Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Structure of Kata: putting two and two together...or not

Final technique of the opening
sequence of Seiunchin kata.
I was thinking about structure the other day--how we put things together. I suppose in some sense structure is how we make sense of our lives, how we connect things. Writers think about structure a lot, I imagine. You have to when you tell a story. You can begin at the beginning, slowly and painstakingly making your way to the end in the order that things occur, or you can meander this way and that way, filling in details, providing explanations, making sure there are no loose ends, but by all appearances a seemingly chaotic or at least random order. Very few stories, in fact, seem to stick to a linear model. Writers are always experimenting with narrative structure. They have to, I suppose,because they already know the end of the story.

There's a sort of narrative structure to Goju-ryu kata as well. The problem is that the structures differ; not all of the katas conform to the same structure, which, of course, is a strong argument to bolster any research that would suggest that the classical subjects of Goju-ryu, though part of a system, were created by different people at different times. If Goju classical kata were created by a single individual at one period in history--as the Pinan kata are said to have been the creation of Itosu--then they would probably conform to similar patterns, like the Pinan katas. But they don't.
Thematic double open
hand technique from
Shisochin kata.

That being said, there seem to be certain rules that each of the Goju kata do conform to. For example, techniques which are shown twice in a kata are shown on both the left and right sides, but the finishing technique of the sequence is only shown once, at the end of the second repetition. Techniques that are shown three times are usually base techniques (as we see at the beginning of Sanseiru) or thematic (as they seem to be in Shisochin) or indicative of the number of bunkai sequences seen in the kata (as in the case of Seisan and Sanseiru). And techniques that are shown four times (as in the elbow/forearm techniques of Seiunchin) should be treated as two pairs of techniques (though Suparinpei seems to be a whole other kettle of fish).

The other element of structure that seems to be followed in all of the Goju classical subjects is that the turns and changes of direction in kata are not arbitrary but instead indicate the direction of attack and how one should step off the line of attack. And certainly there are others.

Yet even when these "rules" are applied, we still see differences in kata structure within the Goju system as a whole. Saifa and Seiunchin begin with actual bunkai sequences--though two of the opening sequences of Seiunchin are incomplete, the finishing technique being shown only after the third sequence, which in itself is a structural difference from Saifa. Shisochin and Sanseiru begin with basic techniques (three open hand techniques in one and three closed hand techniques in the other), not bunkai sequences per se, that share a thematic connection with the rest of their respective katas. Seisan begins with three sets of three basic openings, while Kururunfa sticks its three basic techniques after the openings that are shown on both the right and left sides. And Seipai begins with a complete bunkai sequence, sort of like Saifa, but only shown once.

Furthermore, Saifa has only four complete bunkai sequences, while Seiunchin has five. Shisochin has
Controlling or bridging
technique from
Sanseiru kata.
three--though there is some variation and repetition even then--just as Sanseiru and Seisan, whereas Seipai has five and Kururunfa, four.

The problem is that you need to understand the structure of a kata in order to understand its bunkai and not fall into the kind of piecemeal analysis that so often characterizes what we see on the Internet and frequently leads to questionable interpretations of kata technique. For example, the last technique of Saifa kata--the step, turn, and mawashi--is probably the finishing technique of the previous sequence, which is itself shown on both sides, beginning with the block, sweep, and hammerfist strike, rather than an independent technique or additional bunkai sequence of its own. Why? Because that's the way the "mawashi uke" technique appears to be used in all of the other classical subjects of Goju-ryu. Not proof, of course, that there isn't an exception, but a strong argument perhaps.

But structure can also "hide" bunkai, and often does in Goju kata, particularly when the initial or opening technique (uke) is separated from what should follow it, the controlling/bridging technique and finishing techniques. This is what we see in Sanseiru kata. Or, when the opening techniques themselves get split up--something we see in the four-direction double arm movements of Shisochin
One of the four double
arm opening moves
of Shisochin kata.
kata--effectively "hiding" how the opening techniques and directional changes are employed.

The question, of course, is why the creators of these kata put them together this way. There's no question that it has led to a great deal of confusion. Did they do it to intentionally hide techniques? Or is it just the most efficient and fluid way to execute the techniques? I've tried to reconstruct kata, stringing complete bunkai sequences together, and it often gets awkward or doesn't finish facing the original front direction. Perhaps it was to emphasize that sequences and combinations could be taken apart and put back together in different ways. Or perhaps they were interested in showing an escalating level of violence--that is, the second of a paired sequence shows a much more violent response. For example, in the final sequence of Saifa kata, the first side shows a block, sweep, hammerfist strike, and undercut, but the second side adds a punch, head-twisting neck break (mawashi), and knee kick. So was the intention to hide technique, or was this common structure the most efficacious and time-saving method of preserving technique? These are, of course, questions that are impossible to answer, but the importance of understanding the structure of kata is obvious.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It is what it is...

Opening attack from Seiunchin kata.

I was having an imaginary conversation with my daughter the other day. She isn't actually a little kid anymore, but it was the kind of conversation we used to have fifteen or twenty years ago. You know, the kind of conversations you're never really ready for because you never really imagined yourself as a parent. And who can prepare for that anyway? Or maybe you have the same questions 'cause you never got any better answers than "because it just IS!!"

Or maybe they were just dumb questions, like how come people have eyebrows? Or, why don't animals talk? Or, why does it rain? I was actually wondering about all this because I had just watched a video of Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei demonstrating bunkai from Seiunchin kata. It was on a Facebook page titled: Goju Ryu Karate. It's a short video, about 4 minutes long.
Stepping forward and executing an
arm-bar to bring the attacker's
 head down.

Now I have a lot of respect for Hokama sensei. Back in 1987, I think it was, we were visiting and training in Matayoshi sensei's dojo--going to Okinawa for the first time with my teacher, Kimo Wall sensei, for two months--when Matayoshi sensei invited Hokama sensei, who had studied kobudo with him, to come by the dojo and talk to us. He brought copies of his first book, signed them, and gave them to all of us visiting Americans. Of course, this first edition was in Japanese, but the pictures were wonderful. But, back to the present. In this bunkai video I watched, Hokama sensei was showing what looked like very Aikido-esque techniques. I've seen many teachers concentrate on this sort of bunkai--Kuba Yoshio sensei is another one (here's a video showing other Aikido-like bunkai for Seiunchin: http://youtu.be/KyBXOiucFpk). Kuba sensei does this a lot, but it seems to me a bit of a stretch.

Right hand grabs the head (or top-knot)
and the left comes in to attack and
grab the chin.

And so I wondered why people seemed to be attracted to all of these joint manipulations just to throw the opponent. Is that really Okinawan karate? Doesn't the opponent just get back up and attack again? Is it to find less brutish-looking techniques, less violent alternatives? Is it seen as somehow more exotic and esoteric? Perhaps it appears to be more magical--a slight touch here, a little twist and the opponent is down. If you watch the videos carefully (and a bit critically), you see that the demonstrataed two-person techniques (bunkai?) only partially resemble the moves in kata. Why is that? Why not just come out and say, "Here are some cool moves I found while I was watching stuff from another type of martial art. Hey, if you squint your eyes up, they sort of look like Goju."

Conclusion of the opening sequence
of Seiunchin kata--an elbow attack
to the back of the head, neck, or
The problem for me is that it's not Goju. Why not? Because these teachers have taken individual techniques out of the kata and theorized about their application without seeing them in the larger context of the sequence of moves that forms a single bunkai combination. They have also not stuck to a strict analysis and repetition of the kata technique--in other words, they are not doing the bunkai for this particular kata. So why call it Seiunchin bunkai? I know some people will call this oyo bunkai or something along those lines; that is, when you start with a technique from kata and then you get "creative" or "personal" with it, as one discussion forum put it. Or how about this? And I quote: "Bunkai is the analysis of kata, and oyo is the application." I'm sorry, but when you analyze moves in kata isn't that the same as figuring out how you apply them? Let's face it, oyo is when you haven't got a clue and you're just making it up. Or it's when you find something really cool but it's not really part of your own system, and yet you'd hate to drop it from your repertoire.

Goju is a close-in fighting system with a lot of grabs and such, but Goju quickly bridges the distance and attacks the head or neck. Neck breaks and head twisting are standard fare in Goju. Why? I don't know why; I didn't make this stuff up. But why? Because it just IS!!!!