Reverse grip, or “Zatoichi style”September 19, 2009
Apologies for the long gap in posts – I’ve been moving to a new house, and that’s been consuming every spare moment of my time. Hopefully, my posting schedule will get back to normal soon.
Reverse grip is the practice of holding a katana or wakizashi with the blade pointing down, along the wielder’s arm. The most famous exponent of this style is, of course, Zatoichi, the “blind swordsman”. Of course, on TV it’s done for effect, but there are good, practical reasons for using this grip.
It’s not immediately obvious why anyone would hold a katana in this way. Clearly, it reduces your reach, and it’s a mechanically inferior position – it’s much harder to hold the blade stable when you have to push outwards with the pinky side of your hand. However, imagine for a moment that you’re fighting in an enclosed space, like a doorway. Holding the sword in a standard grip, if you try to cut downwards it projects over your head and most likely strikes the door frame. In a reverse grip, on the other hand, the arm is naturally lower and the angle of blade to arm is more acute, and this brings the cuts into a smaller space. This is difficult to describe, but very easy to demonstrate – you can prove it to yourself with a bokken or even a yardstick.
Another advantage of reverse grip is that the blade reverses direction more quickly. This again is a consequence of the body mechanics involved – when you reverse the direction of a forward-grip cut, the blade pivots around your hand, but in reverse grip the pivot point tends to be higher up the blade, closer to the center of mass.
Reverse grip, therefore, is good for fighting in tight spaces and close distances, where rapid timing is more critical. In other words, it’s an infighting style. Most koryu styles are derived from the battlefield, where infighting wasn’t as common (for one thing, you were most likely using a yari or naginata rather than a katana as your primary weapon; if you did get close, you’d either use jujutsu or pull your tanto), so they have no interest in this type of technique. Later-period styles, however, were concerned primarily with dueling, where close-in unarmored combat is more likely. Especially in wakizashi styles, infighting is very likely, so the ability to shorten your range is a big advantage.
All that said, is reverse-grip something that you’d want to do in a fight? Not normally, no. Its disadvantages are fairly major, and as you’re trying to get inside so as to take advantage of your shorter range you’re likely to get killed. Is it something you want to be able to do? Absolutely. In the rare cases where it’s valuable, there’s really no substitute for being able to use your sword close-in.
Update: It just occurred to me that there’s one other situation where reverse-grip is important. When you perform what the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu calls “muto”, or disarming, techniques, you’re frequently left holding the sword in a reversed position, because you’ve rotated it in order to get it out of the original wielder’s hand. At that point, you really need to be able to strike with it immediately rather than having to reverse the sword first.