best of three points, but these are nevertheless scored by single decisive cuts. If you hit continuously, only the final strike is counted, so if you make a successful kote attack and go on to hit men, only the men will be counted and that is provided that the elements of timing, distance, power, sharpness, intention and zanshin are present. If you make a great kote attack followed by an ineffective men strike then you get nothing.
In my personal view, kendo is different to many other sports and martial arts in its simplicity. Whereas judo has a vast range of set piece combination techniques, kendo has only men, kote, dou and tsuki. The variety and creativity in kendo comes from how and when we deploy those techniques in terms of timing, distance and opportunity.
The reason for practicing renzoku waza is to be able to hit continuously and fluidly when circumstances warrant, but in kendo less is more and if you can make a clear point in a split second or avoid unnecessary movement when there is no opportunity you should save your energy. Where renzoku waza counts is when you attack kote and miss and you opponent’s kamae is unsettled as he moves back – bingo! perfect men attack chance. You try for tsuki and miss but you are moving forward with a strong mind and chudan and you opponent is momentarily out of position – perfect opportunity and likely to result in a successful attack.
Again we come back to the principle that the more you practice any technique in kihon-geiko, the more likely you are to “find it” when it is most needed in jigeiko or shiai. So keep the drills going, kote-men, tsuki-men, kote-dou, men-hiki men, ai kote men. You may never use any of them in shiai, but the more you practice them, the more likely you are to pull out that winning ippon when it is most needed.
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