Swordsmanship for Dummies, Part IV: Looking at a Far Mountain

A beautiful scene of two kendoka sparring.

This is number four in a continuing series where I offer insights for writing scenes involving swordplay gleaned from my ten years (off and on) of studying traditional kendo–Japanese fencing.  My goal in these posts is to explain some of the realities of fighting with swords that most people looking in from the outside simply don’t understand.  I hope thereby provide people with the tools to craft more intelligent, mature battle scenes.

If by chance you happen to be a serious kendoka, please go here and read my disclaimer about my rank and the spirit in which I’m undertaking these posts.

This week’s topic is somewhat similar to last week’s; similar enough that I almost tried dealing with both at once (which would have made that article far too long for anyone’s comfort).  Today, I want to look at how a good fighter will look at a potential or active opponent.  There are two aspects in particular about reading your opponent that are especially important:  Avoiding misdirection and taking advantage of openings.  Both can be accomplished by remembering the principle of the far mountain.

This might sound like a no-brainer.  After all, I’m going to be talking about how people look at each other.  Don’t they just, well, open their eyes and stare out?  You just look over there and try not to let that guy hit you with that long, sharp thing he’s carrying!  In a way, it is that simple, but like with just about everything else, there are good ways and bad ways to go about it.  Some of the bad ways can be exploited by your enemies and get you killed (or at least, lose you a few points).

First, the bad:  no matter how tempted you are, you cannot let yourself fixate on any one part of an opponent’s body, particularly a highly mobile one.  The reason for this is simple:  doing so makes misdirection very easy for your opponent to accomplish.  Just as a good stage magician can focus your attention on one hand while bamboozling you with the other, so a good fighter can distract you with one motion and attack you with another one you never saw coming.  Once it becomes clear what part of a person’s body you’re watching, he/she can easily take advantage of you.  The most obvious point of fixation is a person’s blade, but just about any part of the body can have the same effect.

A corollary of this is that you have to resist the temptation to aim your own attacks by looking at the part of the body you intend to hit before you strike.  That will telegraph your moves to your opponent more effectively than if you had a neon sign above your head flashing your intentions out for all the world to see.  It makes it easy to not only parry whatever attack you are intending, but also to attack you in turn at the moment your movement begins (and you are most vulnerable).  For instance, if I see you look at my wrist, the instant you move I know where you’re going, and all I have to do is step to the side, and hit any of the openings you’ve given me.*  Once again, the only way a person can overcome this is through sheer, monotonous practice.  When your sword feels as much a part of you as your own arms and legs, you won’t have to “aim” in order to hit a target.  You just act.

Mount Fuji, Japan
And what other mountain can we be talking about here than Mount Fuji?

Now, for the good:  The concept in kendo that we’re trying to achieve when we’re observing our opponents is called “looking at a far mountain.”  When you look at a mountain, standing alone, away in the distance, you’ll notice that even if you are focusing on the peak, you are able to keep the entire mountain in view the whole time.  You perceive the mountain as a whole, not by its individual parts.  That is what a good fighter attempts to do with his/her opponent.

When facing an opponent in kendo, you focus on the eyes (notice I said focus not fixate).**  Keeping the eyes as the center, you then let your vision stretch out until you have the entire body in view and you are aware of it all at once.  From this position, you can see everything your opponent is doing.  That makes it much harder for him/her to mislead you, and much easier for you to anticipate where your opponent will go.  As you get better at it, you can see more and more patterns in smaller and smaller movements and recognize in an instant what is happening.  You can then react to it appropriately almost before the person even begins the attack.

Done well, this can be very intimidating to opponents (as I’ve learned, being on the receiving end of it more than once).  The kenshi seems to know what you’re going to do even as you are in the process of thinking it.  It makes the kenshi seem incredibly fast, as fast as thought.  Seemingly before you even move, the kenshi has already hit you, and when you try to react to that, they’ve hit you again from a completely different direction.  In kendo, frustration and despair can quickly follow, because you have no idea how you can ever keep up with someone who can move like that.  It feels like magic.***

It isn’t; its “just” the kenshi looking at your far mountain.  As you stand there, you are betraying what you intend to do through slight motions (a shift in balance, a slight incline of your head, etc.) that you may not even know you’re making.  They simply keep your whole body in view, add up the meaning of what they’re seeing, and react to it, sometimes before your intentional movement starts. It’s something you can do too, with experience and practice.

So what does this mean for your characters?  First, this should give you an insight into what your characters are actually thinking and seeing as they face each

I am no longer dueling you left handed, but I am keeping your entire body in view. Please take note.

other.  Second, here are some ways you can exploit some specific ideas:

  • Good fighters will be calm, calculating, and collected.  In many ways, they are reasoning machines that are constantly analyzing their opponents and determining how to react to them.  This doesn’t mean they have to be boring or silent, but there is an element or an edge of intelligence and clear thought that should show through.  Very little should escape their notice.
  • Good fighters, like good detectives, will often be gifted at observing and recognizing patterns.  They can see the connections between things and project what that means for the future.  Their observations allow them to anticipate an opponent’s actions.
  • Good fighters, like good magicians, are masters of sleight-of-hand.  They know how to keep people looking at one thing, while simultaneously doing something completely different with another.
  • Good fighters can hold still!  They don’t betray their intentions through small motions here and there.  They simply maintain their composure until the instant they unleash their attack.  At that point, they move so suddenly that it is difficult to react.
  • Incidentally, if you intend to use the old “blind swordsman” theme, all of this applies to them too.  They simply have other ways of observing their opponent.  Perhaps they hear a rustle of clothing that tells them of a movement of an arm or leg, the swish of a blade; they catch a scent that betrays their opponent’s location.  They will treat this information like every other swordsman, using it to create a picture of a pattern of movement that let’s them anticipate what their enemies intend to do.
  • Poor fighters–almost all beginners–will of course do most of this badly, if at all:
    • They fixate on certain points, usually their opponent’s sword, since that is what scares them the most.
    • They broadcast what they are going to do by shifting their weight in the direction they’re going to attack, twitching an arm or a leg, or even outright looking at the point they intend to strike.
    • They are easily distracted.  Whatever is in their face, commands their attention, even if it shouldn’t.

I think I’ve gone on long enough.  I hope you find something of use here, and please let me know if you have any thoughts.

Just FYI:  I’m taking next Thursday off, but will be back the following with more swordsmanship for dummies.  Next week, the lovely, incredibly intelligent Adrienne Caughfield will be filling in for me in her own unique fashion.  In addition to be a strong fantasy author in her own right, Ad is also another History PhD.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy what she has to say, and I hope to have her guest blogging for us more in the future.  🙂

*The worst example of this I can remember was with one beginner student who didn’t last.  He would pause, look at my men (head) and then swing.  By the end of the session, I was actually able to intercept his blows before he even started moving.

**There are a number of important reasons to choose the eyes, first and foremost of which is that it allows you to engage and intimidate your opponent on an emotional level.  With just his eyes, a good swordsman can convince his opponent that he is going to lose/die, before the first attack is ever launched.  With that, the battle is already half over.  More on this in a future post….

***Incidentally, this was what it felt like to spar with Kanako Ono, one of the most amazing kendoka I’ve ever had the honor to train with.