I read a book recently called Spellbound by David Kwong, a magician and New York Times crossword puzzle constructor. In it he describes illusion as an ancient art that centers on control: it is the ability to command a room (situation), build anticipation, and appear to work wonders. Illusion works because the human brain is wired to fill the gap between seeing and believing.
From his research he describes seven fundamental principles of illusion that could just as easily be a description of our ninja martial arts. (Note: I’ve taken some editorial liberties with the order of this list for the purpose of this post.)
Mind the Gap: recognize and employ the perceptual space between your audience’s ability to see and their impulse to believe. Understanding this is the basis of ninja invisibility. We don’t disappear in a theatrical puff of smoke but in the gap between what people see and what they ‘think’ they see. The double edge sword of this however, is that many people think they see what we are teaching but are only seeing what they ‘think’ they see.
Write the Script: discover the importance of shaping the narrative that surrounds your illusion. The power of understanding a situation, the words being said, the staging of where the participants are, the actions needed to be able to determine what the outcome should be in your ‘story’, is what gives us the creativity to adapt to any situation we find ourselves in.
Control the Frame: explore the real-life value of a magician’s best friend, misdirection. The ninja method of fighting is not to fight but to control the focus of your opponent and let them deliver themselves to their demise. A touch on the arm, a shoulder pulling one direction, a glance to a space, a breath exhaled at the right moment are just some of the tools of misdirection the ninja use to control focus and escape.
Design Free Choice: command your audience by giving them agency. The best traps we set with our techniques are the ones that the opponent walks into willingly. Did they throw that jab because your guard was down or did your guard come down to make them throw the jab. The more they believe it is their choice the more energy they will commit to what you want them to do.
Employ the Familiar: take secret advantage of habits, patterns, and audience expectations. Back away with Ichimonji no kamae once and they are off balance, do it again and they still miss you but are closer, by the third time they attack they are right on target to your center, where they run into the front hand of Ichimonji no kamae patiently waiting for them.
Conjure an Out: develop backup plans that will keep you one, two, three, or more steps ahead of the competition. Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Void, if one fails the next is there to save us. Different ways of moving, different perspectives, different approaches to handling a situation, why is it so hard to explain to others what our art is about? Because you can’t label us, you can’t put us in a box we are appropriate for the situation not stuck in our dogma.
Load Up: prepare to amaze your audience. I saved this one for last even though in the book it is number two because unlike the others and their similarities this one determines if you will be able to perform magic with your taijutsu or not. In his book David talks about how a ten-second illusion could take months or years of preparation to do convincingly. He references an illusion David Copperfield did for a television show that took seven years of preparation. In fact, his book is mostly about the incredible level of preparation magicians will go to succeed in their art. What’s my point?
If you want to be able to perform the magic you see An-shu Stephen and Rumiko Hayes do, you must Load Up. You can’t just memorize the kata and think you can do magic. A thirty-second self-defense situation that ends with everyone asking, what just happened, takes time and preparation.
So, find a teacher and train, then find a training partner and train some more, then go home and train by yourself, and then train some more. When you have trained for years practicing your skills and applying them in many situations, then you are ready for “Nothing up my sleeve…”