Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Kata Escapology - Another Curse of Bunkai

Wrist grabs, lapel grips, locks and holds make up a large portion of isolated 'attacks' used in modern reactive kata bunkai. The attacker usually (and generously!) performs the grip or hold and waits patiently for the defender to perform the application. As with oi-tsuki (discussed in the previous post) this type of practise ends up causing more problems than it solves.

Many of the elaborate applications used to respond to grabs and holds are actually dependent on the attacker being fairly lifeless. The photo above being an example, why doesn't the attacker grabbing Choki Motobu's wrist simply pull him to the ground or let go and hit him in the back of the head while Motobu is turned away? What is he waiting for?

A strong active grip to the wrist or lapel (or anywhere else) is not an end in itself and is done in order achieve things like greater impact when hitting, throwing techniques, securing locks and holds etc. So does it make sense to have kata applications to respond to these grips? training to focus responses on a wrist grab or lapel grip can end up having devastating consequences from what quickly follows next!

Escaping from locks and holds is a very difficult skill to acquire, it is hard won through countless hours of grappling requiring not only knowledge of the escape manoeuvres but also an intimate knowledge of the holds and locks themselves.  A prerequisite for a good lock or hold is breaking the opponents posture and balance, many of the escapes taught as bunkai for various kata begin with the defenders posture and balance intact and lack the most important part of the escape, recovering posture and balance!!! 

Given the vast number of possibilities and variations that occur in grappling and the experience needed to be effective in escaping grips, locks and holds it seems counter intuitive to try to isolate a few techniques here and there and catalogue them in a kata. What if you have the escape from an armbar but not from the choke that follows it? the list of 'what ifs' goes on and on ad nauseam and quickly reveals that it is beyond the scope of any kata. To effectively prepare to deal with a grappler and grappling techniques grapple!

The aim of this post is to call into question that the antique forms (kata inherited from China) originally contained reactive grappling techniques and that the common isolated attacks used in modern kata bunkai such as wrist grabs, lapel grips, locks and holds are a poor representation lacking in vitality and far removed from reality. 

If the intention was to record responses to grips and holds etc it should in some way give meaning to and reveal the structure and sequence of a kata, otherwise the form is just another seemingly random series of techniques strung together for no apparent reason. What would be the benefit of this as a practise? and what value would the solo exercise hold for the practitioner? can solo kata movements ever honestly represent reactive grappling?

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Oi-Tsuki the Curse of Bunkai

Oi-tsuki (forward stepping punch) is one of the main kihon (basics) taught and practised in modern Karate, it has also become a staple movement used as a catalyst for explaining many kata techniques. Not only does the constant use of Oi-tsuki as a driving mechanism for bunkai create a narrow perspective on the function of kata it keeps the applications isolated as a primarily reactive affair in a working distance more akin to an armed exchange than an empty handed one.

The antique forms arrived from China via many different sources often without applications and without the original functions intact. The Okinawan pioneers drawing on professional and personal experience developed their own interpretation of the kata, one idea or assumption about the forms that took hold was that they were all for self defence. This had a huge impact on the early development of Karate and standardisation of basic techniques common to most styles.

Reactive punch/block-counter Karate became the standard practise with the attacker always losing the exchange. This basic theme is still common today but with generally more sophisticated techniques and ways of dispatching of an aggressor. In order for the blocking techniques to be successful the stepping punch became a neccesity as without knowledge of the attack and distance/time to react blocking in an organised manner becomes near impossible.

The opening distance required to deliver Oi-tsuki resembles more the standard distance used in kendo/jutsu (this may be no accident), again this is often crucial for many kata techniques to 'work' in a self defence scenario. Starting in close proximity without knowledge of what the attack will be creates a whole list of problems for applying kata techniques as reactive self defence and calls into question this assumption placed on the antique forms.

After delivery of Oi-tsuki it is also standard practise for the attacker to become frozen in time and wait for the counter or 'application' to be performed. Regardless of aggression, speed and power this type of practise is still far removed from the chaos of a real physical exchange and does not develop or guarantee a techniques effectiveness against a violent resisting opponent.

Oi-tsuki is just one of a cluster of standard attacks used for explaining kata techniques, by removing the assumption that all kata are reactive self defence techniques and the contrived attacks used to demonstrate and practise them it is possible to cast a new light on the movements and find a myriad of functions in the various forms. Using the techniques in a preemptive/pro-active manner and 'going first' opens up a new world of practical application and eliminates the problems that arise in attempting to react spontaneously with kata techniques learnt in a safe organised environment.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Kata - Don't Peel The Onion!

One of the most common ideas attached to modern kata interpretation is the idea that a kata has many layers of application and each movement many possible meanings. If this is the case it raises the question, how are solo forms to be correctly practised and performed?

If solo kata training is to have real value and benefit it should reflect the intention and physicality expressed in the applied function. This is not possible when a technique becomes an abstract movement that can be 'used' as many different things such as a strike, block, lock, throw etc. For example striking and locking are very different skills requiring the body to work in very different ways, if a practitioner has several striking applications and several locks for a single technique in a kata how can the solo movement genuinely express them all? Would it be a reasonable idea for a professional boxer to try to use their punching repertoire as a basis for a series of locking techniques and then try to express both simultaneously in their solo training? would there be any real benefit to this?

Another way of exploring the validity of the multi-purpose interpretation approach is to try to create a kata that contains many applications for each movement. How are strikes, locks, chokes, throws etc to be combined into movements that have honest expression in a solo kata? It is impractical and simply unnecessary to force fit different types of techniques into a few movements, the final product becomes a separate thing in itself with little value in practical training.

The antique forms each have an underlying function which is the relationship between the techniques and reason for synthesising them in a kata in the first place. Each technique has a single applied function, as the practitioner accumulates experience in the actual application, the intention and physical expression in the solo form develop an honesty that gives value to the practise of kata. The solo form should be a direct expression of the function and as close as a practitioner can get in execution to their actual experience.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Sanchin - Chinese Sai Drill

The video above is a clip taken from a demonstration in 2006 at the Seni show in Birmingham showing Sanchin kata as it is currently practised in modern Karate (Preserved in Uechi Ryu) and the restored antique form performed with a pair of sai.

The research within Kodoryu looks into the original function of the form as utilised in China before its migration and re-invention in Okinawa. The demonstration is not simply an empty hand kata performed with sai, it shows a sai drill that later became an empty hand kata.

The Sanchin drill is an ingenious exercise that develops a full range of skills required to manipulate the sai for use as a civil arrest tool. Every nuance of the form is significant and lays the foundation for developing further skills and techniques recorded in other kata such as Seisan and Sanseriu.

The sequence opens with locating the sai and drawing them, a key skill that cannot be overlooked. A comparison would be in the drawing of a pistol in modern policing, this must be well trained and second nature. From the draw the sai are unfolded into an open position and the correct grip is established, the 45 degree angle of the arm aligns the sai into the correct position which is essential for functional trapping, flipping and striking. Next the circular movement of the arm drawing back and the thrust demonstrates the arc the sai follow when flipped into the closed position and continuously followed into the basic thrust which uses the pommel to strike the limbs. The many repetitions train the practitioner to maintain a tight grip on the weapon while striking in a way that the sai does not deviate on impact and in the worst case come out of the hand.
Section two trains to flip the sai while the arms are extended and establish grips without drawing the arms in, as well as being an excellent continuous exercise that develops strength and speed in striking.
Section three trains establishing contact with the sai in a closed position, pinning the limbs of the opponent, flipping them at close quarter with limited space, trapping and again striking with the pommel.
Finally the closing of the kata brings the sai together to free a hand or to put them aside in order to restrain further or tie up a disarmed opponent.

This brief overview sketches the function of the drill in preparing the practitioner in the essential basic skills for using the sai, once the draw, grips, flips, key positions and basic strikes are mastered further techniques and skills can be developed in the advanced kata Seisan and Sanseriu.

In further blog posts I will explore how this Chinese sai drill became an empty handed kata as well as exploring the techniques encoded in related forms.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!