I was running these ideas past my friend Keith, and he asked me a very simple question that cut right to the heart of what I was struggling with. "So, what are your minimum criteria for iaido? Even if you know nothing about the particulars of the style, what do you need to see to think something at least has the possibility of being good?"
I thought about it, and I think it's pretty simple. Here's what needs to be present for iaido to be good, in my opinion.
1. Zanshin. The iaidoka must be aware of what's going on around him, and must at least look at his targets before he cuts them. (I have learned a style of iaido where you look at a target, cut for it, and actually look away a split-second before you cut into it, to spot the next target; this still meets my criteria.) After cutting, there must be zanshin and readiness. I have heard that someone I know is developing this idea right now: What separates budo from sport is zanshin.
2. Balance. When I see someone throw themself way off-balance after cutting through a piece of bamboo or a straw bundle, I am always unimpressed. It doesn't matter what he cut through or how great the actual cutting was, if he ends up off-balance, it strikes me as useless. How many opponents stand stock-still and allow themselves to be cut? If you were to commit that fully to a cut and missed, you would probably end up spinning yourself into the dirt like a baseball slugger who misses what he thinks is going to be a sure homerun.
3. Hips and tips. This is Kim Taylor's catchphrase that sums up iaido from a technical point of view. It encompasses my point #2 because, to have good balance, your hips must be in place. Basically, you must move and wield the sword from your hips. (I've never been completely satisfied with that term "hips" because I think the Japanese term "koshi" is a more figurative description of something like "center of gravity" not just a body part, but still ...) "Tips" indicates that the iaidoka is aware that cutting is done with the tip of the sword, and so puts power and awareness into the kissaki. Movements should begin with the tip of the sword, unless there is some overriding reason not to do so - a specific situation in the kata, for instance.
4. Dignity. This is a hard one to describe, until you've seen somebody doing kata to music in a Stars & Stripes gi, cutting apples off the heads of his students. Swordsmanship was about killing, and now, if it's about anything, it's about confronting death. It should never be entertainment.
These are my minimum criteria. Anybody have a take on these points? Any I've missed?