Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Saturday, December 24, 2011

How real is this?

I was looking around the Internet the other day and stumbled upon a number of people recommending books by Kenwa Mabuni (at least one or two translated by Mario Mckenna and generally available). Now I'm familiar with the stories of the close friendship Miyagi Chojun sensei supposedly had with Mabuni sensei. Someone even referred to them as "best friends." I've heard how they were both part of a study group that had as one of its members Go Ken Ki. It says in Patrick McCarthy's book, Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi, that Mabuni "trained directly under Higashionna Kanryo," though only for a year (McCarthy, p. 4)--and yet McCarthy says the following: "In an advertisement that he ran in his book on seipai, Mabuni describes himself as a shihan of Goju-ryu kempo...." (p. 30)

I find that surprising, though I'm not sure what to make of it. Further on in his book, McCarthy quotes Mabuni as saying, "There are no styles of karate-do, just varying interpretations of its principles." (p. 33)

I don't really understand this either, though perhaps there is something lost in translation. It seems to me that different schools or martial arts may emphasize different things, but that principles are principles. How can an interpretation of a principle vary?

In fact, I never really understood why you would collect both Shorin and Goju into one system. Isn't there redundancy of some kind at the very least? From the list in McCarthy's book there are 52 kata in Mabuni's Shitoryu system. How can one practice, let alone fully understand, so many kata? I've had occasion to talk to Shitoryu black belt instructors, and they have confessed that their knowledge of many of these kata is at best "rusty."

When I look at the cover of Mabuni's book on Seipai (illustration above), I immediately wonder how realistic this application from the last technique in the kata is. It seems to me that if the attacker is throwing a double punch, your chances of grabbing the attacker's arms in this fashion and executing a throw are rather poor, and not much better if the attacker is grabbing the defender...unless, of course, you have a very willing and compliant partner--that is, a dream technique that may work only in the dojo. Masaji Taira sensei of Jundokan shows this application, I believe, as well as a number of other prominent teachers.

The other thing that bothers me when I see this kind of discussion or illustration of application is that the right hand is "out of position" or not really following kata movement. You can't grab an incoming attack quickly and securely this way unless the "attacker" is not resisting. (It has always seemed to me--and something I was always taught--that the kata is there to teach correct movement and bunkai means the analysis of kata. If your application doesn't follow kata movement then the kata is not teaching you how to move nor are you really analyzing kata.) And further, the stance does not show how the lower half of the body is moving in kata; Mabuni seems to be in shiko dachi.

The kata, it seems to me, actually shows that one is side-stepping a right punch/attack from an attacker stepping in from the west (supposing that the kata begins facing north). The left hand or forearm "receives" (uke) the attack while the right arm comes across to the right side of the attacker's neck. This places the defender in a 90 degree relationship to the incoming attack--that is, getting out of the way. In this position, with the defender's arms describing a small circle, the attacker's right arm is brought up and the attacker's head is brought down, while the defender steps back into a left foot forward neko-ashi-dachi (cat stance). This is followed by a hammer fist to the attacker's temple.

In another text translated and published by McKenna, Kobou Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kenpo, Mabuni shows applications of a number of techniques from Seiunchin, but here again the interpretations only partially seem to follow the actual movements of the kata. I wonder whether that's what Mabuni meant by "varying interpretations of principles"--randomly ignoring logical movement. In this illustration depicting the opening of Seiunchin, Mabuni's defender is not stepping out along the 45 degree line or outside the attack. Neither is there an explanation of why both of the defender's arms are brought down over the thighs. Because of the stepping shown in figure 1 (or lack of stepping to the outside of the opponent's attack), the defender has left himself open to a second attack. Furthermore, the counter-attack shown in figure 3 is certainly less than lethal. And it also raises the question of why one would drop into shiko dachi to block an opponent's punch in the first place.

Again, it has always seemed to me that one should follow kata technique when doing bunkai since the kata--if kata is worth anything--is teaching one how to move. In this application, illustrated above, the stepping is important and both hands are used. In addition, the defender's counter-attack is to a more vulnerable target, the opponent's throat.

Mabuni's second sequence is equally questionable it seems to me. He doesn't show the cat-stance fist-in-palm technique that immediately follows the last technique in the first sequence and precedes the first technique in this second sequence. Then he seems to show the two-handed technique as a push against the opponent, who then seems to advance once more and is attacked with an elbow to the mid-section. Not to say that these technique would be completely ineffective but there are a number things that seem unrealistic about them. Why would one push the opponent away just to allow him to attack again? Again, in the kata, the left open palm is cupped over the right elbow. Is this one of Mabuni's "varied interpretations"? I much prefer to see this sequence as a continuation of the previous sequence of moves.

So how does one explain the differences? Are these just variations in interpretation or are they more significant than that? Was Mabuni hiding techniques by showing only fairly simplistic bunkai? Could he have thought that to show more lethal bunkai was at odds with one of his apparent themes in this publication, to stress the health and fitness benefits of practicing karate? Or did Mabuni, "the shihan of Goju-ryu kempo," not study long enough to really learn much about Goju-ryu? That sounds so blasphemous though.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Off with their heads

"Off with their heads!" the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by L. Carroll.

Sometimes it strikes me as odd how much time people spend practicing punching in Goju-ryu. I suppose it happens because we need to train things that all levels can train together. This is not to suggest that learning how to punch correctly is not important. Of course it is. But when you look at the totality of techniques in the Goju-ryu classical subjects punches seem to make up a rather small percentage. Then why is there such an emphasis on punching, not just in doing group basics together but also in doing ippon kumite and in a good deal of the bunkai that one sees being done in most schools? Perhaps it satisfies some urge we have to punch things. Or perhaps it simply fits our expectations of a karate school--indeed, martial arts in general. Or perhaps punching seemed less violent--as ironic as that may sound--when early pioneers tried to popularize karate with the general public. I must admit that I've often thought that many of the "real" techniques in the Goju-ryu classical kata have seemed to me at times too violent or dangerous to actually practice with a partner. For example, the first technique above from the opening sequence of Seipai (though it is demonstrated in mirror image) is difficult to actually practice as a neck break, so it is taught, and in fact the way most people understand it, is as an attack to the opponent's ribs with the elbow. Or the second technique from the middle of Kururunfa--another twist-your-head-off technique. Or the last technique in Sanseiru--now there's a bunkai you won't find in most schools. Or the "arm break" which isn't really an arm break in Seipai.

You can find these techniques in most of the Goju-ryu kata. And if not techniques which are intended to twist the head off, at least techniques to attack the head or neck. So what's with all the chest punches and all the work devoted to hitting the makiwara? Perhaps we should be working the nigiri-game (gripping jars) far more or twisting bundles of bamboo to develop the grip strength to twist someone's head off. And, of course, we should be doing all sorts of exercises to build up strength in our own neck muscles so we might be able to actually train some of these. Or is that all just too violent to consider?