I have recently finished reading Old School: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions the expanded edition by Ellis Amdur.
First of all let me say that I have always enjoyed reading anything written by Ellis. He has a way of taking dry history and weaving it into a dramatic story that sometimes has a no-holds-barred feel about it. So I was very keen to start reading this book.
The structure of the book is divided up into five sections.
Part One: Something Once New
Part Two: Essays on Japanese Weaponry
Part Three: History and Tradition
Part Four: Nothing Stays the Same: Martial Traditions from the Edo Period.
Part Five: The Sinew of Classical Martial Traditions.
I will review the book by taking my favourite pieces from each of the five parts and highlight some things that stood out for me as a practitioner of a classical Japanese martial art.
Part One introduces the reader to some of the oldest koryu (old schools) still being practised today. The most famous perhaps being Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu. The other two I had never read about before, Maniwa Nen-ryu and Higo Ko-ryu. Reading about these other two ryu encouraged me to have a look on Youtube and I found a nice clip of Nen Ryu and it was just like Ellis had described.
It is here if you are interested. Nen Ryu
Also found Higo Ko Ryu, keep in mind that Amdur's description of the ryu helps immensely in understanding the movements on the clip.
Ellis gives the reader plenty of information on the three ryu, including samples of the syllabus and key features of each ryu and the context in which these ryu were established.
The most outstanding passage from this first section of the book is how Ellis writes with such reverence about Kino Shizue, 14th generation headmaster of Higo Ko Ryu. Kino Sensei had just finished a shiai but one more opponent waited to one side to compete with her. The announcer had decided that enough time had been spent on 'old folks' matches and wanted to move things along. Kino sensei refused to move from the floor despite the pleas from the announcer and officials. She stood there silently.
Eventually Kino Sensei got her way and Abe Toyoko of Tendo-ryu walked out to challenge her.
The fight between these two ladies was not typical of shiai. They did not need judges to tell them if a hit had been scored. Every strike was considered a killing blow and each woman knew it. The two ladies stalked each other around the hall with few attacks made and fewer landing. When a strike did hit home a loud crack was heard around an otherwise silent hall. At some point they both decided the match was over and walked off. It is an amazing story and shows the character of these stoic, honest women. If this character can be imbued into current practitioners of koryu it would be a good thing indeed. It was a great way to end Part One.
Part Two was probably my least favourite part of the book. It discusses the evolution and development of three of Japan's classic weapons. The naginata (halberd), kusarigama (chain and sickle) and chigiriki (flail). Ellis studies ryuha which incorporate the use of naginata and this is apparent in his knowledge and obvious interest in this weapon. He tells us how the romantic ideal of warrior monks turns out to be nothing more than mercenaries hired by religious sects. He also investigates how the naginata evolved from a foot soldier's weapon to one associated with women samurai.
He debunks myths around the origins of the kusarigama and discusses how three versions of the weapon are still used. He holds no punches in critiquing these weapons and the kata they are used in.
The Chigiriki is an odd weapon I had not even heard of before reading this book. It is a strange weapon that stands out among the other Japanese weapons. Again, Ellis can speak with authority over this weapon as it is utilised in one of the ryu he studies.
Although this section is packed with information, I struggled to relate to some of the material as I have never trained with any of the weapons mentioned or studied the ryuha mentioned. I diligently read it for completeness but was not as inspired or interested in the text compared to the other chapters.
Part Three felt the most typical of historical text. This did not make it less interesting for me as Ellis keeps it 'alive' by his writing style and he reveals a lesson to the reader by telling the tale. What this section showed clearly to me was that the ryuha are often complex, political and have much more in common with each other than some people may think. All it takes is a particular person in history to use his knowledge of previously learned martial schools and then combine certain elements from all schools to create their own style. Through generations schools may split into factions but key elements can be identified as belonging to such-and-such ryu and despite the two schools having nothing to do with each other for generations, the key elements still exist.
This section also discusses the role of women warriors in Japan. Again, the reader can tell Ellis has a soft spot for this topic and one can't help thinking that the fact one of his teachers was a woman that he has a great respect and reverence for these ladies that follow martial pursuits. He also returns to the topic of the naginata as predominantly the weapon of the female budoka in the current age.
Part Four was truly a highlight for me. First let me explain that this section discusses at length how these old Japanese traditions have moved into the 21st Century. Ellis discusses Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu, Honma Nen-ryu and Yoshin-ryu specifically as examples on how this has occurred. Of course this discussion cannot occur without mentioning World War Two and what that meant for the traditional martial arts. In fact, the end of this war would spell the end of some of the schools as its practitioners were either killed in the war or left with old men with no students due to the stigma that had been associated with the old ways of thinking. Competitive fencing and Kano's Judo must be discussed here as well. Both influenced the classical Japanese martial arts and how they changed or adapted to survive.
Ellis takes each ryu and writes about how they continued to be sustained at different points in their history. He highlights the importance of certain men and decisions that allowed the ryu to stay at least slightly relevant in its time to ensure it continued on.
I must mention how excited I was to read the chapter on Yoshin-ryu, obviously important in my understanding of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu, the art in which I train. There was nothing more satisfying than understanding the roots of one's own school and the events and people that allowed this ryu to survive. When I read a family tree of TSYR what I miss are the human elements and interactions that help me better understand how the school came about. Ellis provided some of this for me. Ellis writes about a foreigner called Erwin Baelz who was pivotal in getting Japanese interested in classical martial arts again around the 1870s (just after the modernisation of Japan) and he may have been the catalyst that enabled the koryu to continue when Japanese minds had their thoughts on Western ideas and values.
Of course, I once again got to read about Matsuoka Katsunosuke the founder of Shindo Yoshin Ryu, merely 28 years old when he announced his new style. After him came many other important names that I recognized such as Obata Shigeta and Takamura Yukiyoshi to name a few. It was nice to read about Takamura sensei from an outsider's point of view.
Part Five was a short section that touches on important aspects of any koryu. That of the more esoteric religious and philosophical viewpoints that are woven into the fabric of each ryu. Ellis briefly discusses Shinto, Taosim, Neo-Confucianism, Mikkyo, and Shugendo. He also dedicates a chapter to Keppan (blood oaths) and what they mean to the modern practitioner.
At the very end of the book is a glossary to help the reader define the many Japanese terms found within the text.
Overall I found Ellis to write respectfully about people and their martial schools but gave honest critique when he felt he had the authority to do so. He added splashes of colour to historical events that helped me stay engaged with the passages of text. Occasionally he added subtle humour that had me chuckling to myself. I believe this book has relevance to anyone who is practising koryu whether your specific school is mentioned in the book or not.
I must thank my friend, Jules, for acquiring a copy for me. I am very grateful.