Evolution of Karate Kata and Bunkai


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"Release the grip by striking here, weaken your opponent's balance with a leg trap then apply your response to subdue him appropriately. "

It could be a half dozen movements with blending, turning and fluidity. Part of the sequence might include an outside to inside movement of the arm co-ordinated with rooting of the feet and a vibration of energy from the ground up through the hips, waist and spine. To perform the arm lock you need to disrupt his internal posture with a vital point strike using the other hand and finally you execute the throw or tie-up and if necessary strike to further vital points to disable your attacker.

It's a possible kata sequence. But try teaching that to sixty people in one go. You don't have time to show them the subtleties; besides, the training methods to learn the technique are quaint and old fashioned (sparring's better than push hands and more suited to physical education).

The sequence has to be broken down and movements are made bigger so the people at the back of the dojo can see. Over time it becomes step forward in front stance with a “preparation move", inner block, reverse punch. Ichi ni san. Stand in line and we can all drill it together. Let's do it faster and with more power because you need to get fit. And it's good for your spirit, it's the Budo way.

The soft flowing kata changes because the basic techniques have been broken down too far into start-stop jerky movements with too much strength and tension. The kata loses its essence. A whole bunch of new techniques called kicks, blocks and punches are created out of the modified form. They are vaguely similar to some of the original movements, but somehow they are not right. The old school teachers wouldn't recognise them.

The applications become strong blocks and counters to big, long range attacks. We could have a competition to see who's the strongest. It will encourage the students to work harder and make the dojo look good.

Years later open minded people ask awkward questions. They know the explanation of the technique doesn't work on the streets so they come up with alternative meanings that fit their own cultural needs of the day. They have experience of different self defense requirements and are well-educated thanks to the wider availability of information. They come up with better applications that work against more realistic attacks they might have faced in the local bar.

The new ways of interpreting movements are reverse engineered into the kata to help make sense of it all.

After some time their bunkai and applications become more refined and they start to rediscover the original inner teachings of the form. They learn that some teachers didn't modify the techniques so the essence of the form remained intact. They are able to go out and find the missing links. The kata comes alive. They discover internal training methods required to learn the principles within the form.

Now the bunkai changes as the kata becomes softer, more fluid. The block-punch combination becomes "Release the grip by striking here, weaken your opponent's balance with a leg trap then apply your response to subdue him appropriately. "

It's called progress don't ya know!

Stephen Irwin
The ezine for karate and personal development
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