Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bunkai thoughts: Can we please apply logic to the analysis of kata?

Imagine some guy in ancient Greece sitting around contemplating the universe. Maybe he's woken early and trudged the sheep out to pasture. Sitting up on a rocky crag, he looks out over the sea, waiting for the sun to rise. Maybe he's praying that Apollo will harness the horses to carry the chariot of the sun up into the sky or maybe he realizes that all of that's simply an old worn-out myth. Maybe he looks at the world more
scientifically, more empirically, and when the sun finally comes up, rosy-fingered and all, it suddenly dawns on him that the earth is the center of the universe. He trusts his own eyes instead of tired cultural beliefs. It's obvious that the sun revolves around the earth; it comes up in the east and goes down in the west. If he were a little more worldly, if he had managed to make his way into Athens to visit the great academy there, he might have been able to ask one of the great teachers. Perhaps he could have consulted Aristotle himself and had his suspicions confirmed by the great minds of his day.

And yet today, we ask, how could he have been so wrong? How can the observations of his own eyes have led him so far from the truth? And how is it that those who are so esteemed, their venerable positions in the community so entrenched as to be referred to with sobriquets as sobering as "The World's Greatest..." could possibly err, could possibly have gotten it all wrong?

So, if you get my drift, sometimes I wonder if the same sort of thing can be applied to Goju-ryu kata and bunkai (the analysis of kata). Are we--at least those of us who are curious enough about it even to ask--content merely to practice kata the way that it has always been taught? Or the way we have been told to do it by the great teachers of our day? But then what other way is there? What other way was there for those who followed that ancient Greek guy up the hill to watch the sun rise?

Sometimes the theories need to be put to the test--and not just of observation, because we can't always trust what we see. What we see is often influenced by our expectations. We need to apply logic and look for sound basic principles. What else did Copernicus or Galileo have to do? So much of the bunkai I see on the Internet seems to ignore so many fundamental things. It's as if someone in a high school science class merely threw out data that didn't conform to the conclusions they already expected to find. And peer pressure has convinced everyone else to follow along.

How radical is it to suggest...that if one is analyzing the techniques of kata, one should do the moves the same as one does them in the kata? that if the opponent has the opportunity to hit you again, then you're probably in the wrong place? that if your counterattack does not either put the opponent down or make it extremely difficult for him to continue his attack, you've probably got it wrong? that the pattern of angles and turns in any given kata is important in how one moves in response to an attack? that correct bunkai does not need to add anything to finish the attacker off? that, hojo undo training aside, and this is self-defense after all, if the response takes too much strength or speed then you've probably got it wrong?  that punches and kicks are not the most lethal responses to an attack and therefore may be quite minor aspects of the karate arsenal or even the repertoire of techniques one sees in kata? that if anyone tells you the real bunkai is hidden or just have faith or you aren't up to that level yet, they're peddling the same hocus-pocus as an old-time snake oil salesman and you're about to sign up for cult membership?

See it on YouTube:
"Saifa kata and bunkai
You want "proof"? Then every time you do bunkai, ask yourself:  Does it follow the kata, and I mean all aspects of the move in kata? Does the initial move or technique (uke) put you in a safe position--that is, the attacker has only been allowed the one attack (after all, this is self-defense)? Is it lethal--that is, in Goju-ryu at least, is it literally lethal? With one caveat: Remember that if you do stumble upon the real bunkai in any of the Goju-ryu kata, don't try it at home. Too dangerous!


  1. Yes, but this is entirely based on the kata. What if the kata one is faithfully adhering to...is wrong? Either missing something - deliberately or unintentially corrupted?

    What then? (Alluding to the Russian folk take of Peter & the Wolf)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You’re absolutely right, Narda. Maybe why faith and reason are sometimes not so uncomfortable bedfellows. We have faith that the kata has been preserved correctly. I know some haven't been. There are differences. But that's when we use reason--does our interpretation follow martial principles. Of course, if that doesn't satisfy, you could always just rely on personal choice, I suppose. How about, whose kata and bunkai do you like better? Use your own criteria for how you assess your likes and what you consider better. Hey, why not?

  4. Great blog, Giles-sensei! Some insightful ideas as always. Many different people and ideas in karate-land, but your right we often see those who lack principled-ideas. Unlike the precise equations that describe the sun and the earths rotation, should bunkai have wide tolerances while still remaining functional? Like the Revolutionary War Musket or the cheap AK-47, purposely imprecise so that it won't jam, even when dropped in the mud? Tolerance such as possible variation in the amount stepping off line, the angle of evasion (45 deg often has the same effect as 90 deg with more control of the balance), the possibility to force the opponent to turn himself to that same relative angle by stepping in and using more of a pushing block, or in the case of the smaller folk using slightly modified targets to overcome large differences in height,strength etc. Of course when you already touching, wrestling, or playing push hands etc. its less of the uke, but more of a choice how to bridge to the real attacks of the bunkai.

  5. Hi Mike, Nice to hear from you. You're right--there is certainly room for a certain amount of variation. But I would argue that you should know the base before you begin to apply the variations. Of course, if you (generic you) don't want to do bunkai according to do kata, why bother with kata???

    1. The more I play with the idea of variations on some techniques, I see the variations in the kata. So you ask why so a technique in four directions in by turning in a 180-90-180 configuration? To show the robustness of the technique and methods to make it work more generally. Take the main four directional technique in Sanseiryu, the front kick, elbow, punch under the elbow, down side kick sequence. First occurrence, head on, may be linked to prior failures in grappling or grabbing the opponent, but its clear it goes straight in very deep, with the elbow potentially serving as a block-strike on the inside gate to enter. Second occurrence, you turn 180 degrees, to step off line of an attacker from 90 degrees so you end up flanking him at 90 degree outside gate from his front. Third occurrence you turn 90 degrees, with a slight step in, seems to me the attacker is coming from a 45 degree angle/you step off line and attack back at 45 degree off of his front. The step in part of this third sequence allows you to use a pushing chest block to turn his front more towards a 90 degree angle relative to your front. Finally, another 180 degree turn, not to practice the same thing twice, but instead to apply an alternate finishing move, no down side kick/throw, so maybe the opponent in weighted far forward, a leg attack or throw, or knee to the head would not do much, so you pull him further forward and down by the neck, hit him, roll em’ over by the neck and hit em’ again?
      Certainly all 180-90-180 turns could be viewed in such a way, as could other minor variations in turning. They are really variations in entry and control to be able to execute the rest of the technique. Where as once-and-done techniques are unidirectional, or they are variations on finishing moves that we confuse for entering/bridging techniques.

    2. Hi Mike,
      It's good to see people actually thinking about this stuff. But to me, because one never knows the variabilities and dynamics of an encounter, variations to me means being able to move seamlessly to another technique. So for me, variations means the relationships between different techniques from the same kata or different katas in the system.

      What entry (uke) technique are you using in the above-mentioned techniques from Sanseiru? (Not asking about the first one, since it has a different opening, and I don't believe you're doing the Higa-lineage kata out there anyway.) To me, that makes all the difference in how you're seeing them.

      To me, the three techniques in the middle of Sanseiru form the core of the kata. That is, the kata shows variations based off the entry ("uke" or initial response) of these four techniques. As you say, they show some variation in the "finishing" techniques. The only other difference being the 90 or 180 turn. The simplest way of looking at these seems to me to imagine the 90 degree turn as a response to a front attack. The 180 degree turn then is a response to a side attack. Not to over-complicate things then, they both step off the line of attack to set up a lateral counter-attack. Note: study what your initial kick does to the opponent.

    3. You right we generally don't practice the Higa-lineage kata that often. The entry I am typically using is a turning chest block. Bill, your student, came for a visit a while back and showed us the turning and crossing arms you use on the elbow joint. That a nice application I I had forgot about until this moment. So how do you interpret the following two techniques (in the Higa-lineage; hooking block-turning palm) as variations of the same entry? Best regards, Mike

  6. Mike, I don't quite understand your question: "the following two techniques (...hooking block-turning palm) as variations of the same entry?" Which are the following tech.? What are you calling hooking block-turning palm? Drop me a line on email if this is too cumbersome. Or, better yet, we should all get together and trade some bunkai. --Giles