The Interweaving of Kata Beauty, Application, and Perfection

Once protected by a handful of experts, karate and the kata within are now “owned” by millions of people across the globe. Through this diversity and the advent of technologies such as YouTube, we can see more variations on traditional kata than ever before.

Despite our many different backgrounds and lifestyles, kata is still kata. The core concepts that made it work for the Okinawans are the same concepts that can make it work for us. But now more than ever we have to consider the purpose of our kata training and understand how kata beauty, application, and perfection intertwine.

**In this post I’m going to be showing different practitioners performing the same  kata – Kusanku. The slight stylistic differences are unimportant. Furthermore, they are all very good martial artists. The comparisons drawn between them are for personal contemplation on how we each perform our own kata.**

Kata Beauty

Beautiful kata is a desirable thing. Sharp technique, clean transitions, and picturesque stances make for a wonderful display of martial arts prowess.

Consider, for example, our first video:

This young lady has obviously put in good training time with knowledgeable Sensei.  She should be commended for her poise during such a stressful event. However, it’s quite clear that her technique is focused on kata beauty. Her kicks are extremely athletic, but not aimed at anything in particular (except perhaps Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s head). If she were to consider application (aka street tactics) she would likely want to lower those kicks dramatically.

Furthermore, her spear hand techniques are aimed toward the midsection. In reality she would want to contemplate the amount of hand conditioning needed to make that effective. Also her deep stances would lock her into each technique completely, minimizing the potential to run away quickly or disengage toward a new opponent.

She performs a beautiful kata with many fantastic snapshot moments, and if it has helped her win trophies, all the better. But there is a problem – beauty can be ensnaring. Like the story of young Narcissus who was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection, beautiful kata can cause us to become locked and unwilling to change.

Imagine having to alter the very techniques that have brought you praise and reward in exchange for something that looks far less impressive. What if you’ve become “known” for those impressive techniques? Could you give it up in pursuit of what kata truly aims to teach? Would you try to put your ineffective techniques in one pocket while keeping your real techniques in another? It’s a slippery slope.

Another example to consider:

“Change is the way of the world”, as George Alexander Sensei said, and kata modification is part of that. I can’t say if this practitioner modified the kata on his own or if his Sensei did, but it’s important to consider the purpose of those changes, including adding very high kicks.

In striking techniques, especially at the end of a series, it is generally a karate ideal to imbue the strike with the power to break, incapacitate, or kill. I wonder if this karateka’s palm heel strike up front had the power to break floating ribs or cause internal organ damage. Again, I wouldn’t presume to know this man’s intentions, nor do I think his kata is less than exceptional. But we must examine ourselves in this way, otherwise we might get trapped staring at our own reflections as they glint off of shiny trophy plastic.

Application During Kata Performance

Application during kata can be a tough pill to swallow because it forces us to question ourselves. Every technique in kata is designed to off-balance, damage, or otherwise negatively impact our opponents in a way that would deter them from continuing their aggression. That means with every block and every punch there needs to be consideration for breath, hip movement, weight shifting, and kime (focus) on the end of the technique. Ignoring these things for weak quick-hand techniques or multi-snap kicks can lead to bad habits which manifest themselves poorly when dealing with an enraged attacker who wants nothing more than to punch your face in.

Consider this version of Kusanku:

Every  block and punch in this video is designed to do damage. The kata is unhurried yet quick. The practitioner transitions smoothly and doesn’t loiter too long on any particular technique. The movement is balanced and the koshi (hips) power each motion. To me, this individual is training with application in mind.

Of course, depending on your perspective, this kata is not better than the previous two, nor do I think it would place better at most competitions…yet it contains a subtly different kind of beauty.

Here is another example:

This is a practitioner from a different style, but aren’t the similarities stunning? Pacing, power, and focus are all present on every technique. The karateka here seems like someone who could use their kata for self defense, rather than for athletics and demonstration.

Once again, was this the BEST performance? No – it was unique amongst a series of unique kata. It’s just a matter of differing martial paths.

The Timeless Pursuit of Kata Perfection

Kata perfection should never be confused for kata drama. Excessively loud Kiai and Soap-Opera-Style glares are all part of drama. Although they make the practitioner seem like they are “in the zone”, ultimately it is just another layer of performance. While a performer is busy focusing on how ‘killer’ they look, they should be focusing on moving toward their next opponent or escaping danger.

Kata perfection is the stripping away of the untruthful. When a kata begins to reflect the real nature of the practitioner (and not what they think a martial artist should look like), it begins to chase perfection. I say ‘chase’ because, like most worthwhile endeavors, perfection can never really be obtained.

If we strip away kata drama and pomp…how can there be kata beauty? In the classical sense, kata beauty is far less obvious than one might think. Born from the grit of combat and the integration of proper technique into naturalness, kata beauty is rarely “textbook”, nor is it predictable. Most often created by a combination of application, visualization, and the pursuit of perfect technique, classically beautiful kata takes on the persona of Ichi-Go Ichi-e: one encounter, one opportunity.

As a final thought, I’d like to leave you with one more Kusanku. Certainly this is the least impressive of the bunch…right?