A range of rangesSeptember 28, 2012
Recently, I’ve been working on grappling techniques with the sword. This might seem like an odd thing to do – after all, you’re holding a three-foot knife, why are you grabbing your opponent? There might be quite a few answers (you’d rather not kill them, for example), but the simplest is that they’re just too close to do anything else.
There are four basic ranges in kenjutsu: thrusting range, cutting range, striking range, and grappling range.
In the first, you’re too far away to hit with anything other than a step and a tsuki, or extended thrust with the sword. While it’s certainly possible to hit with this, it only works if your opponent is disabled or seriously distracted – crossing that much distance gives him a lot of time to parry or evade.
The second range is what most people normally think of as “swordfighting range”. This is surprisingly close with a katana – if I can cut you effectively, I can just about punch you as well. In a “typical swordfight”, if such a thing existed, the combatants are darting in and out of this range. They try to just “ride the edge” so as to be close enough to move in and cut if the opportunity presents itself, while not being close enough to be cut themselves.
The third range is striking range. This happens when both people step forward at once, or when the swords engage and someone moves in. One doesn’t normally punch and kick (at least, not the extended tae kwon do-style kicks that people think of martial artists as doing) with a sword, because it puts the striking limbs in too much danger. Instead, low kicks (like a soccer kick to the shin or ankle), elbows and knees, shoulder strikes, and strikes with the tsuba, tsuka, and ha. Note that striking with the ha is different from cutting – normally, you do it with your off hand on the spine of the blade, and it’s a sharp pushing motion rather than a slash.
In the closest range, there’s nothing you can do but grapple. If, for example, my sword ends up behind your back (while the rest of me is in front of you!), I really can’t cut you effectively, and my striking options are severely limited. This might happen because you moved inside my cut, but then failed to counter effectively, leaving us body-to-body. At this point, if I simply step away, I’m likely to get cut. I need to use my body structure, my root, and my weight to disrupt you, before you do the same to me.
Obviously, one needs to learn to fight in all the ranges in order to be an effective combatant. The critical thing, though, is being able to transition from one to the next without having to “throw a switch” and change tactics. Your parried tsuki can circle directly into a kiriage (rising cut) as you step in (or your target does); when that fails to penetrate his armor, it can reverse course and become a tsuba strike while you draw his intent down with a low kick. One step through and behind him with the inside leg turns into a reaping step, using your tsuka (with your off hand reinforcing it) for leverage on his neck. All of this can be done as a single continuous movement (Musashi’s “one cut“), starting from outside combat range and ending with your opponent on the ground, your foot on his chest, and your blade at his throat.