Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Principles of Bunkai or Kata Analysis

I came across a video recently discussing the "principles" of Goju blocking techniques. It made some good points, and it got me to thinking that few karate practitioners seem to discuss principles at all, or if they do they only give the most cursory acknowledgement to the notion, as if the principles themselves were so obvious and so universally practiced that they didn't warrant any discussion. But I don't think that's the case. I think that most karate practitioners don't think about principles at all, or, if pressed, would only mouth what had been posted on the dojo wall in framed kanji or repeated training mantras. "Karate Ni Sente Nashi" or "There is no first attack in karate," for example. Now certainly there's nothing wrong with these words of wisdom--not what I'm suggesting at all--but principles, it seems to me, should inform, or be the basis of, how one analyzes kata.  Our practice, it seems to me, should be more about practicing and reinforcing principles of movement and self-defense. The moves in kata are merely the vehicles by which we practice those principles. So here's my preliminary list of "principles" that one should use to analyze kata--that is, to do bunkai:

  • If there is no first attack in karate, look for the block or uke at the beginning of each combination or sequence of moves. Now some may say that that in itself is an assumption--that katas are composed of combinations or sequences. But this seems to be borne out. Often, these "blocks" are done simultaneously with an attack or "bridging" technique with the other hand. In any case, the block (uke) or receiving technique together with the controlling or bridging technique, along with proper stepping, should leave the defender in such a position that the attacker does not have a second chance to attack. Caveat: This is not necessarily true of the opening sequences of threes, such as the three punches in Seisan or the three nukites in Shisochin. These are basics.
  • Much of the stepping--particularly in the initial "uke"--indicates how the defender steps off line and consequently the direction from which the opponent's attack comes. The principle here, followed in almost all cases, is that the attacker is attacking one's centerline and the defender is stepping off the centerline to avoid the attack. This is safer and makes blocking easier. In analyzing kata (or looking for bunkai), how you step off line with the initial block should show you the direction from which the attacker is attacking. You should have moved your center off line. The kata shows these steps and movements in a variety of ways and along various angles--stepping to the front tangent (northeast or northwest), stepping off 90 degrees (to the west or east), stepping back at an angle (to the southwest or southeast), and stepping directly back (to the south).
  • Block the hands, protect against an elbow, but attack the head. The attacking techniques of Goju-ryu always seem to go for the head or neck of the opponent. It's generally much deadlier than simple punch-kick responses. Even middle-level punches are often at this level only because the opponent's head has been brought down. Even the fairly ubiquitous mawashi-uke is mostly used against the opponent's head and neck when we see it in kata.
  • Since Goju-ryu is a system of self-defense, when one employs a technique correctly it should seem effortless. This is, of course, facilitated by turning and moving off line. If a bunkai seems to require too much strength or depend on seemingly too much speed, it's probably not right. Obviously you need to practice and learn techniques, but if a technique (the bunkai that you think you've found) doesn't seem to work and your response is, "It'll work but you just have to get faster or stronger," then go back to the drawing board. 
  • Speaking of combinations: In Goju-ryu katas, entry techniques and controlling techniques are followed by finishing techniques, but the finishing technique may sometimes only be tacked on to the second combination or sequence. Additionally, once you have found the combination or sequence of techniques, the movements within the sequences should be continuous and uninterrupted. No gaps.
  • To find and to properly understand the techniques, it is important to see how the attacker would respond to each of the defender's techniques. In other words, if the defender blocks the attacker's punch and then kicks to his knee or groin, it is often important to "see" the response--that the attacker's head is thereby brought down--in order to understand the techniques that follow it. In some cases, this may be difficult to actually demonstrate on a friend or training partner, as some techniques are particularly violent--especially ones which involve grabbing and twisting the head.
  • Don't look at the final position (meaning the still photograph of a position one might see in an instructional manual) to explain a technique. The real explanation needs to incorporate the movement of "getting there" from the previous position. The circular block one employs may end up in the down (gedan) position, but it may cross one's centerline (what the attacker is attacking) in the upper or middle level.
  • Do the move in bunkai, against a partner, exactly how it occurs in kata. This should include any steps or directional changes. If kata, it may be assumed, is the means that karate teachers chose to preserve and remember technique, then all of the keys for learning how to apply those techniques are in the kata themselves. Nothing is really hidden. It's just that sometimes we don't know what we are looking at.
Those are some of the basic principles of kata analysis or bunkai. Of course, not everyone is of the same opinion. Then again, many people that I've seen don't seem to base their bunkai on any principles. Then there are whole schools of Goju-ryu where the bunkai doesn't look anything like the kata. What's that all about?

Anyway, there's nothing really new here--I mentioned most of these in articles in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts--sadly no longer publishing, though still available in back issues.

So that's about all I have to say on the subject--or at least that's it in a nutshell. Any questions?

Best regards,
(I have to go train....this blogging stuff takes up too much time.)

Friday, August 03, 2012

Shisochin...what four?

Hokama book
Many years ago, in a country far, far away...I'm thinking of this because I saw a discussion of Shisochin recently...Anyway, at the time I was sitting in Matayoshi Shinpo sensei's dojo with a number of other students from the States, when Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei came by. Not so unusual, I suppose, since he had trained kobudo with Matayoshi sensei. This was just after he had written his first book on the history of Okinawan karate. He had a stack of books with him, which he brought in, very generously autographed, and gave to us. I think we actually bought them, but it was certainly worth it. The pictures are great, though I still can't read it!

Later, on a walk back after visting the Shuri museum with him and Matayoshi sensei, we had an opportunity to ask Hokama sensei about the meanings of the different Goju-ryu kata names, among other things. I wish we had been savy enough to ask more meaningful questions, but we were relatively young in age and experience. Anyway, I remember Hokama sensei saying that he believed Shisochin got its name form the four-direction palm strikes, since there were four of these techniques and they were done first to the south, then to the north, then west, and finally to the east.
A plausible explanation, I suppose, but I have since come to think that the kata was called Shisochin (four direction fighting) because it shows responses to attacks from four directions--from the front, the back, and the sides. Certainly most of the other classical kata of Goju-ryu show a variety of ways to respond to attacks from the front and sides, but Shisochin seems to me to show a response to an attack from the rear--not such a common scenario in Goju-ryu, I think--though I don't subscribe to the idea that the over-the-shoulder "punch" is an attack to the rear. Rather, I believe, the movement of the arms simply shows a release from a rear bear hug attempting to pin the defender's arms to his sides. The dropping motion of the body along with the rear thrust of the hips facilitates this release. The counter-attack, however, is in the turn around into the final position. The upper left arm of the defender's release grabs the attacker's head on the turn around, while the defender's right hand drops, first attacking the groin and then bringing the attacker's left arm up while bringing the attacker's head down with the left arm. The final position is in cat stance (neko-ashi) to show that the knee is brought up into the attacker's head or face. The end. Of course, I could be wrong.

The interesting thing, however, is that this bunkai or analysis of kata takes into consideration not just some aspects of the moves in kata but all of them--the hands, the feet, the body, the directional changes, etc. I hate it when someone calls it bunkai and it doesn't match the kata?! Call it something else. Flights of fancy (or experimentation) are fun and even often instructive, but if kata is a tool to remember how to do techniques, then bunkai should show how those same techniques are applied, shouldn't it?
Something similar to Shisochin technique just before the turn from the Bubishi.