Wielding the daishō – two-sword style in kenjutsuAugust 21, 2016
The Suisha Ryu, like most styles of kenjutsu other than the famous Niten Ichi-ryu, generally deals with wielding only a single sword at a time. That said, there is a case to be made for using both at once – in particular, when you have multiple attackers to deal with.
Fighting multiple opponents with a single sword is problematic. Any time you commit your blade to a motion, whether defensive or offensive, you necessarily leave yourself open to the other attackers. There are things that can be done with positioning and timing to mitigate this (which may be a topic for another post in itself), but the fundamental problem remains.
Using two swords against multiple attackers has the obvious benefit that you can attack with one sword while covering yourself with the other. However, especially when dealing with relatively heavy weapons like a katana, it’s important to be careful not to tangle yourself up; it’s easy to accidentally cross your blades or your arms and lose the use of one of them.
The solution to this is to keep your weapons as far apart as possible. This is a bit counter-intuitive – we’re used to thinking about using two weapons in conjunction against a single opponent, but that’s not the goal here. The point of having two weapons at all is to keep at least one of them free at all times, which means that if you’re attacking someone with the long sword, the short sword should be held as far away from that opponent as possible so as to be ready to counter another attack.
Unfortunately, the human body is not well-suited to keeping its arms 180 degrees apart while applying force; if you try it, you’ll discover that neither hand can exert significant power in this position. Also, keeping this position means that one or both blades are in your peripheral vision, limiting their usefulness. So instead, we hold them about 120 degrees apart and move them left and right as a pair: when one moves right to left, the other one does too, so that the distance between them is maintained. This normally results in rotating your entire body with each movement, which is generally what you want in any case when you have multiple opponents so as to maintain situational awareness.
A future post will look at the differences between the katana and wakizashi when used by themselves. In this case, though, you’re not using the two swords in the same way – it doesn’t make sense when you have two swords with different physical characteristics to try to use them equivalently. Instead, the katana is almost exclusively offensive, and the wakizashi is defensive unless the target is very close.
Given that as a plan, what suggests itself? What can we do to make the wakizashi better defensively, better as an in-fighting weapon, and less likely to get tangled with the katana? Use it in reverse grip. My most popular post of all time, “Zatoichi style”, looked at using the katana in reverse grip, and this works even better with a wakizashi. The downsides of the reverse grip (decreased range and power) are mostly avoided for a defensive weapon, and the upsides (increased structure for blocks, able to work at shorter ranges, and faster transitions) are accentuated with the shorter weapon.
So, to summarize – when wielding the daishō in Suisha Ryu, we generally use the katana in one hand and the wakizashi in the other, reversed. The two hands are about 120 degrees apart, and the body rotates to maintain that arrangement as the blades move. This means that we have effective offense, with one blade or the other, from extreme tsuki range all the way in to body-contact range. We have strong defense when needed with either blade, since the lack of mass in the wakizashi is compensated for by the ability to brace it with your forearm. We have optimal coverage on all sides, and we’re free to spin to address any attacker while continuing to maintain a defense against any other.
Is this the One True Way to wield the daishō? Of course not. The Niten Ichi-ryu style of wielding both blades against a single attacker is very effective, and even in the Suisha Ryu there are cases where using the wakizashi in a forward grip is preferred (in particular, if the attackers have longer weapons and a lot of space to work with, so you need every bit of reach you can manage). Still, it’s an excellent balance that maximizes the advantages of both blades, and if your footwork is up to keeping you mobile through multiple opponents, it can be amazingly effective.