Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Attack of the living dead

One common complaint about aikido as a system of self-defense is that it looks like the uke attacks like an idiot and then jumps onto the ground to make tori look good. Sure enough, if you check out aikido demos on Google or Youtube, uke is often either running blindly at tori or is lurching slowly forward like a monster in a 1950’s movie, giving an extended arm to tori to do with as he pleases. You even occasionally see videos of Doshu or of the various “old school” “hard style” aikido folks in which ukes attack like brainless zombies. Honestly, Doesn't it look like Frank is about to execute kotegaeshi in the picture?

What’s going on here? Surely this isn’t what the founder or his prewar disciples (i.e. Tomiki, Shioda, etc…) intended aikido to become. Well, there are several things going on here…
  • These are just demonstrations and the ukes are understandably reluctant to ruin the demo or make the instructor look like a fool. (Not a very satisfying answer to the question or solution to the problem)

  • To artistically represent anything there has to be some degree of abstraction from reality. The same is true in the abstraction of combat into martial art. There will necessarily be distortion. (Still not a really satisfying answer.) The trick is managing that distortion such that the martial art is still artistic but also still functional and practical.

  • People who are attacked violently and randomly fail to learn. They refuse to learn. In fact, unless you see the same type of situation several times in a format you can handle, it is nearly impossible to learn from it.

  • If you look at the act of striking in general (disregarding the use of weapons for right now) there are at least three requirements for any striking attack. First, the attacker has to approach to within touching distance. Second, the attacker has to extend a natural weapon (arm, leg, etc…) and has to put strength in it. Third, the target for the most part has to be the victim’s center of mass. Otherwise the attack stands a greater chance of glancing off or missing.The basic attacks of aikido (shomenate, shomenuchi, yokomenuchi) are the most abstracted things that still follow these principles.
So, the attack of the living dead that you often see is intended to be a somewhat abstract attack that fulfils the above three requirements but is still orderly enough for tori to deal with and learn from. Where aikidoka get in trouble is when uke forgets his role as THE BAD GUY and gives the appearance of fulfiling the above requirements without ever really posing any potential threat to tori. That is what uke's role is - present a potential threat for tori to deal with. So, how can uke improve his potential threat while still using the ordely attacks that tori can deal with?

  • Maintain eye contact as much as possible. If uke can look tori in the eye then tori is making it too easy for uke.

  • Uke should not wallow around in a state of offbalance. If tori gets an offbalance, uke responds to regain his balance then regain a position from which to attack.

  • Uke's attack should take place in one efficient, ballistic motion from outside ma-ai. If uke gets closer than ma-ai without attacking tori should already be smiting him.

It is really sort of a strategy game between uke and tori. Tori is always trying to get into strategically stronger positions and uke is always trying to regain the strategic advantage.


  1. I know i've been guilty of making an attack at tori that's not the most balanced to begin with so i've got something to work on. Something i think brings out "the living dead" is the times uke doesn't doesn't put any weight into a grab or push. I'ts always sorta awkward to move around in hanasu. There's nothing worse than a weak zombie flailing at you.

  2. Hi Patrick;
    We do have a drill we call "zombie attack" I thought it was great you used it in your post.
    Basicly, it is mostly a slow (one-third speed) attack and it is continuous. the attacker moves to hit, grab, or attack in some way while defender moves, hits counters, locks, or otherwise defends. The attacker/defender do not go to the ground or that would stop the drill, so throws or sweeps just go to the set-up and un-balence stage. It's mostly striking and stand-up locking. What we have found is that at that slow speed the flow is continuous and it allows for the defender to process a tremendous amount of information about movement, distance and timing. Kind of like a Tai Chi speed sparring but the attacker keeps attacking and the defender keeps defending. Don't know if you guys have tried this yet.
    -- Also, I would love to see a video of your "chains, flow" if you can upload one. I will put your site on my links list. Keep up the good work!

  3. DojoRat,
    that sounds similar to the randori that we do most often. Slow continuous, both partners are actively participating (there is no training dummy). As you said, sorta like tai chi hands drills but with both partners walking around as you do it.

    The chains videos are coming - slowly - in the meantime, click on the "video" tag on any of my video posts and check out the small pieces of the chains that i have posted already. especially look at the "kata motion" video that describes two type of flow that happens between people. I will be getting more chain video up in the near future.

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions. Keep em' coming.

  4. Didn't Ueshiba specifically say NOT to look into the eyes of your attacker?

  5. Good question, Chris. My response to that is likely to be too much for a comment, so look for a blog post on that in the next couple of days.

    Thanks for the comment and keep em coming.

  6. I published my response this morning...


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