The Art of Thrust
Text by Olga Loginova
”Can I stab my rival to death?” I was pondering while having tea in a London café with the 47-year-old Finnish singer Minna Liettyä-Tyni. “Maybe, I can give it a go just once?” I was listening carefully to her story. Minna came to London for a competition. She is a woman who kills her rivals multiple times a week and she’s neither a criminal, nor a maniac. In fact, at present she is a vocal coach at a local music school.
Five years ago Minna hosted Japanese teenagers within an international culture exchange. One girl was practising Japanese fencing kendo. Minna became interested, but when she tried it in a local sports club, she found Japanese fencing too rough for her – until she spotted an “iaidoka” in training in the club. “It was like “wow!” to me. So beautiful!” says Minna.
Iaidoka is a person, who practises rare Japanese martial art iaido, focused on striking or cutting technique in fencing. The performance lasts about a minute and during this time the iaidoka draws his sword, attacks and stabs a human rival, removes the blood from the blade, and then replaces the sword in the scabbard. Blood-thirsty and butcherly? Not at all! The rival is invisible and the movements are smooth and fluent.
Minna has been practising iaido for two years now and has just passed the exam for her first international graduation, the first dan. “The most challenging was a graduation moment when others were watching at me. I just had to focus on the movements and technique and forget about the others,” she shares her experience with me.
Minna’s way to iaido was a combination of many different factors. “Five years ago my daughter was 14 and she was very interested in Japanese popular culture – anime and manga. I also started studying more about Japanese culture and that grabbed me. At the same time my doctor said I had to have some regular physical trainings at least twice a week, as I had high blood pressure because of a stress. And iaido became a solution,” she says.
Minna tells me that the trainings are so active that by the end of a two hour session all muscles are exercised – due to the permanent tension and concentration. “I have lost about 20 kg during these two years and now I feel myself more balanced and healthy than ever!” states Minna not without some pride.
However, there is a drawback in such exercises as well. The attack usually starts from sitting position, and then the iaidoka stands up, commits the “crime”, hides the sword and sits back. During the training there are countless numbers of the attacks, therefore the loading to the knees is enormous. “I have a problem with my right knee, so I have to do all my katas (attacks) in a standing position. It doesn’t affect the graduation, but I’m not able to teach iaido,” says a bit upset Minna.
All movements are sharp and weighted; there isn’t a single thoughtless attack. In fact, this martial art is more about self-defense than attacking. The term “iaido” can be translated from Japanese as “be constantly prepared and meet the opposition immediately”. Thus, the performance consists of two main parts: the demonstration of being aware of an opponent’s intention and the responding to his sudden attack.
Minna explains to me: “In Japanese martial arts you always respect your enemy and in iaido you mostly defend yourself, so I don’t feel any aggression, but I must admit that nowadays I feel much more relaxed in difficult situations than before.”
Gordon Warner in the book “Japanese Swordsmanship – Technique and Practice” says that iaido espouses the morals of the classical warrior and is aimed to build a spiritually harmonious person possessed of high intellect, sensitivity, and resolute will. Eventually, it turns out to be much more than just a physical training, but a philosophical world outlook. “For me iaido is first of all a very interesting sport hobby, which is enhancing the quality of my life all the time! What attracts me most is that in iaido we are working under same laws as in any form of art: space, power, timing, rhythm, meaning and some kind of easiness of movements,” says Minna.
Of course, my inquisitive nature refuses to believe in the Japanese sports panacea and I insist on Minna pointing me at a major drawback. “Well, there’re so many beautiful shinkens (swords), but they are so expensive…” she replies pensively. Then she adds: “Sometimes if there’s a good photo of me in iaido costume and a sword I find myself surprised — wow, is that woman really me? Cool!”
I am finally convinced: someday, I will try to stab a rival this sophisticated artistic Japanese way. Maybe, I will also look attractive with a sword.
The writer is professional linguist and a journalist from London