Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Themes in kata?

Are there themes in kata? I don't mean whether a kata is a monkey kata or shows clear evidence of dragon-style kung fu. I've actually read these debates. They sound so erudite...so filled with posturing and punditry. And where do they get you in the long run? I once asked Matayoshi sensei this sort of question--whether the different Goju katas showed the influence of different animals--having been, of course, raised on the stories of the fighting of animals influencing early martial arts teachers or martial arts masters basing their techniques on the movements of various animals. But Matayoshi sensei said that the different techniques were spread throughout the katas instead of each kata being thematically influenced by a single animal. So that in any given kata, he suggested, you might find snake or leopard or dragon techniques all mixed in together. So much for theme.

But I'm not really thinking of kata themes in that manner anyway. The problem, however, when you think of different katas exploring different themes, it seems to me, is that it raises so many other questions, regardless of whether or not you get the themes right. For example, if you suggest that Seiunchin is a kata that was created to explore responses to pushes and grabs--since that is certainly not enough to base one's self-defense on--then other katas would be needed to explore other self-defense scenarios. That in itself presupposes that some or all of the katas go together in one system, whether they were created that way or whether they were merely collected and put together in that way. Which raises the question: Is it a complete system? Of course, this thematic analysis of kata is based on bunkai or application of moves, which itself is a matter of some disagreement or at the very least multiple interpretations.

In any case, I find it an interesting exercise because it is a way to "see the system" or at least a way to organize a seemingly random and large collection of techniques. For example, Kururunfa seems to be a thematic exploration of one kind of an outside block--the defender's right hand blocks the attacker's right punch or the defender's left hand blocks the attacker's left punch. We see this over and over again in the kata. In fact, all of the initial or receiving "blocks" seem to show this, in various forms. There is some variation; that is, sometimes it is shown with the hand vertical, sometimes with the palm up, and sometimes with a palm-up hooking block. Seipai, on the other hand, seems to be a thematic exploration of another kind of an outside block--the defender's left hand blocks the attacker's right punch or the defender's right hand blocks the attacker's left punch.

The problem is that Seipai is also about "twisting the head off." This comes up a lot in the combinations of the kata. And Seisan seems to be a thematic exploration of the "sun and moon block." But one of the problems here is that the Higa dojo (Shodokan) seems to be the only school of Okinawan Goju-ryu that even does the sun and moon block in Seisan kata. And how are we to look at Shisochin? Is it an exploration of four direction fighting, as its name implies--responses to attacks from the front, sides, and back--or is it an exploration of how to use the forearms in blocks and attacks? Is Saifa a basic beginning kata that deals with responses to grabs, pushes, and punches--why it's taught first? Or is it taught first because it shows how to use the waist or koshi?

In any case, I don't think this is a fruitless journey or pointless question just because there is no definitive answer. The understanding you gain is certainly beneficial to your ability to see variations within the different kata and beneficial to your ability to use each of these techniques.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Henry David Thoreau

I have often wondered about the supposed complexity of the way many people see karate. People seem to pride themselves, and build reputations, on how many applications of kata technique they can come up with. These are the same people, of course, who propagate the notion that kata can mean anything you want it to mean.

I once read a forum post by someone who was arguing that “every inch” of movement in kata was meaningful (which I don’t have a problem with) and should be analyzed for bunkai (which I do have a problem with)—and not just full of meaning but containing multiple application possibilities. His example was the simple punch or tsuki. This technique, he pointed out to his obviously less schooled audience, in addition to being a punch, could be a block on the way out, a block on the way back, a grab, an elbow attack to the rear, etc., not to mention the multiplicity of techniques that could be gleaned if one were to couple it with the other arm. I think he randomly threw out the number twelve as the number of possible techniques one could apply from the simple punch. But this is not simple to me.

It seems to me that if you want an effective method of self-defense, you must simplify it. This is really what happens when you are able to see your martial art as a system. It’s what happens when you look for and base your practice on principles instead of techniques and the acquisition of techniques. Certainly you need to learn, practice, and study technique, but in Goju-ryu, when the techniques are based on principles (for lack of a better or more specific word), the techniques in kata can be seen as variations. And when you study kata this way, it tends to simplify your understanding.

For example, using the Goju-ryu classical kata, one might argue that there are only four ways to block an opponent’s right punch; blocking on the outside with your left arm or hand, blocking on the outside with your right arm or hand, blocking on the inside with your left arm or hand, and blocking on the inside with your right arm or hand. Whether you block with your hand, forearm, or closed fist is itself only a variation. So the “entry” or receiving (uke) technique of any of the Goju bunkai shown in the classical kata must begin with one of these in some manner—not, for the moment, considering responses to an opponent’s two-handed push or a grab.

One can imagine then that any bunkai sequence that begins with a left outside block to the opponent’s right punch might “tack on,” so to speak, any other closing or bridging technique and finishing technique from any other kata. That is, the last technique in Saifa, for example, is a variation of the last technique in Seipai—or the corner techniques in Seipai or the second sequence with the right front kick, for that matter. They all begin with a left outside block to the opponent’s right punch attack. So one could begin with Saifa and end with Seipai.

The same would be true for any left hand outside block to the opponent’s left punch. We see this in the “blocking” technique in the left or west side move in Kururunfa, or the closed fist double block-punch before the “jump” in Seipai, or the double handed changing-gate technique in Sanseiru. They all begin with a left outside block (palm up) to the opponent’s left punch. So one could begin with any one of them and end with any other one.

The reason this is important is because as a matter of self-defense, as opposed to agreed upon dojo practice, one can’t predict how the opponent will move, so one must be flexible or sensitive enough to vary one’s technique. It’s easiest to vary one’s technique if one simplifies one’s technique, and one way to simplify is to see the relationships between various techniques. The system then becomes both smaller in the sense that it is easier to grasp, and larger in one’s ability to draw on any number of responses depending on the situation.

*Pictures: 1) Saifa 2) Seipai 3)Kururunfa 4) Seipai 5)Sanseiru