Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What's wrong with this bunkai?

I've been watching a lot of bunkai recently. It seems everybody and his brother is putting out videos of bunkai. One guy out there seems to put out half a dozen short bunkai clips a week, and none of them seem very effective. Another guy has these "martial minutes" where he gives these techniques cute names, though the techniques only seem to have a remote resemblance to the katas. I've started to get discouraged.

Here's a video of Seiunchin bunkai by Morio Higaonna:


What's wrong with this bunkai? In the first sequence, since Higaonna sensei takes the kata apart move by move, there's nothing lethal about the first move--the hands coming up and then down again to deal with a double wrist grab--so he puts in a front kick to the opponent's groin. He doesn't even get the opponent to release his grab until he kicks him! And the front kick he employs is not in the kata! Bunkai is supposed to be an analysis of kata. Horse stance is not a good kicking stance either. He also doesn't move off line. The kata shows one stepping in at an angle.

Where Seiunchin bunkai begins.
In the next move, Higaonna sensei steps to the outside of the opponent's right punch. Again, the kata does not step this way when it shows off-line movement. Then he blocks the punch with the palm-up movement, followed by a grab of the arm. Then he attacks the opponent's ribs with a "nukite" finger strike. One problem here is that the finger strike is not very lethal when aimed at the ribs. The other problem is that it's easily thwarted in this position--the attacker need only bend his elbow down to cover the ribs.

First step forward in Seiunchin.
The problem with the third sequence is that it doesn't look anything like kata. He does not shift back into cat stance against the opponent. Why the hands are shown together in kata is not at all clear, because they aren't in his bunkai! And then he pushes and punches to the attacker's chest--again, not very lethal.

Bringing the head down.
In the fourth sequence Higaonna sensei shows, he blocks the attacker's right punch with his left open hand and then attacks with his right rising elbow. This is also confusing, because Higaonna sensei doesn't step back as in the kata movement--in fact, when he finishes the technique the wrong foot is forward. And it's questionable whether the elbow attack would even reach the opponent in this case. Perhaps that's why he pushes the attacker away at the end--out of frustration.

Grabbing the head.
So how do so many people get it wrong--because Higaonna sensei has a lot of followers!? I think there are a number of reasons. One: They look at kata as individual and isolated techniques, instead of combinations or sequences of moves that go together. Two: When they practice bunkai against a partner in the dojo, they don't try to see how the opponent would react to any of the techniques. Since they don't actually connect with the opponent, the opponent ends up standing there as stiff as a makiwara. Three: They don't look for the techniques to be lethal. When the technique is lethal, it usually involves an attack to the head or neck.

Turning the body--hair and chin.

Take the second point first. If you pull the arms of a double wrist grab apart and down to the sides or if you see it as a double lapel grab, it brings the opponent's head down also. Then apply the first point: techniques in kata are not isolated and independent. Once the head is brought down, bring the hand up and grab it--the hair or topknot--with the right hand. The palm is brought up to remind you to keep your elbow down. Then apply the third point: techniques are lethal. The target of the nukite finger strike is the opponent's throat, not the ribs. Then, continuing to apply the principle that techniques are connected in sequences or combinations, the head is twisted, pulled in and then pushed forward. Then, stepping back and pulling the opponent back--who has been turned at this point--the back of the opponent's neck and head is attacked with a right rising elbow/forearm as the left hand holds onto the opponent's chin/neck. This ends the first sequence in Seiunchin kata. And every technique of the bunkai should look exactly as it does in kata--only where the hands touch in the last technique there's actually the opponent's head between them. The sequence may seem a lot longer than Higaonna sensei's rather simple block-punch/kick, but the other principle always present in Okinawan karate is that the defender should move in such a way as not to allow the attacker a second attack. One should receive the attack (uke) and control the opponent from there on.

This last point--get out of the way or move off-line--is actually one of the problems with Hiagonna sensei's interpretation of the opening move of Seiunchin. By seeing this as a release from an opponent's double-handed wrist grab--as if anyone would get themselves into this in the first place!?!--Higaonna sensei doesn't take into account the stepping movement shown in the kata. If the attacker is coming from the front, the kata shows the defender stepping forward (and off-line) along the northeast angle to deal with the attack. Putting oneself into a relatively safe position against the opponent means moving to his outside. So if we look at his attack as a cross-grab or his left hand grabbing my left wrist, I can explain not only how the hands move but also how the feet and stance of kata are utilized in the bunkai.

Here's a video of Shisochin bunkai by Higaonna sensei that shows many of the same interpretive problems:

Attack to the back of the head
or neck to end the sequence.

So what's the lesson here? Well, in the first place, there's probably a good argument not to put any videos of yourself on the Internet. There's probably good reason not to put anything into words, too, or to state an opinion contrary to generally held beliefs, but I've been out on that limb before. So the real lesson, it seems to me, is that when bunkai doesn't look like kata, it's not the right bunkai. Oh, and it should make sense too. And be real.