An observation of Chiba Sensei’s daily life reveals someone who walked a fine line between health and illness. He pushed hard burning the candle on both ends. His own acupuncturist couldn’t say it clearer when he said: “he is either very good or very bad, with nothing in between.” When he smiled he shone brightly with an expansive spirit but on a bad downward spiral, he shrunk, becoming tired and withdrawn. Having just returned to San Diego after a long and often gruelling trip away he was in one of those awful periods. Long distance flights followed by demanding seminars around the country and abroad would take it out of anyone younger, let alone someone in his mid-forties. Often 2 or 3 weeks of teaching back to back. On his return, he typically gave himself only a day off, Monday, to recoup, so it was natural that we would expect him in class on the next day.
It was very serious as nothing else could have kept him bed bound, giving cause for concern to his wife. Meanwhile, a scheduled filming of him and some of his students in a proposed TV series which was due on Saturday. It was to be called Masters and Apprentices which with other martial arts teachers and schools would complete the episodes. With only a few days to go, it seemed that this would not go ahead, with rescheduling needed. In the end, there had been no cancellation to our knowledge leaving us unsure of what would follow. He, of course, pushed aside any doubts about the filming, turning up on the day and ready to go. I was still relatively new to the dojo and to the ways of Chiba Sensei. The fact that he could pull himself through illness, pain and injury to deliver was a testimony to his mental will and strength. We were soon to find out how much.
He looked tired with sweat glistening on his forehead. This was not from the heat of the Californian sun but were cold sweats from his fever. Juba Nour, one of the more experienced members, told me and a few others to keep alert and on our toes. I thought “What! We are always on our toes every time he appears.” But he was right. On this occasion, he was different even by his own standards. Something else was stirring within him which would soon reveal itself. I would call it pure spirit, untamed, raw and about to show off in front of a TV crew. Juba was familiar with this and more prepared than anyone else, more aware of what we were dealing with. “I don’t know how he does it or where he gets it from but when he is like this he pulls out all the stops so keep a lookout.”
There were 5 or 6 ukes and 3 or 4 film crew that afternoon. It started with Chiba Sensei and Juba. It was wild, untamed Aikido. Pure in every sense, unleashed and now on film. He prowled like Shere Khan from Jungle Book. Powerful. Graceful. Fearless. But there was more than this. Something else, something that film alone cannot hope to capture. It was his spirit, his very presence that not only filled the room but emitted from every part of him. Hats of to Juba who was an inspiration with his ukemi and soon after followed by the equally capable Yahe Solomon and others. Eventually, I would play my humble part, the first of many in the years to come.
Somewhere in all this controlled chaos, I took ukemi together with a couple of other members with Juba leading the demonstration this time. He moved well and unfortunately for my part, I didn’t. Still working it out and on that day he reminded my chin that its best to move rather than get clobbered. Obvious many would say but none of you were there. It ended, I got yelled at and it was deserved but it took Chiba Sensei to make it into a bigger lesson, into a “show”.
“Do you know what shomenuchi means?” I was quiet as this was not a question that required an answer from me.” That would make matters worse. No, shut up, wait for it, and take it. Taking it played an important role here, like it or not. “It means to be able to kill a man with one blow, yes to put down a man with a single strike!” I didn’t question his capacity for this, no one did. This was showmanship at its best, he was acting which was something he did a lot of. The look, the walk, the mood. Taking whatever the situation presented and turned it around for his use. I never doubted his claim. There are some, and Chiba Sensei was one of the very few, who could knock a man out, or even end him, with a single strike.
With him dealing with his illness on that day, there was a directness to his actions, something dramatically different to the regular sessions that I had seen by then. The changes in his movement or brazen technique that became apparent. Of course, he was “entertaining”. Always big, bold and brash but he was dealing with his illness. Energy had to be maintained. If he went too small to preserve himself then the camera doesn’t see what is there. On the other hand, go too big which he often did and then he may not last. So the atemis, the strikes came out – direct, bombastic, effective and saved his energy. This approach was better for him but not so easy for the uke. Kokyunage’s, followed by futaridori, bokken disarming and weapons work. The camera crew had never seen anything like this before and probably never did again. Nor did most of us, being relatively new I had not seen Aikido like this before, nor did I expect to. Picking his jaw up from the ground, the cameraman gasped out “man did you see that?” Yes, we did as the dragon disarmed the ” enemy ” with such clarity and purpose. Was it aggressive? Damn right it was, but beautifully in control and yet so brutally out of control. It was that fine line again walking the edge of the katana. A great master at work.
If it were possible to get even more committed into this Aikido world in sunny Southern California then this did it. I was privileged to not only witness but to participate in this incredible learning experience. The experience, however, was not over yet. To close the filming the producer requested for a question and answer session. Gathering in a small semi circle with Chiba Sensei in the middle we poured some sake and did our best to create a more “sociable” appearance. Then the questions came. How we all started and why. There was a particular emphasis on the boss as one would expect. Once more he rose to the occasion and put it on record. I was never sure if the series ever got transmitted or fully produced but it most definitely got made.