Samurai-do reviews Phil Trent’s book Flawless Deception.
It is nothing short of laudable that Phil Trent has taken on such an in-depth exegesis of a subject that is all too often considered sacred and immune from criticism. Koryu martial artists have a tendency to shroud themselves in the mysticism and relative rarity of their knowledge in order to put themselves outside the realms of normal analysis. Phil Trent himself is far from a traditionalist. With his own martial arts school in Dallas, and his own blog, www.koryumatters.wordpress.com, Phil has made his and open study of the traditional Japanese martial arts widely known.
Flawless Deception is designed to ground this approach in rational understanding and logic, and in this function it performs reasonably well. The author competently navigates and articulates the main points which stand against the vast majority of koryu bujutsu practice as we know it today. One of the most salient issues raised is that the koryu is not immune from the very simple but ever so troublesome “is it really effective?” question, that many seem so determined to tell us is unanswerable and obscured by the fog of history. The criticism is a familiar one, taking to pieces the practice of kata and ultimately ruling it ineffective. For Phil Trent, however, there is a ray of hope, and he argues that recapturing the sense of urgency, danger, and physical and mental stress when performing the koryu kata can once again elevate them to the point where they are an effective martial system.
The author feels as though the techniques presented by koryu schools really do work, and that the practice of these techniques as we know them today is simply no longer rigorous enough or made near enough analogous to real life combat to be effective any longer.
A brief survey of some of the author’s other work, both on his blog and in videos that he creates shows that this is a belief that he puts into practice in his own, and his students’ training, going out of his way to increase levels of physical stress and differing environments to create the most realistic scenarios possible.
Another issue that I am really glad to see tackled here is the problem of secrecy. There is an unfortunate tradition of many koryu schools and practitioners being obstinately elitist and over-secretive in their interactions with other people. I will always remember an experience where, at a seminar, a member of a certain koryu sword school refused to talk to me about sword technique because the teaching was regarded as secret by that school. As the author points out, this was necessary in feudal Japan, where any factor of your ability that was unknown to your opponent would be of a great advantage. However, as he also points out, such an approach has no place in the 21st Century and only serves to stagnate the practice of koryu, and often allows the practice of koryu, even in what the author sees as an ineffective format, to go on unchallenged.
That is not to say, however, that there are not flaws in the author’s reasoning. Perhaps the most pressing point which I would question lies in an assertion made early on that the koryu “were created by warriors, they were populated by warriors, they trained warriors and could not therefore be anything but fundamentally martial in nature.” To this I would gently probe as to why the vast majority of extant koryu schools focus on kenjutsu and jujutsu, two of the absolute last resort tactics on a battlefield. Many of what qualify today as koryu were developed after the pacification of Japan in 1600, and, as such, maintain only tenuous links to the true nature of battlefield combat.
The other issue that I take with the author’s stance, concerns safety. The author argues that in order for efficacy of technique to be maintained and transmitted, there has to be some sort of real danger to the student. Whilst this makes sense, as a martial arts instructor, I no longer feel that this kind of risk is acceptable in 21st Century teaching. When we teach classical samurai arts, it is not prepare people for medieval Japanese combat, and, as such, the danger simply isn’t necessary. That the Katori Shinto ryu, widely regarded as one of the oldest koryu traditions, has a teaching method founded upon the need for safety is a testament to this. I must wholeheartedly disagree that such a level of genuine danger to a student is in any way necessary or fruitful in the study of koryu bujutsu.
In a way the author has almost missed his own trick. He places too much faith in the original legitimacy of the koryu schools as representative warrior training institutions for full scale Japanese battles. Many, if not even most koryu schools and techniques, are looking at using largely non-battlefield weapons (e.g. swords) and focus on single combat scenarios, often against an unarmoured opponent. Of course this is not universal, and of course this does not de-legitimise the modern practice of koryu bujutsu.
Overall, Phil Trent’s book raises some important issues and, for many a koryu adherent it is a loud and necessary wake-up call, addressing some important issues within koryu martial arts practice and people’s approach to koryu bujutsu in general. Flawless Deception is worth your time because of these thought provoking insights, although I won’t be turning to it as a definitive framework for practice any time soon.
As a final rating, I give Flawless deception 4 Stars out of 5. It is, overall a thought provoking and well argued book, however much I may disagree with some of its content and ideas. The research is strong, and generally geared toward the psychological aspects of combat and battle, although there is some koryu and history specific stuff in there as well (I particularly enjoyed the sudden appearance of my old friend Richard Kauper!). Though the conclusion was a little disappointing and there are certainly discussions to be had about some of the assertions made, it is a valiant and engaging work that should not be lightly dismissed.
Flawless Deception is available to download as an E-book! get it at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Flawless-Deception-behind-samurai-schools-ebook/dp/B014OMZ0EA