Saturday, October 12, 2019

Another Rant About Kata Training

Karate Obsession has a well-written post on what defines traditional karate. Among other things the article discusses the history of karate's ranking system, views on cross training, and modern notions such as loyalty to one's teacher or style and the urban legend of one-strike-one-kill. What caught my eye in this concise essay has to do with kata, solo forms found in karate that date back to antiquity. The author takes a dubious look at utilizing kata applications with multiple attackers (!) in heavily scripted attack-and-defense scenarios.

These are characterized by having multiple attackers arrange themselves so that they surround the person performing the kata (typically standing in a front stance with their lead arm down as if they had just done a gedan-barai) in such a way that they will be lined up to attack the performer along the enbusen (performance line) of the kata, and then attacking with strict, sterilized karate strikes. The defense is similarly sterilized, consisting of techniques that are used in ways that are unrealistic and tactically poor, hikite (pulling hand) being pulled to the hip without anything grasped in it, postures used as formal “setups” for other techniques, and a general reliance on knowing exactly what kind of attacks the attackers will use. These can be very dynamic and precise performances, but they are merely that — performances. The only thing karateka get better at by practicing this way is performing.

I've seen this before. Somewhere I have a VHS tape from the 80s with Angi Uezu of Isshinryu karate performing these drills with his black-belt students students working bunkai (components of kata) from all the forms found in the style's syllabus. After a fine demonstration of a kata as a solo form, the narrator would ask, "What is the master doing?" Then the secrets would be revealed! He would have his people surround him, two to four at a time, and then repeat the same kata to fend off off the advances of these "attacks." Performances indeed, and truth be told they were meticulous and impressive. In my experience I've never practiced this type of kata drill anywhere, ever. Bunkai was always trained in a one-on-one fashion in whatever dojo I was in. In time as you get better, some spontaneity and creativeness should be encouraged so the drill doesn't get stale or feel rehearsed. Ultimately, making these drills feel real is imperative.

I've heard the theory that kata represents fighting attackers from various angles, but that's a misunderstanding of why kata was created. It's more like a primer for techniques. It's not meant to mimic an actual fight, let alone with more than one assailant. From another source, here's a more holistic view:

In reality, from a street-fighting point of view, it is pretty much impossible to use the moves of kata to fight against multiple attackers at once. The vast majority of kata techniques are designed to deal with a single attacker who is directly in front of you. Although there are a few movements in certain kata where the imaginary enemy strikes from behind, there is always one opponent at a time. Defense against a large group is generally handled by strategically engaging one person at a time in a manner that confounds the other's ability to reach you.*

Regardless of how you train them, I have mixed feelings about kata. To be sure, learning kata without understanding them is meaningless. Bunkai as self-defense could be taught without ever seeing the whole kata by itself. I've seen oyo (applications) so heavily modified from the kata to make it usable for self-defense that it bears little semblance to the original form. In the end, it's really about the quality of instruction and the manner of how kata is taught.

* Lawrence A. Kane and Kris Wilder 2005. The Way of Kata: A Comprehensive Guide for Deciphering Martial Applications. YMAA Publication Center, Inc.

† As I see it, kata has survived for three reasons, none of them having anything to do with efficacy or even tradition: 1. Kata training takes up class time. 2. Kata is used for promotion. 3. Kata is an event at tournaments.

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