Saturday, March 14, 2009

Helpful handful: Karate kata bunkai

Photo courtesy of Gypsy4
Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick. (Bruce Lee)
The guys that designed the solo karate kata were feindishly brilliant. I mean serious genius-type guys. There is so much useful information encoded in the karate kata that you'll never master any or all of them. The really mind-blowing thing is the ability of those guys to encode information into a solo exercise in such a way that the practitioner will be prepared for a conflict against a real opponent.
But... (there's always a but...) if you approach the kata naively thinking that you are doing blocks followed by punches, your idea of kata will be so impoverished you may never achieve much of anything. In order to get useful information out of the kata you have to have some guidelines or algorithm for decoding what the founders encoded in those kata. Following are a handful of the guidelines that I use in kata bunkai (analysis)...
  • There are no blocks in kata. It is assumed that the defender will naturally throw arms in the way of an oncoming threat. Actual blocking (when and if it is ever done) is considered to be an innate, automatic thing.
  • You have to get out of the way first. There is often an evasion out of the way of an attack that is assumed in the kata. It's the stuff that is not on the embusen that is important. The end position in the photo in the book is meaningless because you can't tell how to get to that position. It's the stuff between the poses that is important.
  • A closed hand may be a closed-hand strike or a grab - as in closing your hand onto something.
  • The larger ideal motions contain the smaller pragmatic motions. A small part of a large motion may be sufficient. For instance, you may step forward 3 feet in a lunge punch in the kata, but that doesn't mean that the opponent is 3 feet away. You may only have to shift your moving leg a little bit to get in the right place to hit him.
  • You are fighting one guy in several potential scenarios - not 3 or 4 or 8 or 12 opponents - and especially not backed up against the edge of a cliff!
A great resource for more info on principles of bunkai is Iain Abernethy's website, including this set of articles in particular.
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  1. There is so much useful information encoded in the karate kata that you'll never master any or all of them. The really mind-blowing thing is the ability of those guys to encode information into a solo exercise...

    To my mind, one of the most remarkable aspects of the kata is that more than one interpretive method can be successfully applied to them. Even the block-kick-punch approach yields some usable techniques; so does Javier Martinez's "modular" approach; so does the "letters of the alphabet" approach of Taika Seiyu Oyata; so does Abernethy's approach. This is a source of continual amazement to me.

    And then there are the salutary effects of correct kata practice on balance, power generation, and weight transfer.

    Those who designed the kata were, I concur, intellects of the first water. Oyata hinted in his book that he half-thinks the kata (and Okinawan karate in general) are a gift of God to humanity, to be preserved and distributed via the Okinawan people. I don't blame him.

    One thing off the top of my head: the "lunge punches" and "reverse punches" are often also particularly vicious takedowns. They function on both levels--which is part of what makes the whole subject so fascinating.

  2. Good article. More awareness on how Kata bunkai is not the watered down, block than strike applications which are shown today, is needed. I do think that slowly slowly, people are realising that there is more to Kata than just some kind of cardio workout full of feable, very unrealistic Bunkai.

  3. I've only just stumbled on your blog, and this is a great post - I attended a kata seminar last week and it continues to open my mind just how much there is to explore in your bunkai. I only hope I can continue to look outside the square. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  5. Great post.

    Reminds me of a good book I read by Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder: The Way of Kata.

    They go into a lot of detail deciphering bunkai and applications from kata.

    While their background is in Goju, I think they make some excellent points about bunkai training and identify some good common principals that'd be useful in any style.

    Short of reading the book, it never hurts to try and find yourself an "uncooperative" training partner :)


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