The Essence of Kata
by Dennis Fink
People often ask, “What is Kata?” The typical answer is “form.” A more detailed (however brief) answer by some is “a set of prearranged moves designed in a set pattern, fighting several opponents in different directions.” Both of these answers are correct, however, not complete. Although many people know the definition, very few understand the purpose or essence of kata. I will attempt to summarize the core or essential qualities as best that I can.
You must first understand that there are kata in all martial arts, not just Karate. Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido, Kendo (Iai), etc., all have kata, some with a partner and some without.
We must also understand the purpose of kata. Kata is a "method of training" in a particular martial art. It is one element of many that lead to an end result. It in itself is not the end result. It consists of selected waza (techniques) of the ryu. To put it candidly, the purpose of a martial (military) art is to fight. In order to fight (and win) we need to utilize effective techniques that will work in combat. When the martial arts were used on the battlefield, this meant life or death to the warrior.
This can be the case today as well. In short, the ultimate aim or result of practicing kata is to become skilled in effective techniques that would save our life if need be. To that end, kata is selected (not all) waza, which is performed in a set sequence, and in the case of karate, a set pattern, to help train martial art students to defend themselves.
At the New York Seibukan, we study Jujutsu and Karate, so I will confine my comments to these martial arts. First we need to discuss the differences as well as similarities of their kata.
Karate kata (for the most part) are performed alone1. Therefore we “fight” imaginary opponents. Our “opponent” in kata is the same height and size as the person performing the kata. Hence, your opponents groin is the height of yours as is his (or her) head, solar plexus, ribs, etc. When we strike to a particular target, it is on line with the corresponding target on our own body.
Conversely, when we practice ippon kumite or self defense with a partner our strikes will be “adjusted” accordingly in order to strike the target as well as maintain the proper distance, by moving closer or stepping back. This training is essential to be able to utilize our techniques effectively in a real confrontation.
Another essential element of training is kata bunkai2. Just as with all other training with a partner, bunkai to be effective must be practiced as mentioned above, as it relates to adjusting correct distance, etc.
To practice bunkai correctly, we must first understand what one-person kata is, more specifically, what karate kata is. Some people believe that it is a fight from beginning to end, fighting many people in several directions. When we try to analyze the kata in this manner, we find ourselves choreographing a fight scene as though we were making a movie, or if we think rationally, we see that it just doesn't make sense. How many people are we fighting? Did one person get back up or is it a different person attacking? These are some of the questions that come to mind.
If we think of kata as one fight from beginning to end we will never receive the full benefit that it has to offer. And more importantly, if we practice the bunkai in the order or set pattern of the kata, without making the necessary adjustments in our stance, strikes etc., we will be practicing incorrect waza, which would be ineffective in combat. To practice bunkai in this fashion precludes its very benefit. At this juncture, a proverb comes to mind that I'm sure we all have heard, "Practice makes perfect." I dare to say that this is not entirely correct. I elect to add one word to this; "Correct practice makes perfect."
Think of kata as a book consisting of several short stories. Each set of techniques opens a new chapter of techniques. To effectively practice bunkai, we need to "extract" the techniques from the set pattern of the kata and practice with a partner until we become skilled to the point that the technique would be effective in combat. We will then move on to the many variations of that technique, improving on them as well. Practicing bunkai in this manner will uncover a challenging and fulfilling training experience that you never realized existed within our kata.
In Sosuishi-ryu Jujutsu we have two types of kata, empty hand/grappling (kumiuchi) and kata with a katana (sword), known as Iai-jutsu. I will first discuss the kumiuchi kata.
The kata of Sosuishi-ryu are performed with a partner as opposed to the Karate kata, which as stated previously, are practiced alone. Because the kata is practiced with a partner, the waza (techniques) have to be “adjusted” if you will. In combat, no two situations are the same; therefore, it is a safe bet that your technique, to be effective, will change somewhat in each encounter with an opponent. Hence, the techniques (kata) cannot be performed exactly the same each time, especially, with a different uke (attacker) and/or tori (defender).
Practicing Jujutsu kata is no different than practicing self-defense. You would not attempt a hip throw if you were too close and your opponent was leaning backward or Osoto-gari if you were too far and could not reach his leg. Instead, you would adjust your steps forward or back, while maintaining proper ma-ai (combative distance). This is perfected in our kata when practiced correctly.
In the Koshi-No-Mawari or Iai-jutsu3 of Sosuishi-ryu we practice alone4, as with the Karate kata. Therefore, the imaginary opponent is the same as in karate, as it relates to size and the assumption of correct distance. The exactness of technique (stance) will differ with your body structure, however. Also, in Iai-jutsu as opposed to Iai-do, we are not as concerned with the exactness of the “correct” technique, i.e., kicking with the right foot as opposed to the left foot. A warrior should be able to “adjust” in battle. Proper adjustment is as much a part of training as the waza itself. Knowing your limitations as well as your capabilities is possibly even more important, as it is absolutely key in any confrontation.
“Practicality and effectiveness” verses the “beauty of correct technique” are what separate Iai-jutsu from Iai-do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Iai-do, I’m only stating the difference between the two. Each has its own purpose or goal, but the fact remains that “they are different.” Just as one cannot perform kata in the same manner as Goju-ryu or Shorin-ryu and still call it Isshin-ryu, one cannot “correct” Iai-jutsu by the standards of Iai-do. When comparing one individual's technique (stance, etc.) against another, the key is whether or not the individual's waza is effective in combat, for this is the essence of kata. The bottom line is that no two people are alike; therefore, they cannot perform exactly the same without impacting on the effectiveness of their technique.
In summary, kata is a method of training in a particular martial art, consisting of prearranged selected techniques of the ryu, performed in a set sequence, to assist one in accomplishing the ultimate goal of any martial art. That goal is, to defend oneself in an “effective” manner against an armed or unarmed adversary as well as multiple opponents. Practicing it in such a way that the waza would not work or be effective, defeats the very purpose of kata.
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