I sat on the roof of the guesthouse and took a sip from the beer bottle, deep in thoughts over the upcoming training session and demonstration with Chino sensei. Technically, I had no doubt in my mind that I was more than ready for him. I was in great physical shape and there was nothing he could throw at me that I didn’t experience before. The only downside was the unpleasant previous experiences I shared with him as those could very well weaken my spirit, allowing negativity to turn me feeble and hesitant, destroying my instinctive reactions and shatters my natural flow.
It was something I could not afford as it contradicted my goal of reaching the very top of the performers’ ladder. Such objective could only be achieved by being clear minded and completely relaxed in the face of any challenge and every adversity.
Chino sensei had to demonstrate to the best of his abilities regardless of my emotions and doubts. He needed to look as sharp and as strong as he ever did, preferably even better than he did before.
I sighed and looked up; staring into vast emptiness of the moonless night, the place where the orange glow of hectic city mingled with the darkness and created a barrier against the light of the stars.
“A barrier,” I whispered and took another sip, thinking of the mental barrier that might hamper my efforts to exercise the most important qualities of the art of the uke – the devotion and dedication to the performer.
Devotion and dedication meant the uke could read every movement of the Shite, (Tori), in advance, tuned in to finest shift to their constitution, be it in slight change of posture, facial expression, or even in the way they inhaled and exhaled.
A good example, although somehow extreme, can be seen in the uke of Gozo Shioda sensei, namely, his Uchi Deshi. In order to become his uke, the new Uchi Deshi had to undergo preparation training where they would dedicate themselves to the lower grade teachers, obeying their every command. They would hardly ever sit, standing in attention and serving the senior instructors with food and beverages, fold and wash their clothes, prepare their slippers as they stepped on and off the mat and taking their uke.
The first contact the new Uchi Deshi had with Master Shioda would be as his servants. They would be there as he ate, moved about and went to the toilet, each function described with a specific procedures they had to follow, systems that sometimes took months to learn and perfect. A good example would be the bath, where he would demand they would know the specific water temperature he desired without the use of a thermometer, and, to detect when he would want to get in and out of the water despite the fact there were two sliding doors to separate the bath from the place where the Uchi Deshi waited.
Such training developed almost a supernatural level of awareness to his every need and move. And he would check and recheck their abilities, sometimes even toying with them.
“He always tries you out,” told me Mark Baker, who took over the position of Master Shioda’s chauffeur when Neshida sensei quit and left to Hokkaido.
“Example please,” I begged as we sat in the kitchen.
“Like when we go and eat at a restaurant,” Mark elaborated. “I would sit across from him, just as we sit now, and be totally absorbed by his action, especially when he finished his meal, knowing that the moment he wants to leave, he would simply get up and head to the exit. My eyes would focus on him as he casually conversed with me or just sat with his back straight in complete silence. Then he would suddenly lean forward, like so,” Mark demonstrated, shifting toward me and placing his hands on the table, using them as levers as he slowly lifted his buttocks off the seat.
“At the sight of this movement I would jump to my feet and he would look at me, smile, like a naughty boy, and sink back onto his seat.”
Mark leant backwards and chuckled.
“He would do that quite a few times at every meal.”
Needless to say that by the time an Uchi Deshi got the chance to actually take uke for Master Shioda, they would approach him like puny mortals who are about to interact with the all mighty divine, wide eyed, tuned in and focused, occasionally over reacting or exaggerate their performance in order to demonstrate their devotions and dedication.
There was another element which Shioda sensei tended to use in order to further stimulate his Uchi Deshi into action, an element that is commonly used in religion and other such institutions in order to implement devotion and zeal in their disciples. The fear factor – the fear from the unknown, and in our case, the fear from the pain he might inflict on you, from his disappointment of your performance, from his rejection and even, from losing your position at the dojo…
Many teachers tended to try and implement the fear factor on their uke but since they lacked the mystical aura that surrounded Master Shioda, their focus was on pain and on the worries of uke from the physical damage that might be inflicted upon them.
I remember how once, at the beginning of a training session with Mark Baker sensei, a man who was on friendly terms with me off the mats and yet, who tended to wear a fierce and intense expression as soon as we exercised together, I smiled at him, while we stood in kamae and asked him:
“Are you trying to scare me, Mark?”
He looked astonished for a second, and I remember thinking that perhaps I might have went too far this time, disrespecting the boundary between ranks and putting to shame the unwritten rules of conduct at the dojo. Then he smiled, the deep frown gone from his forehead. The session that followed was the best we ever had, free of tension and ego, flowing, connected, and manifesting the purest expression of the techniques.
Fear might have been a tool that the teacher used but it could not be an option if I wanted to be fully committed and engaged in the coming demonstration. I had to overcome myself, drive away the terrorizing memories and not allow fear to take hold of me even if Chino sensei wanted to use it.
“Take charge of the situation,” I whispered to myself and although it might sound like an absurd statement since my role was being on the receiving end, the person who reacts, absorbs and follows the actions of the head performer, I believe it is more than a feasible truth.
A good example to the amount of control the uke has over the outcome of the performance is in plain sights on many of Master Gozo Shioda’s demonstration. There were countless occasions in which I observed his uke, men much younger, bigger and fitter than him, avoiding bumping and crashing into his frail body and instead, throwing themselves around in the most incredible fashion, in fact, doing it so masterfully that to the innocent eye it might look like the master was the cause to their falls.
“Artistic,” some would suggest.
“Magnificent,” other will observe, and:
“The man is undoubtedly a magician by all accounts.”
There are other examples to justify my claims for the uke taking charge of the situation, personal examples, like the numerous times in which I helped instructors maintain their equilibrium after an over zealous throw, keeping the connection to their body with my locked limb, pushing toward them in order to help them keep their perfect postures.
I even once, cheekily I must confess, wanted to judge my ability to exhaust Robert Mustered sensei by asking him to throw me around as hard as he can; counting on the fact that being younger and fitter might ultimately give me the upper hand. He crashed me and beat me for a few good minutes but I managed to survive and in the end, he had to call the session off. I took charge of the situation and luckily, without any broken bones or a concussion to report…
I was still clueless as to how I will handle Chino sensei when I went to bed that night and when I woke up in the following morning. But there were few things that I was certain on. I had to clear myself from fear and worries and in order to do so, had to take charge of the situation today, on the day of the practice with Chino sensei.
When he finally came to get me, on the break between the first and second morning sessions, I still had no idea what I would do. However, and despite the fact the training will commence in a few seconds, I was very confident that the answer will present itself soon enough, perhaps because I knew from past experiences that when I saturated my mind with a problem it always gave rise to the solution.
I followed him to the mats, we bowed to the shrine, bowed to each other and he asked me to attack with a Shomen Uchi strike. I raised my hand over my head and when I brought it down with the chopping move, I was consciously focusing on being as calm as I could get. He led me to a kotegayshi throw and it went very smoothly. The next couple of throws, Shionage kozushi, and UdeGarame, were also flowing and incident free moves.
I exhaled in relief, knowing I passed the first test, that now he knew my arms were relaxed enough for him to perform all the locks he wanted. It was a comforting thought but I wasn’t fooled by my success, aware it was only the beginning.
Next we moved to a few kokyunage throws and again I harmonized with him to perfection. He nodded his approval but remained expressionless. He asked me to attack with Katate Muchi, wrist grab, and mixed kokyunage with a variety of arm locks and added some Iriminage throws. Again, it was going very nicely.
“Doing well. All this worry was for nothing,” I thought and then sensed how he was gradually investing more power in the throws. I managed to keep my composure and with each technique the power grew until the situation turned a little risky. I began to suspect that perhaps my calm reaction was the reason for his aggressive behavior.
“He is trying to break me,” I thought and at that precise point, he suddenly performed an outrageous Koshinage, a hip throw that was so high and powerful it caused my body to flail ungracefully in the air then crash in a loud thud on the tatami. I remained splattered on the floor, lying stunned for a second that felt like an hour long.
“Hold it together,” the thought rang in my head, as if trying to encourage me against the fear and worries that started to get the better of me.
“One more throw like this and I’ll end up in the emergency room. One more and I’m done…”
I was about to lose it all together when it suddenly hit me, like bolt of lightning from the heavens, or perhaps like a head splitting strike from the ground – a solution so simple and elegant that it twisted my lips in a tiny smile.
I wiped the smile from my face and jumped to my feet. I stood in front of him with a deep frown decorating my forehead, shaking my head, as if displeased with myself.
“Can we do it again, sensei?” I asked.
“Again?” he said, and now he was also wearing the frown.
“Yes, please, and if you don’t mind, stronger this time. I am not satisfied with my ukemi. I think I need a stronger throw to do it better.”
He rolled his eyes and nodded. I took a second fall, an iron grip on my wrist, noting how he hardly bent forward when he hauled me over his back, stretching to his full height as he pulled away and brought me down.
I jumped back to my feet, ignoring the pain and the ringing in my ears.
“Can we do it again?” I pleaded, my twisted expression demonstrating my discontent. “Harder if you please. I’m not there yet.”
I could tell he was putting all he’s got in the next throw, my body smashed like the titanic on the iceberg as it hit the floor. I tightened my lips, shutting my mouth against the urge to scream. Instead I jumped back to my feet and for a moment I stood before him, head tilted to the side while holding my chin. I felt his eyes on me. He looked completely bemused when I asked him to do it yet harder.
But the next throw was nowhere near as strong as the last one. He was losing it but I wasn’t going to let him off my hook. I wasn’t done with him. Not just yet.
“Again please?” I begged and he looked less than happy to comply, knowing as well as I did that he have already reached the pinnacle of his abilities. However, he did comply.
“Never mind,” I sighed after the third attempt. “Perhaps another time.”
I looked at him, standing straight and calm, as if asking him to move on. But he seemed like he had already lost his will to continue.
“Enough for today,” he said and we bowed at each other. I watched him as he bowed to the shrine and moved up the few stairs that led to the corridor and to the door of the office. Only when he was out of sight did I allow myself to drop down and nurse my agonized flesh, tears in my eyes, a blend of pain and joy.
It was the only session but as I predicted, it was more than enough. When the day of the demonstration came I was more than relaxed and he seemed calmer then ever.
It was a pure display.
A truly wonderful performance.