I had a conversation with one of my Shinto Muso Ryu students that was interesting. He was having a common issue with a core technique. He was trying to make the technique unnecessarily complicated. The technique (in this case Maki Otoshi) is difficult enough without making it complicated.
Good budo is simple. Every koryu I’ve had a chance to work with at all has been extremely simple. Shinto Muso Ryu has 12 fundamental techniques. The more I practice and study them though, the more I believe there are only 2: a strike and a thrust.
The Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai I do comes down to drawing and cutting. Even the defensive movements such as suri age and uke nagashi are applications of the fundamental mechanics and principles of good cutting. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Cut down. Reverse the motion and suri age. Maintain the relationship between arm, hand and sword and move it to the side for uke nagashi. They are all one.
Kodokan Judo has an impressive list of techniques: 65 throws, perhaps a dozen strangles, and a number of arm locks. They all manage to express the principle of 精力善用, or “maximum efficiency minimum effort” as it is most commonly translated. The throws, all of them, from big throws like seioinage and kata guruma to subtle foots sweeps like de ashi harai to the seemingly impossible uki otoshi all rely on the principle of kuzushi. The more I study, more I see kuzushi as a simple thing, rather than many different movements I was taught for achieving kuzushi when doing various throws.
Good budo is always simple. I can do all of the jo kata from Shinto Muso Ryu in about 20 minutes. The iai kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu can be done in a similar amount of time. The kenjutsu kata of Muso Shinden Ryu can be done in about 10 minutes. There is nothing complicated in any of them. Iai kata are all “draw and cut” or sometimes “draw and cut several times.” Jo kata, no matter how advanced all come back to those 12 fundamental techniques.
A good question to ask is “Why is good budo always simple?” Simple has several advantages. First, it’s easier to teach and learn. For iai, if you only have one grip on the sword, and you always use the sword the same way, you can learn it much faster than if you have multiple grips and a variety of ways to handle the swords in different situations.
Simple is smoother and more stable. Short, simple, uncomplicated actions are smoother to carry out and leave less room for mistakes. Complexity creates weak points. If I’m doing sword and I have to repeatedly change my grip I create an opening every time I have to change my grip. There is a moment during each grip change when my control of the sword is weak because I have to let go to make the change. If my opponent attacks at the moment there is nothing I can do since I don’t have a solid grip on my weapon, and she will defeat me easily. The same goes for footwork. Judo footwork is stunningly simple and uncomplicated. We avoid doing anything complicated that involves crossing our feet. The whole time our feet are crossed, we are standing on one point instead of two, making us unstable and vulnerable. Complex is weak because it has many connections or joints where it can be attacked. Simple is stronger because it has fewer suki, openings, to attack.
Good budo is based around a few basic principles and movements that can be deployed in an exceptionally broad variety of situations. Good budo almost never focuses on principles or movements that can only be used in a very few situations. The focus is on making the broadest possible use of the fewest learned movements. That makes each system much more efficient and effective.
Simple systems are easier to apply and use. If I have to choose from dozens of very different techniques, the possibility of me mixing elements of two techniques and ending up with neither increases quickly. With simple, consistent systems, the techniques are built on a single, common foundation. This common foundation makes the elements of the different techniques common, which means that there is little to mix up or confuse between techniques, and flowing from one technique to the next is easier because the fundamental elements of all the techniques are the same.
Complex techniques open up another set of problems. Every additional step required for a technique multiplies the opportunity for making a mistake by an order of magnitude. The best techniques are as simple as possible, creating no extra space for mistakes and getting the job done quickly and efficiently.
Simple techniques are also just faster. A two step technique takes twice as long to perform as a one step technique. A three step technique takes three times as long. The longer it takes to finish a technique, the more opportunity there is for Murphy’s Law to come into play. I don’t about know about anyone else, but I don’t want to give Murphy the least chance to interfere.
As my student was discovering though, simple does not mean easy. It takes a lot of work to develop the most fundamental skills. For me, the most difficult technique in Kodokan Judo is the first technique from the first kata people learn, uki otoshi. After 29 years, I finally feel like I’m beginning to understand it. It’s as pared down and simple as a technique can be. It’s also as difficult to do right as anything I’ve ever tried. My version of Occam’s Razor is “The simplest budo is the best budo.”