At some point we’ve all seen kata performed some place or another. Either in your dojo, at a tournament or perhaps in a movie or cartoon; chances are you’ve seen it. I’m sure we’re all also guilty of being over critical when watching a kata performed in whatever venue we witness it in. But there are times when seeing it done that we watch the performance and think or say out loud, “what the heck is he/she doing? That’s totally wrong!” But are we actually wrong in our own preconceived notions of how a particular kata should be performed or demonstrated? Do we fully understand the context from which the practitioner is pulling the techniques before us?
As a You Tube junkie I have seen just how over critical the vast majority of viewers can be to the videos posted by practitioners of various disciplines. There are scores of armchair black belts spewing insults and recommendations to the participants of the posted videos. Everything from, “you’re doing it wrong” to “that looks like crap” to “that bunkai doesn’t make sense” has been posted to a whole host of video comments thereon.
So lets examine kata from the viewpoint of karate. Kata or Form is a collection of techniques chained together into a pattern for the practice of karate. There is no distinguishing the various schools and styles of karate. As in with Kendo and Judo of years past, these various schools and styles are known by the names of the owners of the respective dojo. In all budo, not just karate, the interpretations of the art by those who are training differ according to the interpretations of their instructors. Moreover, it goes without saying that variations in expression are characteristic of each individual. So, in general no two karateka will have the same interpretation of any given sequence within a stated kata. This does not mean that one is right or wrong. Merely that the perspective of each practitioner is different.
With regard to karate (including Isoshikai) if they were to be classified, they would fall broadly into one of two categories: Shorin-ryu or the Shorei-ryu. Shorei emphasizes the development of physical strength and muscular power. In contrast, the Shorin is very light and focuses on speed and dexterity, with rapid movements to the front and back. Both of these styles will develop the mind and the body. It’s important to stress here that there is no one great, grand, glorious, end all-be all style. No one style is better than another. It is the individual practitioner of the style that will make it good or bad. Any claims to the contrary are arrogance, ignorance or preconceived notion.
With that out of the way, we can examine the bunkai. 分解 (Bunkai) Literally means analysis or disassembly and is a term used in Japanese martial arts for analyzing kata and extracting fighting techniques from the kata. The extracted techniques are called 応用変化技 (Oyou henka waza), which means applied variations of technique. The key word in the translation there is variations. This implies that there is no one-way of doing things. One mans gedan barai is another mans low block and another’s hammer fist and yet another’s throw. It’s all about the individual perspective and probably more importantly the context in which the technique is applied.
So let’s imagine that we’re watching a kata demonstration. The practitioner is moving through the series of techniques and it just looks “wrong” to you for one reason or another. What makes it appear incorrect? Perhaps the karateka moves through the first four steps of Heian Nidan and the sequence appears to be completely short or rushed. Maybe it seems as though the techniques look inappropriate to the application to which you yourself are familiar. To be fair, that’s not for you or I to judge. This is why context is important to bear in mind while the karateka moves through the motions. (S)he is performing the set in the context that they were taught. The first four techniques may be demonstrated as a trapping and throwing technique instead of the strikes that most karateka are familiar with. Of course it’s also entirely possible that the student is not yet familiar enough with the kata to be performing it in this venue. This opens a whole other can of worms. It’s been my observation that all too often instructors will teach kata to their students too quickly in order to move on to the next in the curriculum before the student has fully understood the techniques within the kata in order to collect a testing fee every three months. Therefore the standards of excellence are diluted in order to pay the bills at the dojo. This results in students with a very vague understanding of a great number of kata instead of the student having a full understanding of only a few kata. It’s quality over quantity.
One area in particular that seems to miss the mark of what kata is supposed to be is in the media. This is to no fault of their own. Over the past decade there was a sharp increase in Extreme Martial Arts (XMA), which thankfully seems to have died off a bit. In their kata (if we can even call it that) demonstrations consist of spectacular aerial flips and twists are showcased with a lot of yelling, spinning and flashy kicks while clad in some interesting albeit eccentric uniforms. Regardless of how impressive the acrobatics anytime I see these demonstrations the only thought that occurs to me is “this is wrong”. Its reminiscent of gymnastics and cheerleading but with weapons and martial arts uniforms. Of course it’s entertaining to see. I just can’t wrap my head around how this is supposed to be applied to any context of the combat arts. And the point therein is that it’s not supposed to be. It is purely for aesthetics and to demonstrate the athletic prowess of the contestants.
Still I suppose it’s my own ego or maybe even arrogance that forces me into a state of frustration when I see kata performed as a side show circus event or even the kata being performed by karateka whom clearly have no real working knowledge of the sequence of techniques or their applications. While my students have heard my self and my partner say too many times to count; it doesn’t have to be pretty. It only has to be effective. However, when it comes to kata there is a rather blurred line with that respect. There is an unwritten rule that pretty much says that the kata should be at least a little esthetically pleasing. Regardless, it’s not my place to pass judgment nor is it anyone else’s for that matter. Weather the kata is performed right or wrong through my perception is irrelevant. The point here is to be ever mindful that no two schools will have the same standards of excellence and all techniques are subject to individual elucidation. As a spectator we can all have a lesson in humility and patience if we can just keep our own ego in check and remember that there may be something going on therein that we’re not privy to.
Honshū & Hokkaidō
The two species of wolf native to Japan until their extinction in the early