As long time readers here know, I have a great passion and interest in Bunkai. Bunkai is the application and inspection of meaning in kata, and to me it is as integral as the movements themselves.
Recently I got a chance to watch a new work by Charlie Wildish and Keith McKay Cormack entitled “Inside Bassai Dai”.
Wildish operates the blog Bunkai Jutsu and decided to create a DVD entailing his breakdown of the kata Bassai Dai. In the video Wildish is joined by his friend and ‘partner in crime’ Keith McKay Cormack. The interesting thing about this duo is the diverse backgrounds they bring together, Wildish a Sandan in Shotokan Karate and Cormack a student of Choy Li Fut Kung Fu.
The video is staged in front of an unadorned yet attractive stone wall, which seems to set the mood of the entire video. Wildish and Cormack are friendly and down to Earth in their explanations, yet stay very focused on the task at hand, wasting little time in frivolity.
Wildish begins by demonstrating the kata from multiple angles, then breaking down each segment into possible explanations. Following Wildish is Cormack who demonstrates how the idea of the technique appears in his Chinese background, and how he might approach bunkai from a Kung Fu perspective. It is enjoyable to actively see the similarities and differences played out.
This video is unpretentious, straight forward, and focused on content instead of flashiness. As such I feel it does justice to the spirit of Karate.
As a bonus I was also able to check out Wildish’s “10 Kicking Tips”, which guides the viewer not through specific kicks, but through some of the basic physics and ideas that make kicking effective. This DVD was also an enjoyable watch, especially as Wildish described ways in which kicks can be thrown in a true straight line.
All in all I would recommend these resources to individuals who either study Bassai Dai or are looking to enhance their overall understanding of Bunkai. The procedures used in these DVDs are sound fundamentally and can be relied upon to elicit positive results.
This is a continuation from Part 1 of the interview with Patrick McCarthy. McCarthy Sensei is ranked 8th Dan and is a well known author as well as the developer of Koryu Uchinadi.
PM: The Bubishi has been one of Tuttle’s best-selling martial arts titles in the past and I think my publisher got wind of the fact that I was planning to produce a Bubishi Companion text. Hence, asked if I would consider revising my original work. Anyway, that’s what my attorney told me. Based upon this, I produced the revised edition, and was very pleased with the final outcome; FYI, the Bubishi Companion text is still in the works.
MA: Speaking of the Bubishi, what roll do you see hakutsuru (white crane) and the Fujian Province playing in the development of ti (early karate)? Which hakutsuru kata on Okinawa are generally considered the most genuine? [Note: Hakutsuru is one of the major subjects discussed in the Bubishi]
PM: Genuine is a relevant term! Like lineage and culture, genuine doesn’t necessarily mean functional. I’ve witnessed a lot of “genuine” Japanese and Okinawans who came from impeccable lineages and couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag! I call such folks, “re-enactors,” not totally unlike the Medieval Re-enactors Groups; most, not all, pay remarkable attention to various cultural details, and have the best uniforms, etc. The only one thing lacking is their functional fighting skills.
As a style Hakutsuru (i.e., Yongchun Crane), played an important role as one of the precursor methods from which several Okinawan lineages trace their origins. As a kata (e.g., Sokon’s Hakutsuru, etc.) however, I think far too much fuss has been made over its form with out understanding its function. Much of what I’ve seen being promoted as “authentic,” falls far from being functional. Those traditions established in and around the Matsuyama Park district of Naha’s Kume Village (i.e. Wai Xinxian, Iwah, Aragaki Seisho, Kojo Taitei, Xie Zhongxiang, Higaonna Kanryo, Maezato Ranpo, Matsuda Tokusaburo, Nakaima Norisato, Sakiyama Kitoku, and Wu Xianhui, etc.) and that of Uechi Kambun appear to come down from this lineage.
One of the difficulties in tracing exact lineage is the different cosmetic appearance of the style. An example of how styles, which come from the same progenitor source, change is found in detachment, the passing of time, confusion and the arrival of rule-bound practices, which emphasized form over function.
MA: Your travels took you not only to your main areas of study (Okinawa and Japan) but also to Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and China. What were you hoping to find during these excursions?
PM: Similarities, differences and contextual premises, in order to corroborate my theories and bring more meaning to what I was studying.
MA: Could you share an anecdote from those times of an experience that you found to be particularly enlightening or humorous?
PM: In November of 1990 I traveled from my home in Japan to Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. The local martial arts association was hosting an international competition, preceded by a week long symposium with many of its most senior masters. Amid the several foreign countries partaking in the martial arts festival was a Japanese delegation with members from various fighting arts. One evening in the banquet hall after dinner, several of the groups were enjoying, “a few drinks,” and exchanging stories. In a rather lively conversation, “alleging that the Japanese misunderstood the original fighting arts of Shaolin,” one of the Chinese delegates come out with something like, “…for example, jujutsu is an application-based practice but without our old solo routines (kata), and yet karate has preserved our old routines but still don’t understand their application!”
The comment was greeted with a roaring silence, until one gentleman from the Japanese delegation responded with, “are you suggesting that each of these arts is a smaller part of a larger whole, and incomplete in itself?” As the Chinese gentleman skulled the last of his jiu (Jiu= liquor), he proudly blurted out, “Karate and jujutsu both trace their roots back here to our Fujian-based Shaolin practice, therefore, wouldn’t you all just be better off studying our original art?”
Historically, I think the intoxicated Chinese gentleman was referring to Fujian-based Shaolin arts as the progenitor to which karate kata traces its roots, and Chen Yuan-Pin (aka Chin Gempin/1587-1674) as the Fujian-based martial artist said to have influenced the development of Jujutsu by his mid-17th century visit to Edo (Tokyo) and subsequent interaction with the Samurai class (i.e., Fukuno Hichiroemon, Isogai Jirozaemon, and Miura Yojiemon, who later influence the establishment of Fukunoryu/Ryoi Shinto Ryu, Miuraryu Yawara and Kito Ryu Jujutsu).
What happened next between a couple of emotionally charged martial artists at the table was, for me, nowhere near as important as the BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) I experienced that evening. Learning that Fujian-based quanfa served as the progenitor from which came both karate kata (form) and jujutsu oyo (function) it stood to reason that the contextual premises and underlying principles which shaped this original art should also apply to any and all derivatives, including today’s practices. Furthermore, being able to prove such a thing would surely help resolve the terrible ambiguity shrouding insight to the contextual premises and application practices of kata as understood in modern karate.
This not only formed the basis from which my obsession with studying the original Fujian-based quanfa practices unfolded, but also revealed a crucial link between form (karate kata), function (jujutsu oyo), and their shared Shaolin heritage.
MA: I’d like to take a closer look at some of your main instructors. Sugino Sensei was an extremely well respected budoka, and subject of the article “The Last Swordsman”. What was training with Sugino Sensei like? Did he provide any unique glimpses into the world of Japanese Koryu?
PM: Sugino Sensei was a delightful person and it was a wonderful opportunity to be one of his direct students. In spite of also having trained Muso Shinden Eishin Ryu and ZNKR Iai under Izawa Takehiko most of my formal Koryu training was experienced under his tutelage. Like all Koryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu uses identifiable attack scenarios and timeless prescribed application practices to effectively negotiate them. I could tell you many wonderful stories about this fascinating teacher but it is understanding this premise that Grandmaster strengthened my understanding of kata.
MA: Did Inoue Sensei discuss his Ninjutsu connections frequently, and did you get a chance to experience those methods during your kobudo training with him?
PM: On many occasions Sendai discussed training under Fujita Seiko, Shiyoda Gozo, Taira Shinken and Konishi Yasuhiro, and what a collective impact it had upon his learning. I used to meet Sendai early every Tuesday afternoon before regular training at the Shibuya dojo to serve him tea, and listen to him talk about his history. From time to time he would lead us through various Ninjutsu-based practices, including shuriken and tactical application of pressure points.
MA: More importantly…any regrets about wearing leopard print pants in your kickboxing match at Tokyo Korakuen??
PM: Not at all … only wish I was bold enough to wear the Leopard mask that came with them ; – )
MA: These days you are touring quite frequently to help improve people’s understanding of Uchinadi and karate in general. Where have those travels taken you, and where might people contact you if they are interested in such a seminar?
PM: I like to think of KU as a system of application practices which can fit easily under the foundation of any karate style, and radically improve the overall curriculum, without adversely effecting its cosmetic appearance.
I’ve been invited to teach KU TPAD’s all over the world ranging from North & South America, Russia, the UK, and the EU, to Africa, Japan, China, SE Asia, New Zealand and Australia. For anyone interested, I can be contacted c/o firstname.lastname@example.org but cannot always respond immediately. Alternatively, it’s best to contact our American Shibucho, Sensei Darrin Johnson c/o email@example.com.
MA: Many thanks McCarthy Sensei for your participation in this interview and for your tireless efforts to help reveal and preserve the true nature of traditional martial arts!
How do you go about exploring an art fully without getting lost in it?
One of the most important elements of any martial art is being able to use it effectively at a moment’s notice. The techniques and methods of the art must be simple enough to ingrain in muscle memory for use when adrenaline pumps and mental decision making could be costly and difficult.
With that being the case it might seem like a mistake to dig deeply into an art or to allow for creative exploration. After all, you’re probably just obfuscating a technique that did what it needed to do in the first place. However, I have found that there is an important difference between simple techniques and techniques with deep simplicity.
Starting with Simplicity
Properly programming the body to maximum efficiency is a process that takes a lifetime. However, when a student first joins a school they really need to focus on the basics of how to move. It’s almost like learning how to walk again. The hands move in such a way, the legs in another way, the body weight shifts here and there…half the time the end goal for each class is to not trip over yourself.
Launching into the full complexity of an art right away is neither effective nor productive.
Drills like yakusoku kumite are often valuable to teach a person what it’s like to get “attacked” (even if it’s under strict controls) and how to program the body to respond.
Kata, sparring, and base level bunkai all help introduce the student to the ways in which they might defend themselves should trouble arrive.
The Fog of Complexity
As the years go by and students get exposed to the arts, they realize there might be more going on than previously suspected. Real altercations are rarely so organized as dojo drills, nor do they end as neatly as we might hope. Grappling, joint locking, pressure points, internal blending, dynamic striking, etc etc start to blip onto the radar as ways to improve overall skillset.
With so much out there it’s easy to get lost completely in the fog of technique collection and creative brainstorming.
Moving from simplicity to complexity is something that often inspires trepidation and hesitation (with very legitimate cause). Nobody wants to become the armchair Sensei who can spout off 20 different vital point techniques but couldn’t actually defend him/herself against Glass Joe from Punchout.
Furthermore, simple techniques with no particularly enhanced explanations still work. A kick to the groin and jab to the eyes requires very little tweaking. Why muck things up?
For me personally, deciding to jump into complexity came when I saw the depth of knowledge possessed by my instructors and how they translated it into their art. Instead of blocking an arm just to keep it from hitting me, I realized I could be activating a vital point for a devastating follow-up technique. Or I could be applying kuzushi at the same moment to off balance my attacker. Or perhaps I could be moving his centerline to make his next attack more predictable and therefore manageable, reducing (albeit never eliminating) the chaos of real combat.
Complexity invites you to explore the possibilities of human interaction.
The Depth of Simplicity
I wish I could tell you I’ve got everything figured out and the fog is gone, but that is woefully untrue. I keep my many limitations close in mind to make sure I don’t get lazy.
However, there are certain things I have been able to bring back to simplicity through depth of study. The amazing thing is that my muscle memory has not gone away, nor has my ability utilize mushin (no mind) in unpredictable situations. Instead I have been able to better understand how to improve the simplicity of my techniques and utilize complex ideas like pressure points, tuite, etc within the same movement that would have been a simple block or punch previously.
The point of breaking down bunkai (kata applications) into minute pieces is not to impress others with your 10,000 ideas, but to get a little taste of why all those possibilities work or don’t work. I have found many situations where I’ve said to myself “I better not do that again”, which is extremely valuable to discover in the safety of a dojo environment.
With deep simplicity the body learns how to improve height, distance, angle, stance, and timing in conjunction with a continuum of strikes, grabs, and manipulations. All of that sounds complex unless you’ve thoroughly explored it and reapplied it to habitual acts of physical violence, such as common pushes, punches, and grabs.
All of this amounts to not needing the construction of yakusoku kumite or kata or even padded sparring when you arrive in a moment of conflict, but being able to effectively handle live situations at any range and with little warning.
The following is a short clip taken from our IKKF Annual Training (2000) featuring Bill Hayes Sensei discussing a technique that starts out simple, but can be enhanced with depth of study and training. The technique is simple throughout but hardly the same from the beginning of the clip to the end.
(available here – http://fileserver.uechi-ryu.com/videos/hayes.wmv)