Sometimes when I see people doing the 31 kumijo partner practice I get the impression that they are moving through a sequence of dance steps, memorized and practiced until they become automatic. Often it looks smooth and coordinated, as if each person knows what their partner is going to do next, which of course they do.
But as nice as this all works out, there is often something important missing: a martial mentality and focus on the silent interplay between attacker and defender. It is this interplay that breathes martial life into these forms and informs them with the practical reasons for why the moves are what they are. Without the players adopting both the physical moves and the mentality and intentionality of their respective roles the awase can never be complete. Memorizing the moves is important, but knowing the psychological cat and mouse game between attacker and defender makes the practice more authentic and more fun.
I think of the silent intentionality of each partner as a psychological script, an explanation of the reasoning, strategies, and changing fortunes in the form as it unfolds. The way to understand the script is to watch the form and at each move ask, "why is this happening?" Unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps, there is no published script of the psychological interplay of this form, it really must be inferred from the movements.
For instance, at class last night there was a question about when the attacker should begin to raise his weapon after move #8, in which the defender has his or her back turned toward the attacker. This position is the one shown in the photo.
Sometimes you will see the attacker initiating by raising the jo as though for a shomen strike, even before the defender has moved. This could make sense in terms of the script if the defender has not visually captured the attacker with a glance to the rear.
But if the defender has acquired the attacker visually, as Tatoian Sensei always told us to do immediately on finishing the strike at #8, then why would the attacker initiate a strike that would be fully anticipated by the defender? In the script, which follows the psychology of life and death, to have your opponent know your mind and intention is an extreme disadvantage that any martial artist would seek to avoid.
So, if the defender has captured the attacker visually before another move begins, then the attacker is much better off remaining in ken kamai stance and abandoning the idea of an easy kill from behind. This change in strategy has been forced by the quick eye movement of the defender, effectively freezing the attacker in his tracks, and forcing a reconsideration of what to do next.
After class I went home and watched a few videos of Morihiro Saito Sensei practicing and teaching the 31 kumijo, and in every instance I saw the attacker at move #9 hold position until it is apparent that the defender has taken the initiative with a powerful sweep of the jo, and the attacker raises and retreats into shomen uhci komi position. The psychology of the attacker here is: "oops, I guess my opponent figured out my plan, I'll wait to see. . .uh oh, here he comes, I better make room and position myself for whatever chances I may have next."
There is another place in the kumijo that is very complicated and almost impossible to figure out without having decoded the script first. This is the sequence between moves 19 and 22. In this quick succession of moves the defender creates in the attacker cascading waves or emotion alternating between triumph and panic. At move 20 the attacker initiates a fierce yokomen strike only to find, at the peak of the strike, that defender has slid in underneath it with a deadly strike to the knees. This requires that the attacker immediately shift into full flight mode and step back to avoid and parry the defender's strike. It all happens very fast.
Once during a class on this form Tatoian Sensei began to lecture us on how we were just mindlessly going through the moves without actually living the form with our minds and bodies. He stopped us and showed how the attacker could take advantage of sloppy technique by the defender and end the awase before move #16. He explained that it was within the spirit of the form to exploit advantages opened up by a lack of mindfulness on the part of the opponent. He added, in that instance, that the deviation he suggested in the attacker's tactics was not something he'd learned from Saito Sensei, but that it was consistent with the martial spirit and intentionality of the form - the script - that he did learn from Saito Sensei.
Practicing this form simply as a series of interlocking movements between the attacker and defender can produce an interesting demonstration, but to really inhabit deeper layers of this awase it is necessary to study the psychological script, the mental chess game between the attacker and defender that reflects the stark, practical psychology of life and death.