Kata, Bunkai & Calligraphy
By George Donahue
has often been asked if applications should be practiced
outside karate kata exactly as they are performed
in the kata, or whether they should be modified to
meet variations in the situation. Kata are sequential
performances of prearranged techniques passed on from
teacher to students. For centuries they have been
a central teaching method of karate and they reveal
not only function and application, but spirit and
some say "secrets" as well. Thus, the question
is an important one, since it affects the very heritage
and understanding of karate itself.
Chotoku Omine-sensei (who was the head of Matsubayashi
Ryu in the Americas) once told me that he regarded
kata as the skeletal structure of karate. According
to this generous and great Okinawan teacher (dead
some twenty years now, unfortunately), kata practiced
with strict dedication makes strong karate bones (mental,
more than physical), but bones alone can't do much.
The art comes with how you refine and define the musculature
that surrounds the skeleton and how you strengthen
and refine the mind that moves the muscles that move
the bones that you've made strong. We can regard kata
as the optimal expression of a movement or technique,
but we can also regard kata as the foundation from
which the real expression of karate technique builds
upward and outward and inward. Both points of view
are constructive, but some moves in some of the kata
are executed purposely from less than optimal circumstances.
Another teacher who has made a significant contribution
to my development, Takayoshi Nagamine-sensei (who
has succeeded his father, Shoshin Nagamine, as the
head of Matsubayashi Ryu), told me that every kata
is a riddle and that every visible move hides the
truly important invisible or "hidden" move
or application (called bunkai in Japanese). The kata
that we see is the "me kata" ("me"
is a Japanese word for "eye") that occupies
the eye while the real stuff goes on just below the
level that we can register with our conscious mind.
This teacher's own teacher, Seigi Nakamura, with whom
I studied for a short while, too, had rebuked him
by saying that referring to a move as a "hidden"
move makes it seem as though the moves are secret
and are only given to the favored few, when actually
they are there for everyone to see, if they're willing
to use their eyes in an unfettered manner. Nakamura-sensei
preferred to call the "hidden" moves "intermediary"
moves, because they occur between the obvious-to-the-eye
basic moves, and because they are not exotic or special,
but are just a little harder to catch. The key to
catching them, by the way, is to watch the koshi (pelvic
carriage) and hikite (pulling hand) carefully to penetrate
the sleight of hand.
Yet another teacher, Katsuhiko Shinzato*, who has
graciously served as a personal mentor, uses the well-known
analogy of comparing kata to calligraphy, the art
of writing kanji characters.
first definable level on the continuum of kata performance
is kaisho, or character printing in a somewhat stiff
block style. Beginners do their kata this way, but
so do advanced students when they're teaching beginners
or adhering to a standard of the ryu during group
performances. Movements are angular, thick, and well
defined. "Hidden" moves are hidden away
for some other time or, in the case of beginners or
the lazy, not yet discovered.
next discrete level of performance is gyosho, or semicursive
writing that is not as stiff and more flowing. This
is cursive writing like it's done by school kids.
The individual letters (movements) are joined together
with big loops and roundish patterns. The words are
still very easy to read, but there is now room for
the intermediary techniques, too. Individuality comes
into play. Good black belts and exceptional brown
belts perform their kata in this manner.
highest discrete or definable level of performance
is sosho (grass writing), or cursive writing which
is free flowing and that allows freedom of physical
and aesthetic expression. This is cursive writing
as done by strong, mature individuals. You can make
out the words still, but the words are accompanied
by the poetry of the movement of the letters. The
words should flow like ripples in the prairie grass
on a windy day. The grass talks at these times, and
so kata tells a story independent of and in addition
to its components when done this way. Corners are
cut, strokes may be dropped, but the flow is powerful.
This is the level of performance of one who is truly
a master of the kata. You might not perform all kata
at this level, but usually mastery of any kata to
this level means mastery of all kata to this level.
Of course, there's always scribbling, and I've seen
and done a lot of scribbled kata in my time.
Ultimately, we should be able to give birth to our
techniques like a tree sways when the wind blows.
Or when you scratch an itch -- no thought.
* Shinzato-sensei subsequently wrote an article on
this subject, which has appeared in a Japanese martial
arts magazine and an adaptation of which is included
in the "Big Blue" book of Shohei Ryu.]
About The Author:
George Donahue is Executive Editor of Tuttle Publishing
in Boston. and the Editor of Tuttle Martial Arts.
A 6th dan Shorin Ryu Karatedo student of Kishaba Chokei
and Shinzato Katsuhiko, he is the director of both
Kishaba Juku of New York City at the Ken Zen Institute
of Japanese Culture & Martial Arts and the Ryukyu
Kichigaikan of Medford, Mass. He is also a member
of FightingArts.com's Advisory Board and a contributor
to the website.
Note: This article was edited by Wendy Hiester Gilbert
(FightingArts Copy Editor), developed from material
supplied by George Donahue that originally appeared
as his answer to questions on the subject of kata
that appeared on the Karate Cyber Dojo in May of 1997.
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