Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Picture this...

Fitzgerald Lake
I was off crunching through the ice and snow the other day. The trees were sleeping, I think, waiting out the winter. The lake was frozen. A mist drifted over the surface. The cat tails, thick along the bank, were waiting for the wind to come and catch the seeds up and drop them some place further down the shore. I took a picture of it because it was so atmospheric, so filled with a sense of expectation. Or was it mystery? Sometimes pictures seem to be less a record of fact, recording an objective reality, and more like an invitation for speculation and interpretation.

I was thinking about that--recollection in tranquility, as  Wordsworth says, over lunch a little later in the day--when I came across an Internet post on Kururunfa. The writer was adamant--I'm sure as convinced of his own rectitude as I must seem to
The "hands up" posture
from Kururunfa kata.
some people--about his interpretation of what he called the "hands up" move in Kururunfa. It's the technique that after the position that always reminds me of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man--feet out, legs straight, arms held out to the side at shoulder's height. It doesn't really matter what his bunkai or interpretation was (I'm not a fan of the traditional view that it's an escape from a full nelson, which is all he was suggesting), what I find interesting is how he arrived at it.

He based his interpretation on three points, and I'm quoting:

1. "Obviously the technique begins with the hands up movement."

2. "Obviously the opponent is in front of us...we do not volunteer to be kicked in the [groin]."

3. "The hand movement is symmetrical...which means...the opponent is not coming from one side [and] the attack is two handed, symmetrical as well."

The more likely
beginning of the sequence.
The problem, of course, is that if the first point is not correct--"obviously" or not, it's an assumption--then none of the other points really matter. And, of course, I would adamantly argue that the first point is not correct. I would argue that the technique begins somewhat earlier, after the last finish technique, and the finishing technique of the previous sequence is the mawashi in cat stance or neko ashi dachi. Why? The short answer is because the mawashi in cat stance is always a finishing neck break in the lower classical subjects.

The real problem is how we so often approach the interpretation of kata movement; that is, as if it's a still photograph in some instructional manual, as if the movements are disconnected, having nothing to do with what comes
before or after any particular move, as if it's frozen in time, like a lake in winter, conjuring up all sorts of fantastic ideas. Karate is a movement art; it's dynamic. The classical kata of Goju-ryu (Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Kururunfa) are all composed of bunkai sequences. The sequences may be interrupted, depending on the structure of an individual kata, but they are all composed of initial entry techniques (uke), bridging or controlling techniques, and finishing techniques that generally end the confrontation either with a lethal attack to the head or neck of the opponent or put them on the ground.

The end of the sequence.
The first step should always be to identify the entry and finishing techniques. The next step is to make sure it is realistic and that ultimately the techniques would end the confrontation. And lastly, any interpretation (bunkai) should be faithful to and preserve the movements of the kata. In this "hands up" technique from Kururunfa then, with all of that in mind, it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with a bunkai that replicates the movements of kata, keeps it realistic (that is, doesn't allow the attacker a second attack), and puts the attacker on the ground.

After all, still pictures don't tell the whole story.


  1. Ryan Payne8:02 AM

    Makes me think of another point you made a while back – still pictures don’t tell the whole story, but neither does the tempo of the kata. I learned Kururunfa by doing this particular section slowly. Very dramatic, reaching the arms out and up, before dropping quickly into shiko-dachi. I think the quick drop is important, but was there really any reason to do the rest of it slow? Like you’re struggling against a Full Nelson or maybe just for contrast/emphasis? Puzzling sections like this are probably why so many people think kata is about artistic expression, like a gymnast’s floor routine.

  2. Hi Ryan, Thanks for reading my humble blog.
    Yes, the variations in tempo we see in various moves in kata are also interesting. Off hand, I can think of two explanations: One, that as you say the performance or drama crept in and superseded the actual bunkai and the speed at which the technique would really be executed; and two, sometimes movements in kata are slower (at least slower than the speed of punches, for example) because we are working with the inertia of manipulating the attacker's body. In any case, though, we should try to eliminate the artificially punctuated movement we so often see in kata performance, in my opinion. The techniques within any given sequence may vary in speed, but they should flow.