Short Review: Yukinori Sasa takes you through a range of guard positions, including his own unique approach, which he calls 'spiral guard'. The instruction is clear and methodical, combining a beautifully presented book with video footage: any issues I had understanding the book were resolved when cross-checking the accompanying two hour long DVD.
Even though this is in Japanese, there are enough English headings to navigate the instructional successfully. Language turns out to be a minor barrier, as the photography (often augmented by additional pictures emphasising important details) makes for easy interpretation, particularly when coupled with a DVD covering the exact same techniques. Available to buy here, for £27.
Full Review: Matt from ScrambleStuff, a new company selling MMA/BJJ t-shirts and Japanese DVD imports, sent me a review copy of Yukinori Sasa's Paraestra Guard (or to give it the full title, Paraestra: Attack from Guard Position), which arrived this morning.
To give you a bit of background on Paraestra (if you don't care, skip ahead to the book, the DVD or the techniques), Paraestra is one of the pre-eminent BJJ teams in Japan, founded by legendary black belt and MMA fighter Yuki Nakai.
You may remember him from Choke: he is the small Japanese guy covered in his own blood calling out Rickson Gracie, with a black eye so swollen he can barely see. Nakai is the epitome of fighting heart, as not only did he manage to get to the final of Japan Vale Tudo '95 after getting thoroughly beaten up by much bigger guys (Nakai fought at 154lbs, while his opponents are listed on Sherdog as 216lbs, 253lbs and 185lbs respectively), but he also managed to defeat Gerard Gordeau despite being gouged in the eye so badly he went half blind.
Another indication of his character is that after losing to Rickson, Nakai decided he better learn some BJJ (although not immediately): Nakai became the first Japanese BJJ black belt. He is also an incredible coach, judging by the quality of his students, which includes Shinya Aoki, Masakatsu Ueda and a certain Yukinori Sasa, the author of this DVD and book (produced as part of the Fighting Spirits series). Whilst earning his black belt from Nakai, Sasa fought his way to a brown belt gold medal at the 2005 Mundials (listed as Yukinori Sosa rather than Sasa).
The drawback of this DVD and book set is immediately apparently: it is all in Japanese. The pertinent question – which I hope to answer in the course of this review - is therefore whether or not the instruction is sufficiently accomplished that it overcomes that language barrier, able to impart the relevant information purely through pictorial means.
The Book ^
So, to begin with the book. It is gorgeously designed, soft cover, with an attractive dust jacket (for the collectors among you, Matt includes what looks like a receipt with the ISBN listing). While this is all in Japanese, the publishers are aware that there are English speakers interested in their material. To cater for us, there are a few words of English dotted throughout in important places: for example, the contents page. While it is mostly in Japanese, each section also has an English subheading.
Thanks to that bit of translation, I can see that the segments are divided into Sasa sweep, spider guard, spiral guard, sweep variations, x-guard, closed guard and escapes. Sections are roughly between ten and twenty pages, while the book comes to a total length of ninety six pages. Each technique has a further bit of English at the top of the page for categorisation: for example, 'Spiral Guard 09', or 'Escape 01.' The Japanese description beneath is presumably more specific.
The photography is clear and large, as there isn't much text competing for space. The pictures are normally aligned in rows of three, ranging from six to twelve pictures on average. Some of the techniques require a double spread, while some are straightforward enough that they only need a single page and five pictures. On occasion, Sasa also includes inset close-ups, especially on grips, which is definitely helpful.
There is frequently an extra section, with the English heading of 'Point!' Sometimes that is simply to emphasise a particular detail (again, often grips), but at other times you get two pictures, headed 'Good!' and 'Bad!' Basic, but it gets the idea across (as per the pic on the right: unfortunately I don't have a scanner, so you'll have to make do with my low-quality camera phone). It reminded me a little of the 'misconceptions' segment in Jiu Jitsu University.
Sasa wears a red gi, while his training partner is in a black gi. This makes it easy to distinguish between the two of them. However, that only lasts for the first thirty-one pages, after which the pictures fade to monochrome. It is still possible to tell them apart, as red is obviously much lighter than black, but grey and black isn't as good a division. A white gi might have been preferable, but it's a small point.
More complex techniques are presented from multiple angles, indicated by two vertical lines connecting the pictures. This is always an excellent idea, and was well implemented here, only included when necessary. If every page had been in that format, the book would have had to increase in size, needlessly raising the cost of the set.
Like Ed Beneville, Sasa also utilises illustrations on the photos themselves, such as directional arrows and circles (mainly to highlight hand positioning). He doesn't do it all the time, but it is helpful when present. In fact, I think the book would have benefitted from more, but then that flaw is pretty much neutralised by the fact it comes with its own DVD.
At the end of the book, the three men involved grin happily above what I assume are their brief biographies. I gathered the dates towards the start were their year of birth, but I'm not sure what the rest indicated. Possibly competition successes.
Finally, if you happen to read Japanese, you'll be able to understand the Paraestra network page, which presumably lists all the Paraestra schools in Japan. That might seem an unusual thing to include in an instructional book and DVD, but then it does have 'PARAESTRA' in big letters on the front. ;)
The DVD ^
The DVD (two hours long) isn't in a separate box: instead you'll find it contained within a plastic folder at the back of the book. Alongside it is a DVD cover, which you can cut free to put on a DVD case (you'll need to be careful, as it fits exactly). This DVD should work on any player, because as far as I'm aware, it is region free.
Again, everything is in Japanese, with a couple of key details translated into English. The title menu gives you the option to 'all play', or alternatively select from the six individual segments, which are the same as in the book.
On the main menu, the sections are in Japanese, but once you click through, you'll be greeted with a large background picture stating the name of the segment in English underneath. Your options are further subdivided by technique, again in Japanese. You also have the option to 'all play', as well as 'back', which helpfully are both in English.
While the techniques themselves are listed in Japanese, they normally follow the chronology of the book (as I'll mention later, there was at least one example of the order shifting around, but unless I missed something, that was the exception rather than the rule). You can also match up the Japanese characters on the menu to the Japanese characters in the book, though that's a bit more labour intensive.
Sasa and his partner run through each technique fairly quickly, ranging from around a minute to three minutes. The pattern is generally a methodical but brisk demonstration from two angles, then at full speed. Sasa does plenty of talking as he shows you the move, so it's a shame I can't understand what he is saying. That doesn't detract from comprehending the technique, but I still regretted the absence of English subtitles.
Initially, the DVD footage matches up exactly to the pictures in the book: I assume that for the colour sections, the photography was taken during filming. This is mostly true for the later monochrome segment, but there are some slight differences. It made for a valuable comparative tool when they were a perfect fit, so I would have preferred it if that correlation was maintained. However, that's a trivial point.
The Techniques ^
The first section is titled Sasa sweep (five pages in the book, slightly over ten minutes on the DVD). I'm not sure if that is how these techniques are normally referred to, as I recognised at least one of the variations from something Tim at Nova Força showed me. Whatever the proper terminology, Sasa puts together a connected sequence of sweeps based around a modified spider guard position, where you have one of their arms wrapped with your leg, the other on either their stomach or their hip. Sasa pulls guard into the first one, after which he demonstrates how to get the sweep both from when they're on their knees and if they stand up.
Spider guard (thirteen pages in the book, twenty-one minutes on the DVD) follows. This includes an omoplata set-up and how to land a triangle, along with various sweeps. Sasa also shows a technique I didn't quite understand (in terms of purpose: the instruction made sense), as he appeared to merely shift his grip. It might possibly be some kind of transition between guards, but I wasn't sure: at points like this, the language barrier was more noticeable.
Partially for that reason, I wouldn't recommend this set for beginners. There is a need to have some recognition of what is going on, due to the lack of English. If you've got a bit of experience, you can usually work out the position without too much difficulty. However, a complete beginner might well get confused without the additional explanation of text or English narration. On top of that, the techniques themselves aren't always straightforward, though given that I recognised the majority of the content, any blue belt shouldn't have much trouble.
Spiral guard (twenty-one pages in the book, twenty-seven minutes on the DVD) isn't something I've seen before, so this is possibly an invention by Sasa (or at least he has gone to the trouble of building up a series of techniques around that particular position). I'm guessing the name is related to all the spinning Sasa does here, which appears to be an integral part of the guard.
He begins by pulling a sort of half guard, spins around his partner's leg, then sweeps them over his head, using sleeve grips combined with rolling backwards. Sasa follows that with a method of taking the back, spinning behind his partner, then knocking their legs out from under them. He goes on to include a couple of variations.
First, instead of complex manoeuvring to get to their back, Sasa simply moves forward once they hit the floor. Second, you can instead get up while gripping their legs, putting them into the same position you'd see in a wheelbarrow race. From there, it's a simple matter to flip them over and move to side control.
In the book version of this technique, I liked the 'Point!' section Sasa includes for the first variation. He explains how to grip around their torso, initially by focusing on a detail, then showing that same detail solo. Removing the training partner makes the grip itself much clearer, while the previous picture puts it into context. Page thirty nine and forty one feature further useful examples, this time demonstrating a solo roll to isolate and clarify the relevant motion required to execute the preceding technique.
While the majority of this section is about sweeps, Sasa includes two submissions at the end, attacking the knee and the arm respectively. A second angle would have been useful for the armbar, but that is only an issue in the book. The DVD makes it perfectly clear, exemplifying the numerous advantages of combining instructional media.
Sweep variations (ten pages, thirteen minutes) includes a number of sweeps that rely on controlling your opponent's leg then standing up. Sasa first shows how to execute a sweep from standing, so you effectively pull guard right into the technique. In the process, you make a full rotation, spinning under and through their legs, then standing back up, while still controlling one of their legs. That means you can dump them on the mat, using your grip to then facilitate the pass.
Sasa continues with a similar technique starting from the floor, where you're already wrapped around their leg, before showing a variation in butterfly guard. This is a bit more flashy, as you flip your opponent over your head before spinning through for the sweep. Rotation is clearly an integral part of Sasa's game, which he uses to perform yet another sweep, finishing off this section with a leg submission from a comparable position.
X-guard (ten pages, ten minutes) was more familiar, because Sasa shows the same technique I've seen taught a few times this year, most recently by Kev at RGA High Wycombe. Like Sasa's earlier sweep variations, you're aiming to isolate their leg from underneath then stand up, meaning you can easily overbalance them on their remaining limb.
There is also a simpler method, that just knocks them to the side from x-guard, followed by a transition from butterfly guard, then a technique to take their back. To finish off the section, Sasa adds in an x-guard lower body submission.
Closed guard (fourteen pages, twenty-three minutes) was initially confusing, as I didn't understand the point of the first two techniques. That wasn't because they were complicated: both of them were ways to jump guard, but didn't go anywhere after that. They also didn't seem very secure, as the first ends with Sasa hugged tight to his standing opponent, while in the second he is hanging off their body gripping with his legs and one arm. The DVD failed to make them any more appealing: I would have thought the point of pulling guard is to get your opponent down to the mat in a position where you're in control, not leave them standing.
Nevertheless, Sasa demonstrates plenty of solid basics after that strange beginning. He kicks off with a well-structured presentation of how to break their grip from closed guard and move into an armbar. The book offers further detail on the grip, along with multiple angles. That's followed by a flower sweep and two ways to land the triangle.
Sasa then explains how to take the back from guard, using his earlier grip break to move into an arm drag. The two page spread then shifts into technical mount before rolling into rear mount. I felt there were one or two steps missing at the end, but as before, those gaps were more than filled by the DVD, where you can see the technique demonstrated in full from several angles.
That section finishes with a couple of cross chokes, two variations on the omoplata, then finally a pressing armbar. It looks like one of the pictures went awry for the omoplata from standing, as it doesn't fit with its alternate angle. The top photo looks like Sasa lets go of the arm, when in fact it's important to keep hold of it. However, again that's a small point, as the alternate angle makes it clear, further bolstered by the DVD.
Sasa's final segment is on escapes (eleven pages, twelve minutes). That starts with side control, which was interesting. At first it looked like the basic shrimp to recover guard, using the forearm under the throat position I prefer. However, just when you think Sasa is going to finish the process as normal, he does something that took me completely by surprise.
At the point where you would usually just shrimp to the other side to establish guard, Sasa instead puts one foot on the shoulder while gripping the sleeve, then swings all the way around to re-establish guard. I've not seen it done like that before, and at first thought he was setting up some kind of crazy submission. As it ends in the anti-climax of full guard, it looked to me as if this method unnecessarily complicates what should be a simple technique. On the other hand, it might be explained in the narration: perhaps there is some grip he has to overcome I didn't notice.
The book continues with a straightforward demonstration of how to recover full guard from half, shrimping the trapped leg free. On the DVD, the order of techniques is switched around for some reason, but it was the only time I noticed a difference in layout.
Either way, Sasa then goes into a north south escape, where you basically make space, bring your legs up into a sort of inverted guard, then spin back to closed guard. He probably could have done with a couple more pictures to guide the reader through the transition between inverted guard and closed guard. Then again, on the rare occasions I had that feeling of wanting a bit more description, I knew there was the DVD to flesh out the photographs. Once again, that did indeed make it clear.
Next is a knee on belly escape, where you grab their belt with one hand and behind their foot with the other. From there, shrimp, then get to your feet, in the process taking them down and establishing your own knee on belly. I was a bit confused about that belt grip (which is hard to see), until I noticed the 'Point!' section, which clarifies it.
Sasa moves on to a standard trap and roll mount escape. That takes a moment to work out, because the photographs go immediately from trapping their arm and foot with a slight bridge, to Sasa on top. Some kind of arrow indicating the required bridging motion would have been useful (though it may well be mentioned in the Japanese text). However, this is a really basic technique even beginners can recognise, and the DVD makes it obvious.
The book finishes with a few escapes from the back, starting with two from the rear mount where you're looking at the the floor, both with and without hooks. The last technique is an escape from turtle when you're facing their legs, which here is simply a matter of driving forwards then dropping back to guard.
If you're looking for a well-organised instructional on the guard, especially if you're small and quick, then this is definitely worth picking up. Despite the almost total lack of English, Sasa's teaching is clear and methodical, beautifully presented on both the DVD and the book. He includes both orthodox escapes and closed guard techniques, along with more exotic offerings, based around his love of spinning into sweeps and submissions. While beginners will recognise some of those escapes and closed guard attacks, this is better suited to at least blue belt level, when you're able to appreciate the more advanced open guard Sasa demonstrates.
The language barrier is a minor issue. I would certainly have liked to know what Sasa was saying, especially when it came to the guard jumping, but I didn't have any trouble understanding what he was doing. The justification behind that particular pair of techniques may have eluded me, but thanks to Sasa's demonstration, I could easily repeat them: the instruction can't be faulted. Available to buy here, for £27.