Iaido, Wing Chun, and ‘After the Rain’: Reflections on Martial Arts
I started taking wing chun classes at City Wing Tsun in Manhattan recently. It’s been a great experience, partly because the people are almost universally friendly, and partly because doing martial arts has made me feel more at peace.
Practicing the siu nim tao form in wing chun reminded me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Ame Agaru, or After the Rain. The movie follows Misawa I’hei, a ronin, and his wife, who are staying at an inn. After stopping a duel in the forest, Misawa gains the attention of the local ruler, who invites him to interview for the position of master-at-arms at his castle. Misawa turns out to be an unparalleled swordsman, but his weakness is his kindness and humility–as one character says, Misawa’s empathy toward his opponents (who inevitably lose) ends up coming across as patronizing, and Misawa himself seems resigned to being perpetually “unlucky”.
The scene I was reminded of is a three-minute sequence in the forest, where Misawa is practicing drawing and sheathing his sword:
After several months of practicing siu nim tao, the first open-hand form of wing chun, I had a new respect for this scene, which seems pretty simple and boring at first glance. So much time and attention is given to the minute, almost ritualistic movements Misawa uses in the simple act of pulling out and putting away his weapon. When I first watched the movie, I was struck by how long the scene went on, that there was almost no music or dialogue, and that the director/screenwriter had chosen to forego doing another episodic fight scene in favor of a contemplative scene where Misawa reflects on how useless he is.
For comparison, here’s what the siu nim tao looks like:
One of the instructors at City Wing Tsun told us that he’d attended a class of high-level wing chun martial artists who practiced this form so slowly and deliberately that the set took them an hour to complete. Their movements were so gradual that you couldn’t tell they were moving, like the hands of a clock.
Looking back on that scene from After the Rain, it makes more sense to me. Rather than a weird little digression that fails to advance the plot, it touches upon something essential about Misawa: without delving into exposition or his past, it shows that this is someone who has dedicated his life to his art, and has maybe even mastered it. The fact that he does it alone, in the middle of the woods, hints that his path toward mastery was completed alone, and that like a tree falling in the woods, it’s still real even if he’s the only one who appreciates it.
But the end of the scene, where Misawa reflects on his uselessness and how his wife is the only thing that gives his life value, is most important of all: at this point in the movie, Misawa has just screwed up his interview in a catastrophic duel with his potential lord and once again ruined an opportunity for his (and his wife’s) happiness. Misawa saying he’s useless, to me, just seemed like dejection, kind of a hapless “I can’t do anything right!” But in the context of iaido, it seems like he’s saying “What good is mastering the sword if it doesn’t bring you happiness?”
Misawa may be the polar opposite of Miyamoto Musashi in Vagabond, which is my favorite manga series. Musashi is a swordsman driven by a desire to be invincible, and enters his fights with bloodlust and brute strength. Misawa enters his fights with benevolent intentions, either attempting to defuse the battle or hurriedly asking his enemy if they’re okay once he’s disarmed them.
However, both Musashi and Misawa eventually arrive at the same conclusion: that at the end of the way of the sword is another path that doesn’t need the sword at all.