Of the many formalities that come along with traditional martial arts, shouting kata names has to be one of the most noticeable.
The actual execution of the kata announcement varies wildly, from calm utterances to screams that cause nearby glass to shatter. Interestingly, the act of yelling a kata name is extremely old and almost universally practiced among traditionalists.
Lately I’ve been doing it less and less. I’d like to share some thoughts on when I think it’s appropriate, and when you might be able to forego it.
When To Shout It Out
There are a few realities in modern training that make kata announcement necessary. The first, and most obvious, is tournament play.
Judges can’t possibly know what form competitors will be attempting, so it’s prudent to give them a heads up. Of course, judges of different styles many never have heard of the form anyway, and even if they have their style might perform it differently. Nevertheless, it seems like fair courtesy to inform them.
But if you walk up to the judges and tell them the name of the kata, do you need to yell it again right before you start? By informing them of your name/style/kata, didn’t you negate the need for the big name-scream-dramatics?
I’ve always found the polite, informative introduction to be more prudent.
Another time kata yelling seems appropriate is in a big group setting. A teacher has to keep all pupils on the same page. When a student is first learning a kata, it is quite helpful to repeat the name in context over and over again. This repetition helps learn proper pronunciation as well as mental association of the name with the movements.
When I’m teaching, I’ll generally announce the kata and wait a moment for the students to repeat. We’ll all then begin together.
Declaring the kata name puts everyone’s focus on the kata. I can use the tone of my voice to indicate what level of intensity students should be expending. If I say the kata softly and calmly, they can infer that our intent is to go slowly and discuss things. If I say the kata forcefully, they will know that a high level of power is expected.
By saying the name of the kata, I can also transition from one form to the next without an extended explanation. In a dojo environment where there are multiple students, this seems like a reasonable practice.
Foregoing the Shout
When I train alone or via the older Okinawan methods of ‘independent togetherness’ I rarely announce kata because the intent and focus is much different.
When training a kata for depth, a severe amount of visualization must occur. The mind becomes like a taut string. Intensity has to be carefully balanced with control and purpose. This mixture of emotional content and physical expression is directed at the imaginary yet vivid opponent in front of you.
Shouting the name of kata in that environment is awkward and rips you from the moment, reminding you that you are practicing a form. If there were an opponent in front of you, you certainly would not begin your life protection by yelling kata at him/her.
You might argue that yelling the kata gets you amped up or puts you in the right frame of mind for combat, but I don’t think that is a good habit to rely upon. “Flipping the switch” into a mental state of readiness should occur quickly and silently; a subtle shift that causes the hair on the back of your opponent’s neck to stand on end.
There is also a bit of ego and showmanship that can slip in with kata yelling. It’s a moment that can be used to draw attention to oneself, even in a group setting. Therefore a student may become obsessed with yelling louder than anyone else. During individual performance, they could be worried about how tough and intimidating they want their shout to sound.
It’s all distracting, peripheral stuff that doesn’t relate to good performance of kata.
How to Shout
To me, the best kata announcement is serious but not obnoxious. Whenever I have someone screaming kata at me it makes me doubt their focus. Screaming is a result of uncontrolled anger and intensity. These aren’t the makings of a skilled martial artist.
On the other hand, meekness or lackadaisical tone gives me a clue that the practitioner is not yet in the right state of mind. What are they waiting for? I feel like the focus should be activated well before the kata name is spoken.
You won’t catch me lecturing people away from saying kata names before performance if they want to do it. In fact, I do it myself in certain situations. But at times it feels like it goes against the true nature and culture of Okinawan karate (my personal background). As such, I’ll be voicing my kata less and less….