Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, September 23, 2011

The "funny angle" of the spear hand in Seiunchin

I was just watching a video discussion, showing bunkai, of the open hand spear- hand-looking technique at the beginning of Seiunchin.

As I'm typing, I find it funny how difficult it is to discuss karate techniques. You must give them a name and yet as soon as you do, the name itself overshadows the discussion. If I call it a spear hand technique, one immediately imagines using the technique as a spear hand, just as in the video the technique is referred to as "nukite" and is used to attack the opponent's abdomen or there abouts (similarly Morio Higaonna sensei uses this same technique in Seiunchin to attack the outside ribs of an opponent). What we need, however, are descriptive words that only call to mind the look or the shape of the technique--like some of the postures in T'ai Chi. "Parting the horse's mane," for example, or "needle at sea bottom" don't describe the function of the move but only its look or outward shape. In that way, we are not "coloring" the moves with some preconceived notion of how they are to be applied. In other words, what if the "nukite" at the beginning of Seiunchin is not meant to be applied in this way at all. Afterall, if you watch this instructional video there is a lot missing--specifically, what came before the move and what comes after it, not to mention it leaves one wide open against the opponent's other hand. And does the bunkai even explain why one goes down into shiko dachi? Then again, does the bunkai that is shown satisfy one of the cardinal principles of Okinawan karate--that is, does it illustrate "ikken hissatsu" or what some have come to understand as "one punch, one kill." This itself seems to be a very contentious phrase that might better be understood to mean that in Okinawan karate one should move and "block" (uke) in such a way as to allow the opponent only one punch or attack. It is not meant to refer to one's own superhuman punch. Afterall, if a martial art is any good, it will protect you or at least provide you self defense when you may most need it--when you may be older and more vulnerable. In order for this to happen you need to fully understand and rely on principles rather than brute strength or speed. Anyway, back to the "nukite"..... Suppose this is not a nukite at all, at least as it is shown. Suppose with the opening technique you have blocked or intercepted the opponent's punch, or, better yet, you have rotated your left hand up because the opponent has grabbed it with his left hand. Now you have stepped in on a tangential line to the northeast, palms up. Left grabs the opponent's wrist as the right hand comes down on the opponent's elbow. The "arm bar" brings the opponent's head down. The right hand then comes up, keeping the elbow down, turns over and grabs the opponent's head. The left "nukite" or open hand then comes in to attack the opponent's throat--not the abdomen or the ribs. Once you have the head in this fashion it explains the angle of the hand across the body, and, of course, the moves that follow it--the cat stance with the fist on the palm, the hand rotation, and the elbow that attacks the back of the opponent's head. Anyway, that's my reasoning for wanting technique names that only describe the look or shape of a move. A rather long-winded rant for a simple concept perhaps...but then what are blogs for?

Monday, September 05, 2011

Original bunkai??

I was just reading Victor Smith's new blog on bunkai here: http://isshin-concentration.blogspot.com/2011/09/bunkai-i-look-at-original-explanation.html

He quotes Funakoshi:

"Once you have learned technique thoroughly which are required for each Dan, you should analyze them. For instance; this movement belongs to this, that one belongs to that etc."

That sounds good--learn kata and only later focus on applications. My problem is the way Smith goes on to assume that this means that there are many different interpretations or applications for each move in kata. Smith draws the following conclusion from the Funakoshi quote:

"This does not seem to indicate," Smith says, " there was a defined use of kata but a more open ended study."

Why?! What in the Funakoshi quote implies that there isn't a "defined use of kata?" Is this not rather an instance where we find what we wish to find in a suitably ambiguous or vague quote? Mr. Smith has more than once advocated this open-ended interpretation of kata and bunkai. I'm, of course, a strong advocate of at least trying to understand (however difficult and frustrating this may be) the original intent of kata and bunkai. I'm not against using kata techniques in a variety of ways, but I think one should first attempt to learn the principles and the original intent of techniques.

Smith goes on to cite Mabuni's analysis of Seiunchin, with appropriate illustrations from the Mckenna translated book. The ones that are illustrated are rather bogus. Whoa, that's a bit of blasphemy, isn't it?! I used the same illustrations to discuss Seiunchin kata and bunkai in an article in Journal of Asian Martial Arts called "The Teaching of Goju-Ryu Kata: A Brief Look at Methodology and Practice (vol. 14, no. 2, 2005). I'm not looking to upset the apple cart--afterall, Mr. Smith practices Isshinryu and I practice Goju-ryu, so maybe we're both wrong about what Funakoshi may have meant--but why isn't there more open and critical discussion of such things on the Internet?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

How many different versions are there?

Why are there different versions of kata? I have often wondered about this. When I first went to Okinawa--maybe twenty-five years ago now--I knew what I assumed was the Toguchi or Shoreikan version of the classical Goju-ryu canon of kata. Not entirely sure we did the Shoreikan version in all cases, since my teacher had trained in both the Shoreikan dojo and the Shodokan dojo of Higa Seiko sensei. But when I first went to Okinawa we trained in Shodokan dojos--with Gibo Seiki sensei and Higa Seikichi sensei. There were differences in kata. Not much in Saifa and only very small and somewhat insignificant differences in Seiunchin. (The back to back wrist technique that looks like an elbow attack was one difference.)

In Shisochin, there was a difference in how the forearm attacks were done that are most often (in most schools?) used as arm-bar techniques. There were also some stance differences, and the turning direction in the final technique was to the right instead of the left--a seemingly insignificant but actually quite important difference, seems to me.

In Seipai there seemed to be few differences of any consequence in the performance of the kata--though interestingly one was an extra turning over of the clasped hands at the beginning--but in Sanseiru there were many. In fact, this kata, with its controversial past, seemed to be the most varied. When I asked Gibo sensei about this, he laughed and said he knew seven different versions. In the Shoreikan version, for example, we had always stepped back at the beginning of the kata and were told it was to block a kick, grab the kick, and then both hands were raised up in front of the chest in a kind of "x" formation and rotated as one stepped forward to kick, etc.

How could different teachers who all had claims to having trained under the same person--Miyagi sensei in this case--practice different versions of the same kata? Some differences have profound influences on bunkai. Did some teachers favor certain bunkai and this, however subtly, affected the way they did kata? Did some teachers not learn bunkai, possibly affecting their understanding and performance of kata? Does bunkai inform kata or does kata inform bunkai? I don't know about historically what would be the case, but I have often seen people alter kata movement when performing applications against a partner and still call it bunkai. Would this, over time, affect how one did kata? Or did some teachers have physical idiosyncracies that their students mistakenly copied?

For example, after the opening three "punches" in Sanseiru, most schools perform a right open-hand block followed by a move where the left hand sweeps down along the right arm, stepping back into a long front stance. If you are told that this is a block of an opponent's kick, does this influence how you do kata? Could it also, over time, however subtly, influence various hand positions?

Why raise the question? Let me rather ask, is it logical for an attacker to initiate an attack with a low kick, especially from a distance that would allow one to block it this way? Is this even the best way to block a kick? If this is a lethal attack, why isn't one responding with a more lethal counterattack?

The Changing Gate Block

I was watching a video of a teacher doing Seipai kata recently. It was nicely done--strong, crisp movement, precise. But when I watch kata there are a few I suppose somewhat subtle things I try to see, and for this kata one of these things is the "changing gate block," for lack of a better name. I find this a fascinating "block" or receiving technique. It can be found in Seipai and Sanseiru. Goju-ryu generally blocks and attacks almost simultareously. This is also true of the "changing gate" block, but the uniqueness is that one blocks and attacks from the outside and then moves inside almost immediately. Almost all the bunkai shown in Goju classical kata have three parts to them--the receiving technique, often containing both a block and attack, the bridging or controlling technique, which moves in much closer to the opponent, and the finishing technique. I would say that this is nowhere more apparent than with the "changing gate" techniques, except that there are many teachers--some quite "big" and with a large YouTube following--that interpret these moves in kata quite differently. But the "changing gate" is quite a fascinating technique and wonderfully versatile when it comes to employing kata variations--that is, connecting to other controlling and finishing techniques from other kata. Of course, the illustrated techniques here are just the beginning of the "changing gate," the entry technique showing the block and attack from the "outside"--the first from Seipai and the second from Sanseiru. The technique that follows each is the inside technique. The "change" occurs inbetween them, as is so often the case in Goju-ryu. One should always pay attention to the spaces in between.
Of course, there is another significant "problem" this brings up and one I have been wondering about for some time. The "changing gate" block shown above--Sanseiru kata in the Shodokan (Higa) school using open hands--is not done apparently in Meibukan, Jundokan, or Shoreikan schools, at least from what I have seen on YouTube. Why of these major Goju-ryu schools is the Shodokan version so different? Higa Seiko sensei was the senior student under Miyagi Chojun sensei, but the teachers who started these other kans studied with Miyagi sensei also. Why the difference? It's not done in the To'on Ryu version either. The "changing gate" block seems so fundamental to an understanding of the end part of this kata. It's like the "sun and moon block" in Seisan that seems to be unique to Shodokan. Why such significant differences in kata?