Thursday, 30 April 2015

Pic'n'Mix Bunkai

Kata bunkai and applications are becoming increasingly complex, with kata enthusiasts creating their own flow drills, fight sequences and choreography for the various forms, whilst at the same time borrowing from arts such as Wing Chun, Judo and MMA to fill in the blanks and add material the kata obviously does not include. Sticking hands/Pushing hands type drills add a little spice and a different way of performing the application but the same fundamental problems when assuming kata were created to record and be applied as fighting or self defense are still there no matter how much it is dressed up in Chi-Sao, Gi grips or arm-bar finishes on the ground, none of which are in the kata. The complex choreography is more akin to the movies than real fighting with spurious applications just about passing for the kata techniques they are supposed to represent. Some of these problems include,

1. The compliant stooge who delivers his attack and then waits to be dealt with. Not much has changed here for decades, the attacks are more 'street' and the responses have certainly moved on from block counter Karate but the compliant attacker remains the same. Usually a single attack is given (very unconvincingly in many cases) providing the platform for the application to be showcased. The lack of realism here is obvious and this raises a serious question over the validity of the suggested applications performed from a single attack which is not in any way reflective of a violent assault from someone who will aggressively fight on, resist, or escalate the level of violence quickly.

Not much has Changed!

2. Multiple attackers. Almost all kata bunkai is taught as one on one. Surely a major consideration is dealing with more than one person but this is not reflected in most applications. If kata were synthesised to record self defense and fighting then undoubtedly this would have been an important factor.

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3. Concealed weapons and blades. Forget fighting someone with a knife, how about surviving an encounter with someone that has a knife and will use it. Many of the applications presented as knife disarms and defense against someone armed are so detached from reality they could potentially be disastrous for someone who has taken these moves on faith and tries to use them. There is also the very real problem that a concealed weapon may be produced during a fight or it may have not been noticed in the beginning this raises the question regarding many of the applications that initiate grappling or throws and continue to go to work on the person while they are on the ground. Again if the antique forms were put together to be a comprehensive representation of self defense concealed weapons and knives would surely have been a major factor in considering tactics and efficient strategy.

4. Changing the techniques. Often in application many techniques are heavily altered with major components omitted in order to fit the desired usage, if a movement was recorded in a particular way then surely that implies a specific function and intention for that movement and technique. If the movements are as non-specific in their applied function as many suggest then why catalogue techniques or have any katas at all!

Specific movement = specific function

5. Crossbreeding. Apart from the endless usage of various different martial arts to present little bits and pieces of forms there is a growing practice of presenting techniques from various forms together. So a bit of Naihanchi goes into a technique from Seisan which ends with something from Chinto. These forms all come from varied sources and there is no evidence that they should be applied together or mixed. If anything it shows how incomplete these forms are when assumed to be for fighting.

The crossing breeding of kata and mixing of various martial arts is not bringing anyone closer to understanding what was originally intended for these forms. Instead of borrowing from lots of different Martial arts to fill in the combative deficit left by the antique kata when applied in this way isn't it about time to re-assess the assumptions made about these forms and start from the beginning to see what is actually possible with each individual form and consider alternative functions and contexts for use.

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

Friday, 24 April 2015

Stranger Than Fiction

The subject of unlocking and interpreting Karate kata stands out as a peculiar inversion when compared to the multitude of topics, specialisations and ongoing research within relevant and related subjects such as Anthropology, Archaeology, History and Linguistics. Creative interpretation of kata (The idea that endless applications and possibilities exist for each movement) is seen by the 'creationists' as the only possible way of making practical use of antique forms and the idea that the original functions could be discovered and restored through careful and methodical research is quickly dismissed as nonsense. None of the above mentioned subjects when approaching a newly discovered text, symbol, glyph, building, piece of art etc at any point suggest that making up the meaning in a fictional free for all is an acceptable idea or process to be applied to anything that has survived from antiquity. Instead painstaking research, critically developed method and patience are the order of the day hopefully leading to an accurate translation of the intended meaning or function (Or a close as possible approximation). So why is it the case in Karate that anyone and everyone can make up endless applications for kata that have no real relationship from one move to the next, flow drills that make no real sense (but might look good!) and seem to be more about the personal tastes of the instructor than a genuine attempt to decode kata within a pragmatic framework.

Unfortunately there are very few people currently that are even remotely interested in approaching kata with the aim of finding out what was originally intended in the movements and the underlying functions which would be the very reason for creating the kata in the first place. It is very easy to dismiss this approach as many often do (some to protect their personal and financial interests) saying the original functions are lost forever or that kata were created to be interpreted and re-interpreted over time. Where would Egyptology be if this attitude had been taken when the subtle meaning of Hieroglyphs were lost to the world? or indeed any subject that studies history and the past. Did the great translators of hieroglyphs decide "well, no one knows so lets make it up?" thankfully not.

The antique kata are a gateway to the past and thankfully are not all random collections of reactive empty handed techniques to be used against a single attacker in a controlled environment! Instead the forms inherited from China contain a rich and profound understanding of the proactive and preemptive skills essential for success in various types of physical engagement (Or to at least give a fighting chance!). These principles are expressed in the functions and techniques encoded in the various forms, such as the use of Sai (Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseriu), Locking, restraining and disarming skills (Naihanchi and Kusanku) and other simple ideas encoded in kata like Chinto, Rohai and Passai.

There is still a vast amount of work to be done with many forms that need to be decoded and to have their original functions unlocked, correctly understood and restored within the appropriate historical, cultural and functional context. It is true that skill sets like the use of the Sai have no place in modern society beyond a hobbyist's passion for Karate kata but is it such a great loss to real fighting that Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseriu catalogue Sai techniques and not deadly nukites! It should come as a relief to anyone with real experience in violence that these forms are in fact not for brawling and reactive self defence but instead contain highly sophisticated Sai skills and techniques that when experienced reveal the true brilliance and ingenuity of the kata creators!.

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