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Monday, August 3, 2009

Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A Complete Guide to Koryu Jujutsu

Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A Complete Guide to Koryu Jujutsu
by Serge Mol

I've had a long time fascination with the Japanese martial arts, a fascination I blame primarily on a combination of my father's Judo stories when I was a kid, the ninja-craze of my childhood (when everyone knew that ninja were just the coolest things ever, and that pirates were lame), and the fact that Aikido was the first Asian martial art I ever seriously studied (I did Tae Kwon Do before that, but not very seriously or very well).

Whatever the source, I've found the history and practice of the Classical Japanese martial arts (Koryu) particularly interesting, but for many years, couldn't find much written on the subject. Donn Draeger wrote a series of excellent books on the subject, but that was all I was aware of until recently. Serge Mol's Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A Complete Guide to Koryu Jujutsu was one of the first books on the subject that I found, though it appears to be part of a much larger body of recent Koryu writings that I am not familiar with. More stuff to read, I guess.

As the title indicates, this particular book is focused specifically on Koryu Jujutsu systems; that is to say, Classical Japanese Martial arts whose primary focus was on unarmed, close-quarters combat (as distinct from those systems which focused primarily on the use of weapons, such as swords, spears, and so on). The book opens with a general discussion of the possible origins of the Jujutsu ryuha, and some of the mythology connected with those origins. From there, Mol moves on to define some general terminology common to all of the ryuha, and to introduce some of the "minor weapons" (knives, fistloads, and other smaller fighting tools), before delving into a discussion of the ryuha themselves. A great chunk of the book is devoted to discussing a number of the various schools from different lineages within the Japanese martial arts. As Mol himself makes clear, this is not a totally comprehensive discussion, but it certainly is very large, and relatively in-depth. Mol cannot possibly cover ever Koryu Jujutsu system that ever existed, but he does hit a lot of them.

This is the sort of book that you're either into or you're not. In the tradition of Draeger, it is a relatively serious academic work. Mol has done his research, and he presents the findings of this research here. Oral tradition is cited as oral tradition, not as fact, and supernatural powers and events are treated with the scholarly skepticism that they deserve. If you want to be treated to stories about masters with magical powers that kill a man with a glance, this is not your book. Honestly, even if you're just interested in learning more about the Koryu, this might not be your book. While it's very interesting, and quite comprehensive, someone who has never read anything about the Koryu might find it a little daunting, particularly when reading the laundry lists of various styles and their creation, practices, and so on.

Also, a fair warning. While the book jacket advertises that this book contains "information on how to disarm opponents who are armed with daggers or swords, how to lock opponents with their own weapons, and more", this is not an instruction manual by any means. I realize the efficacy of books as an instructional medium can be debated, but this book doesn't really even try. While it does show some photographic sequences of techniques being performed, it's definitely not designed to be a "how-to" guide.

So who will like this book? Someone interested in Japanese history, or Japanese martial arts. Koryu practitioners may find it useful for placing their art in a broader historical context, as may practitioners of the Gendai Budo (Judo, Aikido, and so on). Even if you're not a student of the Japanese arts, this book will provide a lot of great information to the amateur (or professional) historian.

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