The kata Gankaku is derived from an Okinawan form called Chinto. "Gan" means rock and "kaku" means crane or stork, so a common translation of the kata name is "crane on a rock". The name seems to be an artistic reference to the one-legged stance with manji-gamae used extensively in the kata. The original name of the kata, Chinto, means "Fighting to the East", but is commonly interpreted as the name of a Chinese sailor who taught the fighting techniques to Matsumura Sokon in the 1800s. Another version of the story has Chinto fighting Matsumura Kosaku, a master of Tomari-te who also lived in the 1800s. This is a bit confusing since both Matsumuras were masters of Okinawa-te during the 1800s and could have introduced the techniques into karate. The true history of the kata is unknown, but Gankaku does have many unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere in Shotokan kata.
Gankaku is performed on a straight line enbusen, moving only forward and back. The kata often uses both hands together as in juji uke, morote uke, manji-gamae, and the "hammer and anvil" kamae found before all the side snap kicks. These movements require a good understanding of body connection between the limbs and torso to make power. Balance is also a key lesson from Gankaku, with several large scale spinning techniques and many instances of sagi-ashi dachi. To maintain balance and posture throughout, it is essential to keep the pelvis tucked in and the shoulders relaxed. To maintain connection through the large scale expansions and spins found in Gankaku, it is also important to keep the elbows near the body. The kata is considered a Shorin style form with light and quick movements, and the feeling of the kata often suits a tall, slender built person.
The kihon bunkai of Gankaku should emphasize the technical points mentioned above. Strength, posture, and balance must be maintained throughout each step. These skills are tested by trying the spinning movements against karate attacks. If the movement is disconnected or slow in the middle, the power will never be generated to defend against your partner. Movements such as the spinning gedan-barai, the spinning manji-uke, the various sagi-ashi dachi movements, and the spinning movement into the hammer and anvil position near the end can be tested with a partner or a striking shield to gain a strong feeling.
In self defense application, I believe there are many opportunities in Gankaku to interpret movements as knee strikes. I find it unlikely that anyone would voluntarily face a dangerous foe by standing on one leg in wait for the attack. Instead, I believe the arms in manji-gamae can be used to open the opponent's guard while the raised leg strikes the opponent's groin or thigh with the knee. The spinning gedan barai near the beginning of the kata also includes a knee raise which could be used as a knee strike followed by a throw. The final spin into hammer and anvil position is different from the previous one-legged stances, and rather than using manji-gamae to open the opponents guard, the preceding movements would suggest that we are already entangled with the opponent, and the spin signifies a strong knee strike to the inner thigh.
Another self-defense theme of the kata is the use of chudan morote uke with a half turn or tai-sabaki style rotation. This happens with open hands just before the spinning manji-uke sequence, then it happens again with closed hands just after the manji-uke sequence, then a third time in kosa dachi just before the first sagi-ashi dachi movement. These three movements show different hand positions, different stances, and different variations on the half-turn, but I feel they are closely related. One interpretation could be to slide inside an incoming punch, guiding it with one hand of the morote uke, while the other hand simultaneously attacks the opponent's neck. This application has the feeling of blending with an attack and counter-attacking with sen-no-sen timing to surprise the opponent.
The theme of blending with the opponents attack can be found elsewhere in the kata as well. The spinning manji-uke could start with the left hand high to counter a right handed swinging punch, right hand neutralizing the opponent's left hand, then immediately closing distance, grabbing the neck, and dragging the opponent down with the spinning manji-uke followed by a finishing blow. Then there is the very first movement of kata which could counter a double handed grab to the chest or throat. Before the grab is complete, match speed with the attack as you guide the attack slightly up, then both arms down to unbalance the opponent and follow with several quick strikes. Riding out the distance of an attack requires an opponent who is tall enough to do so and has a good understanding of maai.
These self-defense interpretations of kata sequences may be related by a tactical theme, but they often diverge after the initial movement to show variations on that theme. Depending on our opponent and our circumstances, the principles of the kata must adapt to common situations. The four sagi-ashi/manji-uke movements are followed twice by oi-zuki and twice by gyaku zuki, suggesting that the distance may change depending on how the opponent reacts to the keage/uraken movement. However, the principle of a quick follow up attack can be used whether the opponent stays close or falls back. Likewise, the three morote uke movements are all followed by raising the body center and sweeping across the body. The first two use a double gedan barai to potentially lock the arm or grasp the head of the opponent, but the third follows with manji-kamae and sagi-ashi dachi. This variation is executed in the opposite direction from the other two, which could suggest that different targets are being exposed by manji-uke and struck with hiza-geri. My main hypothesis is that for any kata, we will see repeated elements to emphasize an important opening strategy and show variations to the follow up movements.
If Gankaku were to be distilled into a single fighting strategy, I would consider the unique elements of the kata which include spinning, sagi-ashi dachi, and tai-sabaki style shifting. As noted in the self-defense bunkai ideas above, I believe these elements lead to tactics that involve blending with the attack (i.e. spinning), closing distance (i.e. tai-sabaki), and using the legs in combination with the arms (i.e. sagi-ashi dachi, mae-geri, yoko-geri-keage). The strategy of Gankaku seems to include these three items:
1) Use the opponent's attack as an opportunity to launch your own counterattack with sen-no-sen feeling.
2) Close the distance to your opponent immediately to gain leverage
3) Use both the upper and lower body to expose and exploit the opponent's weak areas
Gankaku has two other sibling kata within Japanese and Okinawan Karate that appear to be based on the same underlying tactics and strategies. The three versions of Gankaku/Chinto use a vertical, diagonal, and horizontal enbusen, but all use a straight line enbusen. The vertical enbusen in Shotokan comes from the lineage of Matsumura Sokon and Itosu Yasutsune of Shuri-te, the horizontal enbusen comes from the lineage of Matsumura Kosaku of Tomari-te, and the diagonal enbusen comes from the lineage of Kyan Chotoku of Shorin-ryu, who learned from both Matsumura Sokon and Matsumura Kosaku. In any case, the linear enbusen maintains the spinning movements and tai-sabaki movements that correspond to the kata strategies of blending with the attack using sen-no-sen feeling and closing distance as the opponent attacks. The variations of the kata also maintain a multitude of kicking techniques and knee raises, which reinforce the strategy of using the lower body in conjunction with the upper body to break the opponent down.
Gankaku is clearly a unique kata in Shotokan with a rich history and a depth of self-defense information to extract. The kata is challenging in its raw technical performance due to the spinning and balancing maneuvers, and it also contains a number of fighting tactics that cannot be found elsewhere in Shotokan. I believe the ultimate level of study in kata analysis is to link these fighting tactics into an overall fight strategy, and bridge the gap between performance of techniques and achieving the proper mindset in a live fight. I have presented several broad strategies that I believe are taught in the movements of Gankaku, but to bring the kata to life these strategies must be applied freely and without restriction.
Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan