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Martial Arts: Kata and Applications


Thoughts On Karate Kata And Their Applications

By Victor Smith

There was a time when I was a beginner karate was simple, it was whatever my instructors taught me it was. My instructors taught me the same way they were trained on Okinawa.

My early years studying Isshinryu there were no application studies for kata technique. Kata was practiced hard and exact, but not applied. The focus of our karate was in kumite, and the two studies together were good, very good. However in a few short years I was on my own, my study was in my hands.

I began to see articles in the magazines on kata applications, or 'Bunkai' and observed how the Okinawa instructors demonstrated how kata technique could be applied. This was not just not part of my training, in almost all of the various schools I visited it was not part of their training either.

It was very hard to know what Bunkai actually was because I didn't train with the schools using it.

Then I started studying Yang Tai Chi Chaun with Ernest Rothrock, because I had long been interested in tai chi. But as I also was competing and judging in open karate tournaments I began a study of forms from various Northern Chinese systems Rothrock Laoshi had studied to become more knowledgeable. These studies continued for years, but as it was only to gain understanding of Chinese systems to judge more accurately, I never pursued the deeper studies.

Ernest did start to guide my martial thinking, he'd pose open ended questions about what something was used for, or why karate techniques were done certain ways and I began to formulate my own understanding how technique study could be done.

At almost the same time I had started competing against Tristan Sutrisno and eventually visited his school and began training in his family practice of Shotokan, Siliat Tjimande, Aikido and Kobudo. Outside of his explosive technique execution, his incredible flow control of his technique and opponents I finally came head to head with bunkai, as he shared his family bunkai studies to his studies.

Tristan's father had studied Shotokan and Aikido in Japan, he had studied the Indonesian arts with his family, and I would suggest these arts became intertwined over the years. He would patiently teach 'bunkai' but in a very different way from how others approached the term.

The public explanation of bunkai was that a movement had a use (or multiple uses) when it was applied to an attack.

Bunkai from the Sutrisno perspective was very different, in large part it captures an idea expressed by Demura Fumio in the 70's of Kakushite (or hidden hand) from his Shito ryu background. Demura demonstrated kakushite as an extra technique or two inserted into a kata movement. Thus a surprise for anyone thinking your defense was studying the kata.

In the case of Sutrisno bunkai this similar but very different. I can only express it as I observed a small part of his system over the years. Essentially each kata had many starting movement points (for the study of his bunkai kata became a menomenic device) and a different string of techniques (applications) came from each point. Essentially the bunkai had little to do with the kata, relegating kata to a very important role, that of movement education.

The Sutrisno bunkai then compounded that for each of the five levels of black belt, there was an entirely different bunkai for the kata, leaving I have no idea how many techniques. These were supported by other training devices, such as incredibly long two person drills using kata technique in a dynamic manner. Nor was it just in his Shotokan study but also in his Siliat Tjimande. Each of his main arts is separate, yet they each intertwined the same time. I've also kept from adding the skills imparted from his koboudo teachings, forms, application studies and two person drills. Yet another inter-related discipline.

Then all you have to add is Sutrisno Sensei's unreal explosive movement to great technique and you have a lifetime of study.

The study with Rothrock Laoshi and Sutrisno Sensei were inter-twined over those years. In time I came to understand the depth of the the Ying Jow Pai (Eagle Claw) studies Ernest was concentrating in and in a very different dimension the same patterns emerged. Eagle Claw Form studies, very intense complex two person drills, the intertwining of empty hand and weapons, especially leading to how to use the art to set up the opponent for the locking finish.

Both arts. that of Rothrock Laosh and Sutrisno Sensei, touching everything, pressure points, their use in grabbing, in striking, in making an opponent throw themselves away after attacking.

The entire experience helped me frame how I would study my art as I developed my opening structural rules from the pain, the experiences and through observation and sharing.

First if somebody has it they work it. If they have thousands of application studies your training with them will involved thousands of application studies. You won't spend time trying to figure out how to use something, you'll be shown and instead spend your time building skill and then move on to the next step, how to find the strategy and tactics to make those skills of use.

Second a technique application study can be broken into steps that most time follow a specific order. I state them this way:

1. You open into an attack by moving with a block/parry/strike.
2. This is followed by a grab/break/strike.
3. This is followed by a projection, throw, leveraged downing of the opponent.
4. When tactically opportune this can be followed with a control.

It is just a general rule, not meant to be totally inclusive, but a tool to apply kata study against, as I was to define my own kata study.

This was my opening study, with much more to follow later.

I never mastered any of their arts, but I have continued to follow their path on what I studied for decades now, and perhaps I have some understanding of a piece or two.

But the journey will continue.....

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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 30 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 an Associate Editor of and has contributed many articles to this web site. Professionally he is a business analyst, but also enjoys writing fiction for the Destroyer Universe.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

bunkai, kata applications, meaning of forms, forms, kata, Ernest Rothrock, Tristan Sutrisno

Read more articles by Victor Smith

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