Inspiration is everywhere! Or how to learn martial arts from manga

Miyamoto Musashi - inspiration all around him

I passed my driving theory test on Tuesday! To do so I had to answer ridiculous questions about whether diesel was slippery, followed by clicking a mouse button every time I saw a pedestrian. Now when I’m hitting the open roads and a pedestrian walks out in front of me, I’ll think, “CLICK!”, then wonder why 5 years later I’m still writing letters to the Driving Standards Agency blaming them for my vehicular manslaughter. Is that my imagination running away from me?  Hard to tell sometimes.

I got home later than I should’ve done due to walking around Bristol looking at all the different products I wouldn’t let me buy. This included finding all the volumes for the manga I’m currently reading – Vagabond. This manga has proved so inspirational to me that I want to write a post about it.

Vagabond is about a bad ass swordsman called Miyamoto Musashi – arguably the most famous and talented swordsman ever. His quest – travelling Japan to improve his martial arts – is in essence the same as mine, so when I first heard about it, for sure I wanted to read a few pages. In addition to stunning artwork and fearsome action, it’s a perfect example of how we can learn and take inspiration from things around us so long as we’re paying attention.

This post talks a lot about martial arts, but its message is more broadly applicable to people other than martial artists. Bear with it and see if it inspires you to look more closely at the things in your life, and whether you can take lessons from them to improve yourself.

Vagabond displayed its utility to me early on in that it had an unusual efficacy for getting me pumped for the gym. I could only think, “God damn, if Musashi can take on a gang of thugs with only a piece of wood, I can manage one more rep! URRRUGGHUUHHHUU!” But soon it started to show more substance than just this. Unexpectedly, reading the first 110 chapters of this manga has taught me several lessons directly applicable to my martial arts practice (in addition to several other things I’d file under ‘wisdom’). I’ll go through each of these practical things as examples of finding lessons in what I could’ve easily treated as just entertainment.

Inspiration lesson 1: Find the correct feeling

In the first third of the story, Musashi faces off against Hōzōin Inshun, the 2nd generation master of the Hōzōin school of spear fighting. Man, what a fight! But it appealed to me particularly because Inshun showed a peculiar way of approaching the battle. When he fought, he was almost friendly, yet still full of intention. In iaido – a martial art I do that focuses on drawing the sword – it’s important to show this kind of intention. The principle is called seme. It’s like Bleach’s concept of reiatsu, or spiritual pressure. It’s what makes the opponent think, “uh… I don’t wanna mess with this guy.” Imagine putting on your game face, then extending it to your whole body. Try it. Now try to unnerve a martial artist with it. Yeah. Hard stuff.

On Sunday morning’s training session, I actually tried to replicate Inshun’s mindset when he was fighting Musashi. He was totally relaxed, compassionate, yet lethal, and still completely focused. It’s a difficult idea to describe, but reading the manga I thought, “that’s what my iai should be like!”

That morning my instructor asked me to pick a kata (movement) and “wow” him with it. It was go time! I pictured Inshun’s expression and performed a kata. I tried to feel the same as I’d felt while empathising with him in the manga. I hadn’t done that kata yet that morning but I chose it anyway to put the feeling to the test. And the result? It only freaking worked. After a few weeks of having a tougher time, this lesson sensei had only praise (for me, anyway!). Aside from him deciding to call me Joseph it was my best lesson for some time – and seemingly in part due to Inshun.

Often in iaido, I find there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to concentrate on all of it. I must be relaxed, but also tense at the right moments; I must be calm and collected, but also explode in an instant; I must be natural, whilst performing movements that are unnatural. It’s impossible to concentrate on all of it. But thinking about it now, I think it’s better approached as a feeling, and weirdly, reading a manga helped me gain an insight into what that feeling might be.

There’s a lot of this ‘feeling’ business in martial arts. It’s something I’ve begun to appreciate only recently in this past year or so. If you want to understand your technique, you can’t simply copy it and analyse it. Every time you perform the technique, the situation is different – it’s not enough to perfectly learn a sequence of movements. You must understand it such that you can express the technique yourself – to create it anew for each new circumstance you encounter. Your mindset contributes to your expression of the technique, and so finding and refining a correct mindset for your practice is important to truly understand what you’re doing.

Inspiration lesson 2: Don’t be showy

The second thing I noticed was Musashi’s stance holding a sword. It’s been my habit up until now to push my sword outwards, as if to threaten the person in front – an attempt to directly pressure the opponent. Musashi did no such thing. Musashi held his sword slightly closer to himself, so that his shoulders were straighter. I considered it for a moment. Damn it, I thought – he’s right!

When I tried it out that morning, I found it allowed my arms to be more relaxed. It also improved my balance, moving my weight slightly back. Thirdly, it actually felt more intimidating – keeping your shoulders back makes your body appear larger, and you feel as if your chest is slightly further forward relative to your arms. It was such a slight change, but it changed the dynamic of my posture. Being more relaxed, I could move quicker. My chest being less tense improved my kiai (shouting). And to top it off, without any prompting on my part, my training partner told me afterwards that he could feel my intensity – that he wanted to look away at the floor rather than face it. Changing this aspect of my training seemed to produce a far more remarkable effect than I’d expected it to.

It’s made me realise that my sword posture was showy. It was ostentatious and without substance. I was trying to make up for that lack of substance by forcing it. In martial arts, there is so much that goes on underneath something as simple as just standing. Any practitioner with a few years under their belt will know what I mean. I find that there’s so much going on that it’s very difficult to analyse, so instead what I’ve found more useful is to carefully look for inspiration around me. Even from manga. Even from the most mundane of sources.

Inspiration lesson 3: Be attentive

The third thing that I’ve learned so far from Vagabond that has directly influenced my training is walking. In one chapter, Musashi is walking along a country road and has the misfortune to step on a nail, injuring his foot. He chastises himself, knowing that the masters he’d met previously on his journey wouldn’t have made such a moronic error, and that now if he were attacked, he could easily be killed – all because of his lapse of attention.

Musashi takes seriously something as basic as his way of walking, even when there’s no one else around. To anyone that (somewhat seriously) practises a – a Way – they know they don’t leave their art behind in the dojo. It’s a part of them and informs them in their day-to-day life. Walking gets no exemption. Normal walking has a distinct weak point – right before the planting of your forward foot. If you attempt to suddenly stop yourself before putting your forward foot down, you’ll find that you can’t – you fall forwards. There is, however, a method of avoiding this.

There I was, pacing around my living room like a lunatic, keeping my toes to the ground, imagining there to be nails or obstacles that could cause me to trip. Every few paces I’d suddenly stop to see if I’d fall forwards. It’s very difficult to throw an energetic person, or put your all into a sword cut, without losing your balance – the way you move your feet is fundamental to managing this. And so I paced about, considering how much I’d learnt from just reading a manga.

The evolution of my own insight

Several years ago, I once saw a disparaging remark in a forum post, referencing people who “think they’re practising aikido while riding the bus.” I’ve thought about this post occasionally over the years since I saw it. To my former self, I didn’t know what to make of it. To my present self, it stands out to me like one of the most unenlightened utterances to ever imprint itself on my memory – not just as a martial artist, but as a human.

I can now say that I do practise aikido when using public transport. Really, I do. I don’t often take the bus, but I take the train, and when the train is slowing down and I’m queuing for the carriage doors, my feet are subtly in stance. The deceleration of the train tests my balance. I have my posture tested twice a day, five days a week from this. Who would advocate I held the hand rail and didn’t bother, even if the improvement to my ability were tiny? Even if it were a single grain of sand – damn it, it’s going in the sand castle anyway.

The world has a lot to teach us – everywhere we look there’s a lesson to be found. Inspiration is everywhere. I consider myself to be a student of the world. I want to learn, so I try to keep my eyes open. I want to see the things that others let pass them by. There’s so much out there – so many opportunities to improve ourselves that it seems positively tragic to forgo them all. If you have a passion like I do, then, like me, you too can find a way to improve it on the bus.  Don’t just look at what the world has to offer – see it, learn from it. Pay attention to what the world’s giving you!

Matt Bowen

Matt is a blogger, budoka and software developer. He sold his things, quit his job and moved to Japan to study Japanese and martial arts. Sometimes he writes about it.

4 thoughts on “Inspiration is everywhere! Or how to learn martial arts from manga

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *