February 25, 2013

Kata Bunkai

There exists a very wide variety of opinions regarding kata application, or bunkai.  A quick search on YouTube for applications of any particular kata may reveal any number of different types of results.  There is what I would consider a continuum of approach to bunkai.  At one end of the spectrum, there are applications that examine basic direction of movement and power generation in karate situations.  At the other end of the spectrum, through kata study we examine self-defense and fighting strategy.  If we never evolve beyond the initial stage, we are missing out on the most valuable information that has been encoded in kata for us to study.  

We must start our study of kata somewhere, and the beginning of that study will involve learning the proper path of movements and the correct direction to generate power in those movements.  Applications at this point in our training may be performed against a stationary target (such as an extended arm) or against a karate attack such as oi-zuki.  These kinds of application can help us to recognize the range of motion needed and the methods of power generation for a particular technique.  This may also assist with imagining opponents during kata practice by helping us to visualize an attack that we are somewhat familiar with from training.  However, this type of kata application is very limited in its usefulness, and minimal time should be spent in this phase.  I would argue that for advanced karateka, as we learn our kata this step should be skipped entirely since we are familiar with the basic motion and principles of movements we see in kata.

Our goal in the study of bunkai is to gain our understanding and spend our time studying application at the other end of this continuum.  Looking at applications in the context of self-defense and fighting strategy is where we can learn the most from the kata.  It is looking at a kata from this approach where we can understand the philosophy of “five years, one kata.”  Taking this approach, there is virtually no limit to how much information we can extract from a single kata.  At this level, we examine applications to kata from a self-defense perspective.  We are no longer looking at karate attacks from oi-zuki distance.  We look at more realistic self-defense scenarios with attacks from a very short range.  For example, the first movement in Heian Shodan may be defending against a lapel grab and hook punch from the front.  We study how turning to the left in the first movement will put us in a more advantageous position with respect to our opponent and can move them to our left.  We then look at how the opponent is likely to react from that scenario.  Their natural movement from what we have done to them in the first movement will then put them in a position where they will be in distance for oi-zuki.  In our study, we start each bunkai sequence from a natural position (shizen-tai) rather than from the previous movement since this is a more realistic scenario from which we will need to defend ourselves.  The application ends when we have neutralized the opponent and have gotten ourselves into an advantageous position. 

We start with study of bunkai by following exactly with the movements of the kata.   As each kata is studied, patterns will tend to emerge and we can see a greater strategy for fighting inherent in each kata.  During this type of study, we ask ourselves many questions about the specific movements in kata, such as: why are we moving in this direction, why is this stance important, and what is important about the path of the entire movement?  Then as we progress, we allow for some variations in the movements which are consistent with that fighting strategy for the kata.  In the earlier example from Heian Shodan, for example, if the opponent stays in place instead of moving, we adjust and can make gyaku-zuki instead of oi-zuki as the kata states.    So examples of variations may be to adjust a technique to the distance of our opponent, a rotation may become a smaller change of direction, or we may perform movements off the opposite side or in a different sequence.  We may choose to look at the pattern of foot movement – for example, stepping directly to the left into zenkutsu-dachi in the first movement of Heian Shodan.  In this situation, we can adjust the specific blocks and strikes from the kata to adapt to different situations.  Our study develops beyond just application of the movement, but to derivations and adaptations of the movements based on principles and a strategic theme found in that kata.  Taking this approach will unveil a wealth of information in any kata.    

Kata application, like self-defense in general, must become a very personal kind of exploration.  We need to find what works for us and what we would be comfortable using.  I believe that there are many applications for every single movement in kata, and each student needs to explore for themselves to see what they can extract and learn from the movements.  An instructor can give us ideas and help us to improve upon our thoughts, but no one thing will work for every person in every situation.  We must examine the kata for ourselves and must practice these movements for them to become natural.  We must try out our applications against an opponent to see if and how they work and to help us understand how an opponent will react when our movements are applied.  And this must become a regular part of our training if we wish for these movements to become natural and fluid reactions should we ever need to use them.    

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan