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Reflections On The Shape Of Kata

By Victor Smith

Nothing brings up more discussion, dissension, divisiveness or directed comments in articles, internet chat rooms or discussion groups than kata and their interpretation.

That arts have torn themselves apart over the right interpretation of kata can be shown so many different times that it becomes numbing.

Everybody has their own secret right answer. And very little of it is based on more than students’ direct experiences, their instructors’ teachings and/or faith in shared myth (alas, which rarely can be proved), all of which make it their own personal reality. And the differences can be considerable. In no small part, for example, it was differences over interpretation of kata after the death of Gichen Funakoshi (the man who many consider the father of Japanese karate and founder of Shotokan karate) that led to the split of Shotokai (started by former Shotokan students) from the Shotokan.

I have stopped thinking about which interpretation of kata is the right one, or what the original version was. Instead I see the differences in kata as variations in the shape that each of the kata’s versions have retained.

What exactly do I mean by shape? If you are standing in a bar and a patron suddenly attacks you with an overhead bottle attack to your head, the attack itself is a shaped movement. Your defense is another shaped movement that fits the shape of the attack.

Shape within kata is the living interpretation of the movement and technique of the kata, something put in context by the instructor’s own understanding, training and experience. Thus, kata becomes much more than theoretical applications or responses strung together. It is a living embodiment, the guided living expression of an instructor impressed into his students until they become the student’s own responses and movement.

When we read of Gichen Funakoshi and how he studied kata, he tells us that he would practice a kata as shown to him over and over again until he finally got the movements right. In short his instructor impressed his shape into Funakoshi.

It is the teacher’s way of doing a technique or movement, something outlined in the kata but interpreted in terms of movement, rhythm, timing, flow, etc. – the living impression of the instructor’s art. This is shape.

This was the original way kata was taught; it was transmitted by the personal shape of instructors. And of course, the shape itself was not static. Instructor’s shapes change, are refined and evolve. Thus, different students at different times learn different shapes. In this way kata has been passed down to us in living form.

I think it’s a fair statement that an art which doesn't teach the traditional kata – those kata that originally came from Okinawa -- isn't doing traditional karate, or at least Okinawan karate. Remember, so many of the early Okinawan masters said that kata was the soul of their art.
This doesn't demean other styles or types of karate (which no longer teach or practice Okinawan kata), it’s just that they have moved into a different 'shape' of training. They may be effective fighters perhaps, but they are also something different, with their own limitations. Some would say they are cut off from their roots.

Okinawan kata brings us into the truth of our elders. Karate wasn't documented until fairly recently, except through direct personal transmission. True, in the 1920’s and later a number of Okinawan karate teachers in Japan wrote books on karate. Others followed. But, initially the first books were a sort of “show and tell” for the Japanese audience – a new shape for the Japanese context. But what was shown in book form was also static, sequences of movement without life or in depth interpretation -- only a thin slice of karate as a system.

In contrast, the real history in karate and its kata has always been a very personal one. Instructors have pressed their shape on the student who in turn pressed their shape on the next generation. This is a form of documentation which is very powerful and personal. You can only see the echoes of the past by the design you have inherited. But the past is gone, and it should not be the focus of training.

This shape can’t be transmitted in pictures, movies, drawings or words. Kata is a far vaster personal experience. It is shaped over time and through countless repetition punctuated by the instructor’s words, touch, and push, as well as the student’s awareness, work and capability. It is molded over time.

In its purest form kata and its shape is a live art, something alive in each practitioner. This is why the shape is plastic and moves. The shape retains many different paths in different eras, through many different people. Pick the lineage -- it’s a very rare exception that the shape became totally rigid.

Your kata, your inheritance is something that your instructor pressed into you. And within you it is alive. And it remains alive as long as you step on the floor and flow with it.

The manner in which it was used or passed on to others is also fluid. Some teachers taught their shapes along with the applications within them. Other teachers only taught the shapes. And today, with so many teachers and so many styles, we find more and more variations, changes as well as interpretations. But, it is still the shape that holds the secrets.

One person’s shape may be striking and kicking; another sees additional technique inserted into the same movement; and still another understands the shape to be a parry followed by a lock on an attacker’s arm or other body part and then a throw, trip, dump or sweep. In short, people see very different things in the shape (kata) they practice, and the shape they teach conforms to their individual vision.

The truth of your shapes is that as you pass into decades of practice, their truth becomes more evident through your own experience. You will see more in the kata you practice. You discover more applications and you revise what you thought you knew before.

In short, the shape of the kata you are practicing may evolve externally to match your internal evolution of understanding. And if it is traditional Okinawan kata you’re practicing, the kata themselves are based on a historical tradition and record inherited from teachers in the past.

In still a wider context, if many of the traditional Okinawan kata were inherited from Chinese roots, have you considered what China’s roots really are? Those from the Shaolin Temple (the legendary Chinese temple from which many kung fu systems trace their roots), for example, are very complex and so vast that only a few individuals ever master more than a small portion of them. That doesn't make them better or worse, just incredibly different.

And we all have our secrets.

Applications used actually to drop somebody (knock them out), ranges of technique, immobilizations, gripping, locking or jujutsu type techniques, off-balancing, throwing, tripping, sweeping and/or dumping, striking, gripping or pressing vital points of the body are many of our shape’s secrets. But where are these found?

Well, some of the definitions of shapes (interpretations) may account for the various versions of the well known traditional Okinawan kata. Different teachers had their own understandings and interpretations, thus their own shapes. But, where are the secrets found? Are they contained within the angles of movements, or in body motion, or within the full movement of techniques, or are there hidden moves? Just as plausible, could they be hidden within unseen extensions of existing moves, or in the intermediate movements within the kata? The answer is, all of the above, depending on your teacher’s shape. That’s why shape is so important. The shape has the understanding. It shows the way.

I have trained with instructors who practice kata applications in such a manner that there is no way you could intuit their practice from observation or logical analysis of the technique. There are also instructors who won't teach most of their art beyond a public version of same. And the 'secrets' are reserved only for their children.

There is no plumbing the entire range of shapes’ depth.

The fact is that kata are incredibly documented through human experience in the oldest of any tradition. That you do your kata alone with the shape your instructor pressed into you, be the shape rigid or plastic, changing or unchanging, is your inheritance.

It’s your secret too. And although no one has seen the text (the original explanations or applications), you only have to look into the mirror for all the answers. Your own shapes are a living “Rosetta Stone,” an embodiment of knowledge you already posses, something your mind can unlock from the trained responses you already know.


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About the Author:

Victor Smith is a respected teacher of Isshinryu karate (6th degree black belt) and tai chi chuan with over 26 years of training in Japanese, Korean and Chinese martial arts. His training also includes aikido, kobudo, tae kwon do, tang so do moo duk kwan, goju ryu, uechi ryu, sutrisno shotokan, tjimande, goshin jutsu, shorin ryu honda katsu, sil lum (northern Shaolin), tai tong long (northern mantis), pai lum (white dragon), and ying jow pai (eagle claw). Over the last few years he has begun writing on, researching and documenting his studies and experiences. He is the founder of the martial arts website FunkyDragon.com/bushi and is Associate Editor of FightingArts.com. Professionally he is a business analyst, but also enjoys writing ficton for the Destroyer Universe.


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Karate, karate-do, kata, applications, bunkai


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