Then, wood clashes against wood.
A piercing cry rings out. This is the \o7 kiai\f7 , a call used for centuries in Japan by those practicing the martial art known as \o7 naginata. \f7 Now, on this chilly night in suburban Los Angeles, the call rises again.
Helen Nakano, 51, of Torrance, and her two dueling students are pioneers of sorts. They are part of a newly formed U.S. team that left Thursday for the first international \o7 naginata \f7 tournament today in Tokyo.
For Nakano, the trip culminates a personal mission that began in 1966 when, as an American tourist, she first saw \o7 naginata--\f7 named for the bamboo-tipped oak staffs--performed at a castle in Japan.
Entranced by the grace and power of the obscure, female-dominated martial art, she began teaching herself from books and films, instructing classes in Los Angeles and helping stir up interest in other cities. Today, she is acknowledged as a driving force behind the sport in the United States, and the coach-manager of the U.S. team.
She is a diminutive woman, just 5-feet-2. As she swings her naginata, she exudes a cool control. But she talks of promoting naginata with fervor.
"Sometimes I think, Helen, why are you doing this? Are you crazy?" she said. "But I just love to see it grow."
And the sport has grown. The 11-person team that left last week for Japan consists of seven women and four men from pockets of \o7 naginata \f7 activity nationwide. There are two people from Southern California, two from Northern California, three from the Denver area, two from Washington, D.C., and two from Lincoln, Neb.
They will compete with teams from nine other countries: Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Belgium, England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
In popularity, \o7 naginata \f7 is greatly overshadowed by karate, or even kendo, a similar ancient martial art that uses a shorter weapon. But it offers a unique blend of grace, coordination and competitive athletics, team members said.
Practitioners strive to combine the key elements, which include the "cut," or movement of the \o7 naginata\f7 , and the \o7 kiai\f7 .
In competition, the players fence with each other, using the \o7 naginatas \f7 to try to touch targets on their opponent's body. They are scored according to their form and success in reaching various targets.
Opponents are outfitted in bogu, or armor: face masks, chest and hip shields, wooden shin guards and fat, three-fingered leather gloves. The equipment can weigh 20 pounds and costs $500 or more.
The sport does not promote bulky muscles, but it does develop grace, Nakano said. "Because it builds your confidence, you have a tendency to sit well and walk well. And it makes your mind more keen to anything around you. . . . It really is a character builder, and it teaches patience."
Some are attracted to naginata because "there's so much flash and flair," Nakano said. But they quickly learn, she said, that its discipline and form takes many years to master.
"It's something that's very hard to achieve. Every once in a while, you hit it. It doesn't happen all the time," said team member Rita S. Mason, 37, a California Department of Transportation accountant from Visalia.
Nakano knew nothing about naginata when she first saw it practiced. Her husband, Torrance City Councilman George Nakano, is an expert at kendo. She had accompanied him to Japan for a kendo tournament and attended a practice session at Osaka Castle.
There, she was taking photographs of kendo players when three women approached her, inquiring if she wanted to learn naginata. She declined, but they persisted, and Nakano finally joined in.
She describes the event now, 24 years later, in vivid detail. "I just had this great feeling," Nakano said. Later she learned that the women were high-ranking Japanese teachers.
At the time, Nakano--who was born in Seattle--spoke only a few words of Japanese.
When she returned to California, she and a friend began practicing, learning from films and books shipped from Japan. The instructions were in Japanese, so she modeled her moves from the pictures.
"Then we'd go back to Japan, and they'd look at us and say, 'They don't look too bad,' " she said wryly.
Gradually, naginata spread in Southern California, and the Los Angeles-based U.S. Naginata Federation was founded in 1974.
Nakano now teaches classes twice a week, in Gardena and in Norwalk, squeezing the coaching around her work as director of administration at a Beverly Hills-based textile import firm. She often practices in her high-ceilinged bedroom, where she can swing her naginata around.
She is one of the highest-ranked naginata practitioners in the country. Her rank is so high that she had to travel to Japan this spring to be tested and ranked by experts there.
"When Helen Nakano does a move, you can hear her naginata slicing the air," said team member Jean M. Yien, 38, an architect from the Denver suburb of Aurora. "Her naginata literally whistles when she does her cuts, her form is so good and her precision is so precise."
Today, the U.S. Naginata Federation has fewer than 100 members, although others could be taking up the art independently, as she did, Nakano said.
Yien said she recently found evidence that naginata is finally becoming popularized.
"I wrote Helen Nakano a little while ago that I think we are making inroads. I was in a video store, and one of the video games had a naginata player as one of the players. A woman. It was really exciting."