Mind, body and soul, Samurai style
Skill and precision are needed if you’re wielding a 3ft razor-sharp sword. But in the West, the ancient art of the Samurai is attracting both martial artists and those who simply want an unusual way to relax. PETE KELLEY reports.
If you saw the Tom Cruise blockbuster The Last Samurai and were dazzled by its displays of breathtaking swordsmanship, now there's a chance to try it yourself.
A new group, Seirokan Norfolk, has been set up to teach the traditional skills of the Samurai, as part of a network of clubs linked to Japanese masters, who set exacting standards.
The group has been launched by Roy Bradford, from Belton, who has been studying the sword techniques for more than six years, and is also a black belt 8th dan in Ninjutsu.
Chris Prettyman, from Gorleston, is one of six students Roy has been preparing during the past year, so that they can help him teach beginners.
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Chris said: “Roy has been training in Nottingham, where he reached a level in his training where he was told that he was good enough to go and start a new sister club in his area.
“The club, Seirokan Norfolk, is certainly unique within the Norfolk area. It is based on the 'old style' Samurai techniques, and is not dissimilar to moves people may have seen in the film The Last Samurai, or possibly in The Matrix. The Japanese were approached for advice in the making of those films.”
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The Samurai - the legendary elite swordsmen of medieval Japan - based their fighting techniques on a unique philosophy and way of life known as bushido. As well as courage and honour, loyalty, self-sacrifice and justice, refinement of manners, purity and modesty were essential to the code, influenced by both Zen and Confucianism.
Chris said: “In our classes you would learn the Japanese art of drawing the sword and cutting with it. It may sound simple, but it is very precise. It is about mind, body and soul. A lot of concentration is needed.”
Chris's 10-year-old daughter, Zoe, is also an enthusiastic member of the class - under his supervision. Generally, new students need to be between 16 and 65.
“Although the door has never been closed to newcomers,” said Chris, “you could say it is wider open. Roy is in a position now that he would not be overwhelmed by numbers.
“With the help of his experienced students, he can go around and teach in an appropriate manner.
“In our working life, we all get stressed. The kata - sets of movements - we learn are both physically and mentally stimulating, but also - because you have to concentrate - I find they are very relaxing.
“So far, I have had to learn 11 kata based on cutting or striking a person, all battlefield movements. The movements have to be precise because, in principle, you are striking at particular areas of the opponent's armour.”
In total, students can eventually learn 47 main kata, plus other minor forms.
Serious students are expected to learn the kata to the point of perfection in all detail, said Chris.
The standards have been insisted on by the Japanese teachers - men like Iwata Norikazu Sensei, who is 92, but still training and teaching - who oversee Eikoku Roshukai, the British network of clubs.
For those with a martial arts background, some of the kata - although they use a wooden sword or an unedged metal sword - may not be unfamiliar, said Chris.
“There are similarities in the movements. Whether you are using your hand or a sword, you are learning ways to defend yourself.”
Beginners, however, need no previous experience.
“In fact,” said Chris, “there is a Japanese proverb that a man is only at the right stage to really learn when he reaches 50.”
Seirokan Norfolk meets on Mondays (7.30pm-9.30pm) at Cliff Park High School gymnasium, Kennedy Avenue, Gorleston.
The group has gained support from local companies, including a complete set of dojo floor mats from Global ES, two sets of Kendo armour from Hytorc, various pieces of equipment from KSD (Fabrication) and club support from Interface Engineering Services.
t For further details, call Roy on 07952 094225 or Chris on 07771 905766, or visit www.seirokan-norfolk.co.uk
The Norfolk classes teach what is known in Japanese as 'Koryu Seito Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu':
t Koryu - old school
t Seito - standard or original way
t Muso - without equal
t Jikiden - passed from teacher to pupil
t Eishin - a swordmaster who devised many important techniques
t Ryu - school