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.)


  1. I agree. Practice, without principles to guide it, leaves people "jumping off the tracks" into some interesting directions...

  2. Hey, Russ. Good to hear from you. The video I watched that prompted me to write this was in fact yours! Good video on basic technique and principle. I check Youtube every once in awhile for recent Goju videos, but most of it is pretty useless. Yours was certainly basic, but a good place to start, since it seems a bit rare that anyone considers principles at all when they come up with bunkai. Hope we can actually get the opportunity to train Goju together at some point in the future. All the best, Giles

  3. Giles, Yes, I do hope to be able to meet up for some quality training time at some point.

    Best Regards,