Review: James Williams in Fresno, CA
James Williams was in Fresno, CA on May 15 for a seminar. I had wanted to train with Mr. Williams for the last seven years and now he was in my city, so there really was no excuse not to go.
More was covered in this seminar than I can address in a decent sized post, so what follows is really just a synopsis. In the interest of full disclosure, I may be somewhat biased because my views on martial arts are fairly aligned with what I understand Mr. Williams' views to be.
Let me begin with some "complaints." It's a very short list and really has more to do with my expectations and the fact that I was running on empty by the end of the week..
We did not do any kenjutsu. Mr. Williams told us to get our bokken when we first bowed in. I was excited because I particularly wanted to learn some of his kenjutsu. By the time we had bowed in, he decided to abandon the sword and we started with some empty-hand exercises. I'm only speculating, but this was probably due to the fact that a few of the attendees were dressed in street clothes and appeared to lack any previous experience with bokken.
The seminar was so long. We trained for seven hours with only a one hour break. This was a Sunday, I had trained aikido for 4 hours on Saturday and had a very long week. On the other hand, you definitely got your money's worth. And as Mr. Williams said, his view is that seminars are about saturation, giving you time later to let it soak in and finally incorporate it into what you are doing.
We spent the balance of the day working on empty-hand, tanto, and short stick (representing a machete).
I had never previously trained with Mr. Williams, but own several of his videos and have been a fan since I discovered him in 2004. His skill in tameshigiri is clearly not in the "IHTBF" class, as it comes through loud and clear on video. This may be a surprise to some, but I always felt that his rolls somehow captured his overall mastery of the art.
In person, it is evident from watching him that he has very refined movement. He also has tons of valuable information and an understanding of the art that he teaches that is not rivaled by many.
One thing that is quite impressive is his ability to coordinate different movements into one seamless event. Many times he would blend with an attack and suddenly a tanto was in his handů or more accurately in your kidney or neck.
I took quite a bit of ukemi from Mr. Williams. He is not shy about making contact; I still have the bruises from the tip of his hissatsu trainer to prove it! His sense of timing is incredible. Within contrived exercises he was able to consistently fool me. When I would strike at his head with a stick, I always felt as though I was going to make contact, but then I wouldn't. Mr. Williams' ability to blend with an attack is very similar to Haruo Matsuoka. In fact, I would probably give Mr. Williams a slight edge with the caveat that all of his blends were in a very structured environment and I have experienced Matsuoka's ability to blend with truly random attacks from multiple attackers.
I had seen this "trick" before where Mr. Williams will push the edge of a knife into his flesh to illustrate the need to be relaxed, noting that if the edge doesn't slide against your skin you won't be cut. Luckily, he called me up for ukemi on this exercise. I took one of his new Shinbu knives (very sharp) and pressed in as hard as I possibly could against his outer forearmů he was absolutely relaxed.
A few of the overarching messages of the seminar were that aiki is about tricking the mind and to do this you must first trick the eye. All movement must be aimed at "gathering" the opponent's body and mind. And the idea that you cannot contest for the centerline; that when more powerful weapons, such as swords, firearms, RPGs, or cars, are involved there is no possibly of one remaining immobile and taking the hit.
Along the same line, Mr. Williams pointed out how far removed modern martial arts have become from true life or death conflict. We were training in an MMA gym so there were lots of examples Mr. Williams was able to point to.
Probably the most glaring thing that I learned is that I move laterally way too much. The motion is easy to perceive and hence, easy to track, and really doesn't help to "gather" uke.
I was very impressed, and would like to train with James Williams again. He has a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill, and clearly enjoys sharing it. I really was left wondering why it took me so long to train with a man I hold in such high esteem.
Better late than never.