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Kata: A Zero Sum Game? Part 2

Kata: A Zero Sum Game? Part 2

Those of you who have viewed volumes 1 & 2 of my seminar series of DVDs will know I was assisted on some of the demonstrations by Matthew Miller. Matthew has trained with me on a one-on-one basis a number of times and runs his own training sessions on kata application. To help his students internalise the applications he teaches for Kushanku (Kanku-Dai) Matthew developed a two-man drill which involves performing the entire kata – progressing from the start to the end – with a partner. Matthew wrote a book on this two man drill, and how to structure such drills for other kata, called “Fighting Forms” (available from the shopping side of this website).

In this part 2 of this article Matthew continues to discuss the nature of kata, explore its benefits and look at the possible contradictions presented by the various approaches to kata. It's a strong, though-provoking piece which I feel sure you will all enjoy.

Kata: A Zero Sum Game? Part 2

by Matthew Miller

In the first part of this article, I discussed the limitations of treating kata as a zero sum game – that is, assuming that a single interpretation of the kata is correct, to the exclusion of all other. In this, the second and final part, the first moves of Pinan Nidan / Heian Shodan will be used to illustrate this point.

Pinan Nidan is usually the first Kata taught within schools that use the Pinan / Heian series. Shotokan has recognised this by renaming it ‘Shodan' (1st level / grade), whilst schools such as Wado Ryu maintain the traditional name Nidan (2nd level / grade) despite teaching it first.

This reorganisation is in itself an illustration of the differing approaches taken to these katas as they transferred from Okinawa to Japan. Ankoh Itosu, the author of the Pinan series, clearly had a reason for putting Pinan Shodan first. Iain Abernethy asserts that this is because Shodan gives deals with the earliest stages of a fight, the initial exchange of limbs. This is an argument that makes a great deal of sense to me.

Within the Japanese system, where perfection of the art was emphasised over practical application, it made more sense to teach the technically simpler to perform Pinan Nidan first.

It is only when the intent of performing the kata in a particular order – self defence or art – is understood, that the reasoning becomes clear. Seen in this way, attempting to define the kata either as exercise or self-defence is illogical. It can clearly be either, depending upon the reason for teaching it.

I will concentrate on the first moves of Pinan Nidan as it is performed within Wado Ryu, as illustrated below.

From ready position, look left and raise both hands, crossed, above the head. Step out left and drop into left long cat stance. Simultaneously with the step, pull the right hand back to the hip, and drop the left fist vertically downwards until the forearm is horizontal.

The traditional Japanese application of this move is well illustrated in Shingo Ohgami's book ‘Karate Katas of Wado Ryu'. The kata opening is shown as a defence against a right straight punch. The left hand is dropped onto the punch to deflect is downwards, augmented by the body drop into long cat stance.

Viewed from a ‘Do' point of view, this is actually a very good application. It allows both the attacker and defender to practise the strict form of the art, and emphasises good body mechanics, timing and coordination in order to make the block effective. As a zero sum game, this would be the end of the story. This is the answer to the application of the kata, and therefore to look further would be futile.

This sort of application is frequently criticised – in my opinion, unjustly. The intent of the application was to assist in the transmission of a ‘Do' form, and this it does well. It is only when attempts are made to misappropriate this type of application as a form of self-defence that the criticism gains weight.

So, rather than dismissing this application, lets accept that it fulfils its intention, but that perhaps ours is different, and move on to looking for more practical applications from a self-defence point of view.

A fairly common application for this move is a defence against a rear bearhug.

As the bearhug is applied, the defender grasps the attacker's left hand, drops the weight to loosen the grip, and then rotates the arm to the left whilst elbowing to the solar plexus. Finally, the punching movement simulates moving away from the attacker.

This makes much more sense practically. Both hands are used throughout the movement against a common form of attack, and the defence is simple and effective. Is it the only answer, however?

Reviewing the movement again, perhaps the movement of the arms at the start is a flinch reaction. If this is the case, then the following interpretation makes more sense.

The defender flinches in response to an unexpected attack, throwing the arms up to intercept the incoming limb. This is then wrapped and pulled back to the defender's hip, who then drops into long cat stance and performs a dropping forearm strike onto the neck of the attacker. The front knee of the long cat stance is used to unbalance the attacker and this, combined with the dropping of the attack, destroys their stability, reducing their ability to counter-attack.

So, this gives us three potential applications for this movement, depending upon the intent (art of self-defence) and the circumstances (rear bearhug, unprovoked attack).

One point always emphasised by proponents of pragmatic martial arts is that action beats reaction, and the best option is to be pre-emptive. So, can this movement be applied pre-emptively? I believe so.

The most vulnerable targets are the eyes, throat and groin, so it is often these that are attacked pre-emptively. If this is effective, then it is likely to end the fight before it starts. However, most people are understandably protective of these areas, and will attempt to prevent the attack, often by grabbing the wrist and attempting to push the hand away.

The opening of the kata can be interpreted as a response to the interception of a throat or eye attack.

The performer of the kata attempts to pre-emptively grab or strike the attackers throat or eyes with their right hand. The attacker grabs the wrist with their left hand and pushes it to their right, away from the target.

The defender then places their left hand under the right hand, grabs the attackers wrist, and rolls it in the direction they are already pushing. The defenders right hand is drawn sharply back, stripping the grab, and the kata move is completed, straightening the attacker's arm and locking it. The defender then steps through and either strikes the attackers head, or pushes onto the elbow, dropping the attacker to the floor.

This makes good sense – but can you rely upon the attacker responding with a left hand grab? What about a right hand grab?

If so, the same move still provides a solution. Again, the left hand is passed underneath and the wrist grasped. The arm is rotated outwards, flipping the attacker over onto their back. The grasped arm can then be locked at the elbow.

So, we have the first move of the first kata taught, providing five applications. So, are any of them right?

Returning to the first part of this article, I would contend that the answer to this question depends upon why you are practising the kata, and that all of them can be correct, depending upon circumstance.

Clearly, if you are viewing the kata from a ‘Do' point of view, then the application may well be irrelevant, or the first application, which stresses correct form, may be the most appropriate for you.

If, however, you are seeking a more pragmatic approach to kata application, then any of the last four could be valid depending upon your needs. It is tempting to look for a correct answer, and when overcome with enthusiasm for a new discovery with the kata, to believe that it has been found. What this can result in is blindness to the wider possibilities that virtually all kata movements have.

My belief is that kata is not a zero sum game. There is no correct application to each move that should be practised to the exclusion of others, and that to take this approach limits the efficiency and richness of the system. Even if each move did originally have a single application, then this was deliberately and effectively obscured to the point that we have no reliable evidence of this.

However, far from reducing Kata this has the potential to enrich it, since without a defined curriculum we are free to explore and develop our own ideas – and create a martial system that meets our own needs.

Matthew Miller © Copyright 2007

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