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?


  1. Anonymous2:58 AM

    I also practice kata differently sometimes. What I mean is so many in the usual way and so many with the slow moves usual speed. Other moves added such as grabs missing from the formal presentation of kata. Also changed techniques such as knee strikes, front kicks in certain places as well as nukite and teisho and ippon ken where they are not in the 'formal' kata.
    Enjoying your writings. Thanks

  2. Thanks for your comments. At least I know that someone is out there. Not to be misunderstood, however, I don't advocate the "changing" of techniques. I don't think anything is missing or not shown in the formal kata, so I would never add a nukite, teisho, or ippon ken if they were not in the kata to begin with. Nothing is hidden or left out of kata because it was a secret. The only "secret" is that we may not fully understand what the kata is trying to teach. But there are no secrets. Regards, Giles