Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The problem with kata

So...what's the problem? Certainly it's not with kata itself. After all, even in the midst of change--I'm thinking of the 1936 "Meeting of Karate Masters," sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper--Miyagi Chojun sensei was adamant that "the old kata should be preserved without any modification" (translation by Sanzinsoo) No, it's the over-stylization of kata that's the problem. Let me give you an example. You want your kid to draw, so you give him a coloring book instead of a blank piece of paper. What's wrong with that? It provides a little bit of guidance. You can even purchase books that might appeal to different kids--a Spiderman coloring book for one and a Little Mermaid coloring book for another. You can already see where this is going, but the not-so-hidden stereotyping is only part of the problem. I think, at least philosophically, we realize that coloring books restrict creativity. Pablo Picasso once said that it took him "four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child," and I don't think he meant anything like using coloring books.

Stepping up into the first position
in Saifa kata (mirror image).
Kata is terribly restricting--in the way that we introduce it to beginners (and we were all beginners once)--and when you add the study of bunkai, it's sort of like putting the cart before the horse. deriving bunkai from this kind of overly-stylized, restrictive movement is an exercise in frustration, at the very least. Let me borrow a definition from the art world. To say that something is stylized, as kata is, is to say that it is bound by convention and presented in a non-naturalistic form. I should say here that what I'm referring to is not the moves themselves so much as the performance of the moves in kata.

For example: We teach a student the first step in Saifa kata is to advance along an imagined northeast diagonal line with a right step into a long zenkutsu-dachi (front stance). Then the left foot is brought up to the right into a stance that the Japanese call musubi-dachi (heels touching with the feet splayed at 90 degrees), as the hands pull back across the chest. Yet this is a sort of stilted, overly-stylized movement--completely unnatural--that would never be done in such a punctuated manner if one were actually "using" the technique against an opponent. And the problem is that this kind of stylized movement, learned at an early stage in our training, generally informs most people's bunkai as well.

Kicking posture in Saifa.
Another example is the next sequence (after the three opening moves) in Saifa kata. We generally teach students to step out along a northwest angle into neko-ashi-dachi (cat-foot stance), with the left arm up and the right arm down. This position is often held, especially when teaching large groups in the dojo and counting out each movement so that (for whatever logic there is in this) everyone moves together. (Again, uniformity rears its ugly head!) But the unnaturalness and over-stylization should be apparent here. If you were actually employing this technique, you would not pause in cat stance. You would move from the previous position, whatever it happened to be (in this case, shiko dachi or horse stance) and simply kick. In other words, we have overly-stylized the weight transition and turned it into a cat stance. The whole "point," if you will, is to shift the weight onto the left leg so that you can kick with the right. How fast would you do this in reality? Do it fast enough and the cat stance disappears.

Final position in Saifa
before the right hand
is brought over and
down, palm forward.
What about the last technique in Saifa kata, the mawashi uke? When most people perform this move in kata, it looks as though they are pulling back a vine, plucking a grape, and offering it to a friend, all while standing on one leg. How aesthetically charming...and utterly impractical!

Examples just like these can be found throughout the system of classical Goju katas. What are the benefits? Obviously, it is easier to teach the seemingly arcane movements of classical kata when they are broken down--almost like still photographs--and presented in punctuated and highly stylized form, with as little individual variation as possible. But once the movements are learned, all of this stiff, robotic, and metronomic movement should be abandoned. Yet watch any demonstration or YouTube performance of kata! Imagine what kata performances would look like if we taught bunkai before we taught kata. How radical! Let a student practice the technique against a partner for a year before they were taught the solo form. I wonder what it would look like? I wonder if the movements would look more natural? I wonder if the gaps and pauses would disappear? Kata performance might allow for more variation and individuality. The only criteria for judging someone's kata would be whether they understood what they were doing and whether they could apply the techniques effectively. It may take a lifetime to learn to move as naturally as a child, but this should really be the goal.  Bunkai should follow kata, but kata should be done like bunkai. And when's the last time you saw that?

Saturday, May 03, 2014


Speaking of self-defense.... Well, not exactly. But then again maybe there is some sort of tangential relationship here. There was a funny political cartoon in the paper the other day. It was a four-panel cartoon. In one panel it showed a guy holding a ruler along the ground--"proof" that the earth was flat. I can't remember the other two, but the last panel showed a dumb looking guy pointing to a snow flake as "proof" that global warming was just a myth concocted by some idiot scientists. It reminded me of the energy we expend trying to protect our turf, trying to safe-guard what we think we know.
In one sense, the only truly neutral
defensive posture in Goju kata. Akin
to the Wu Wei posture of T'ai Chi,
 it is merely a ready position,
showing neither attacking nor
blocking techniques. 

A few years ago now, after I had written about Seipai kata and how one might look at it based on pretty clearly delineated principles, the article became the subject of a forum discussion for a brief period of time (after all, everything is brief nowadays). One person wrote the following: "I am not convinced it is the answer to the kata, if there is one, but it does create a way to hang all the kata together and decipher them with some fairly simple tools." Not convinced? There aren't any answers? What more do you want?

Another said, "It is a good foundation, but I prefer my own methods, although his [me] are quite interesting....I do think we will see a lot more of this because so few have a better solution. I think many will copy it. It will become something some 'old man' taught me, or 'something I found' type of thing for many teachers." Yes, perhaps that's the problem; we each prefer our own methods, even if those methods seem to defy logic. Even if there may be a better solution offered.

Another seemed quite receptive until his sensei weighed in on the matter. He said, "When my sensei saw the article what he questioned the most was, how did the opponent get into the position he was in to begin the technique....What Sensei questioned in this article was not the technique, but rather, how did he (Giles sensei) get the opponent to enter like that, and what are the chances of being able to reproduce it." I found this comment the most perplexing. For simplicity's sake, we showed all of the attacks as right or left straight punches. In actuality they could be punches, grabs, or pushes--it doesn't really matter. In addition, all of it is based on the well-founded Okinawan karate principle that the defender should move in such a way as to allow the attacker only the one initial attack. I even proposed that the kata shows you how to move this way. The techniques all start with the 'uke' or receiving technique (the "block" if you will, though many of the blocks are accompanied by a simultaneous entry technique). What was this "teacher" looking at? The attacker got into that position by attacking!?!

Another critic had a problem with the analysis because, he said, "many of them can't be reasonably practiced safely." That's true, but what does that have to do with whether an analysis is correct or not? The kata is what it is. You don't change bunkai because it's too deadly.

Another person questioned this analysis because "karate practice should be balanced in many ways." He believed that kata not only taught one how to attack but also how to block. (Didn't I show blocks and moving out of the way?) The same person went on to say that "many techniques work in two directions, meaning my attacker could be behind, or may be in front of me." What? I don't follow that. Did he mean that the first technique of Seipai shows a response against a front attack and a rear attack at the same time? What about the second sequence? How is the front kick an attack to the rear?

Perhaps the most novel defense against the article came from someone who suggested that I was imposing an "a priori" analysis. He said, "In the beginning, there was only movement. The evil was introduced in this world when the creator wanted to explain them...." Heavy stuff that. Not really sure what it means though. In the beginning, I suppose, there was just the random movement of the stars and the planets until someone came up with the idea of gravity. I think he was supposing that I was forcing a theory on the material and then attempting to come up with bunkai to justify the theory. Quite the contrary, I think we only formulated the theory or principles after experimenting with bunkai, after finding the techniques that were the most effective and made the most sense. It is only then, after working things out on the dojo floor, that one begins to see the principles behind the techniques, and then the principles begin to offer a sort of confirmation for how one is looking at kata. Isn't this something like the scientific theory that we all learned in school? That is, we first accumulate data (kata) and then begin to analyze it (bunkai). Only after much trail and error (and we are continually revising and refining our bunkai) do we even begin to formulate theories.

For the life of me, I can't figure out criticism like this except as a rather transparent effort to retain one's status in the dojo. When we feel threatened in any way, the ego runs to our defense. Whatever happened to open and honest discussion? I was once called an "iconoclast" as if it were a terrible thing to be. (My attacker, rather smugly, I think, saw himself as a defender of the faith, if a somewhat blind defender in my opinion.)

Now I remember the other two panels in that cartoon. One showed this guy from the 17th century pointing at a bird in flight, saying, "If gravity is real, explain that." And the other panel was a guy from the 19th century holding a bible, saying, "If evolution is real, explain this." It was a pretty funny cartoon. It was by Adam Zyglis. It reminds me so much of kindergarten when someone challenges you and you just hunker down behind your little Maginot line and hurl taunts at the other side: "Yeah, well you're stupid." I'm not sure it's the best defense though. I think real self-defense is something else.