One of the great things about bunkai (kata application) is how variable it can be. A single series of movements can be transformed a hundred times depending on scenario, opponents, tactics, and strategy. Unfortunately, despite all of this creative fruit for the picking, it is extremely easy to get stuck in a rut.
Base level bunkai is very useful and shouldn’t be over looked. By base level I mean: a block is a block and a punch is a punch. If kata tells you to block down three times in a row, that’s exactly what you do. You block a left kick, a right kick, then a left kick. After that you finish up with a punch, or whatever else kata tells you to do.
Deciphering base level bunkai for kata can take a very long time as many of the moves will seem cryptic and unwieldy. There’s no reason to be concerned by that, and no reason to rush it (as I explained in a previous post).
But sooner or later, you’ll probably find yourself scratching your chin and saying ‘yea…but what else can I do!?’
This is the rut I speak of, and just like with writer’s block, it can be tough to pull yourself out without an external nudge. I figured I might present a nudge here that tends to help me think outside the box when I need to.
Opponents: One or One Hundred
How many opponents are you fighting when you practice your kata? One? Two? A handful? More than you can count? This is a very important question as it will change the entire dynamic of how you perform your kata.
Imagine that you are facing just a single opponent. While keeping alert for other dangers around you, you are free to orient yourself entirely on that opponent. That means you can afford to be a little more stationary, and make small moves with your body to adjust for the maai (distance from your opponent). You can then use your techniques to slip slight angles as your aggressor attacks and counterattack with ease.
For example, let’s say you have a kata that blocks on the left 45 degree angle, then the right 45 degree angle, like so:
(Yea the guy in the picture has a giant head. so what.)
With a single opponent, you can use those techniques to intercept and retaliate:
You’ll notice our brave combatant in the black intercepts the red attack and cuts the angle inward, reorienting himself/herself for a vital point strike to the temple, eyes, throat, or anything else he pleases. This small shift in angle clears him from the oncoming second punch of his opponent.
With a single opponent, this “block, block” becomes an invasive disruption. Since it’s just one attacker, the next step in your kata, whatever that may be, should be used to take this opponent out, or at least to the ground.
One opponent was nice, but now you’ve started trouble with two guys. What did you do??
Well, whatever you did…they are looking for trouble. Let’s look at the same technique with two individuals coming at you in quick succession (or even at the same time)…
This time our hero in black has to move his body around a bit quicker. The subtle angles he used with one opponent aren’t as applicable because he can’t afford to get tied up with in-close fighting while the other opponent rushes in toward him. Instead, he uses a simultaneous block-strike motion as he shifts into each fighter. Many times in kata we find ourselves blocking or striking. Really, why have one hand in motion while the other remains stagnant? Many movements in kata have inherent counterstrikes built in; we just have to allow ourselves to use them in quick time.
The last situation is that of multiple opponents. The exact number of opponents isn’t really important, but it’s obvious that there are a whole bunch. Let’s say they are pretty smart too, and manage to partially surround their target (our hero). Using this same technique, it would look something like this…
Our fighter is using a very wise strategy – get out of Dodge. The first thing he does is analyze as quickly as possible the largest hole in the encirclement. He recognizes that the right side, where the brown attacker is, is very cluttered. Instead, he breaks for the red opponent. Using the same kind of technique as before, he blocks and strikes to the face violently at the same moment. This time, he uses his angling to shift to the outside of his opponent and pushes the red attacker into the blue attacker. Bundling up the two closest individuals, he escapes as quickly as possible.
Final Thoughts on Opponents
When doing bunkai, it’s important to think about your opponents, especially regarding how many there could be. If you train in-tight against single opponents all the time, you might leave yourself tangled up with them too long for multiple opponent use. However, if you are constantly floating around to different attackers, you might miss the more intricate uses of technique and how they can result in takedowns and groundfighting.
Be wary of leaving opponents too soon. If you’ve successfully blocked an opponent, but haven’t dealt them a severe strike or takedown, it is probably unwise to move on to a new attacker.
Be careful not to get stuck in the habit of using 8,9,10 attackers in a kata. You may be moving around and facing different directions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every technique is intended for a new person.
I hope this was helpful. It’s just a method I use to expand the parameters of bunkai, but it can be a great way to add realism to your kata.
Kata programming can be a double edged sword. On one hand, kata shows us techniques that we would otherwise be unable to perform. Furthermore, kata (much like an onion) contains layers of discovery that are vital to improving in traditional martial arts.
On the other hand, it is extraordinarily difficult to unlock those deeper layers, and very easy to get caught in the routine of base level kata. Ultimately, staying stuck in base level for too long can produce negative effects and even counter-intuitive habits.
Base Level Kata…1,2,3!
Base level kata is what we do when we are first learning a kata. Sensei will stand in front of class and carefully break down every technique for the students to see. This is often accompanied by a calling out of movement or number. For example:
“Step in, block left. Punch right. Punch left.”
“1. 2. 3.”
All in all, it ends up looking something like this (and please enjoy my stunning artwork):
All the students in class dutifully follow along, checking every minute tidbit of their stance and technique. This is a fantastic training tool. The students are learning how to properly form a punch (be it corkscrewing, vertical Isshin style, or any other), checking their knees for proper bend, and making sure they aren’t off-balance. The more advanced students can toy with koshi, hip movement, to employ more power into their technique.
Years of training in this fashion can produce very solid kihon, or basics…and as most instructors (including myself) will harp – KIHON is KEY to GOOD KARATE!
But, as years progress, it gets easier and easier to slip into an unexpected malaise; in other words, you quietly slip into “a box.” Once inside that box, it’s very difficult to see outside it, and takes a great mental and physical leap to adjust habits that are so tightly ingrained. That is why it is up to each us to eventually stare into that great void of kata exploration.
One concept that can help shine a little light on those cavernous expanses of kata is condensed timing.
Recall the picture I showed you earlier – the kata dictated block, punch, punch. 1,2,3. Why should we wait so long to act? If our opponent is throwing a punch toward our chest, must we block it before counterattacking? Of course not. That sounds silly when considering a live, highly agitated opponent. So why do we allow our kata to stay slow?
Instead, the block and initial strike should be done simultaneously. Blockpunch, punch. 12,3. As such:
As the opponent closes in with his/her attack, we are blocking and striking in one movement. The momentum of the opponent meets our accelerating fist and the damage is multiplied. Furthermore, the snap of our koshi helps drive our body weight into the attacker, instead of just helping us produce a nice *crack* with our gi.
RIght now, can you think of a few places in your kata that demand these kinds of block-strike-strike, block-block-block, block-strike-block series? I bet you can. And I bet if you think about it for awhile, you’ll uncover A LOT of these series. Next time you get a chance to train alone, try condensing your timing (but remember, when in the dojo, stay with your Sensei as he/she leads a class. Getting ahead can be misleading for beginner students and is a bit disrepectful to the instructor).
You’ll also notice that the figure in the second picture punches at two different locations. This introduces another one of those elusive kata concepts (wo mid-level punches in kata doesn’t necessarily mean two mid-level punches in kata). But more on that later!
A long time ago (seriously – like 1612) a young Ronin named Musashi Miyamoto was in the midst of a journey to prove his worth. As a Ronin, or masterless Samurai, Musashi chose to engage in Musha Shugyo – an austere journey designed to perfect a warrior’s fighting prowess. Musashi had achieved unheard of success during his travels and his reputation soon preceded him. One day, Musashi decided to arrange a duel with the master swordsman Kojiro Sasaki. Kojiro was famed for his use of the long nodachi sword, aptly nicknamed ‘the drying pole’ due to its length over normal katana.
Using tactics such as tardiness and uncouthness, Musashi enraged Kojiro before the duel began. Filled with disgust for his opponent, Kojiro struck down at Musashi as fiercely as he could. Musashi deftly dodged out of the way, and cracked Kojiro’s skull with the wooden sword he had in hand.
Shortly after his victory, Musashi reached up and felt the headband he had been wearing – the band had been cleanly sliced, but his skin was still intact.
The Thickness of One Sheet of Rice Paper
We often hear about Musashi’s great feats of skill, and the 60-odd duels he won. Of course, we can attribute some of those tales to mythological embellishment…but not all of it. Through his written works and multiple eye witness accounts, it is fairly well documented that Musashi was a truly amazing swordsman.
In the story above, Musashi demonstrated an astounding mastery of a very basic concept – distance. Musashi knew his opponent would rely on the superior length of his trademark weapon, so Musashi mentally computed the PRECISE distance he needed to evade. He was then able to slay his skillful opponent with a very average, very mundane bokken (some accounts even attribute his weapon as being a carved down oar!)
There is a saying in swordsmanship stating that all attacks should be avoided by the thickness of one sheet of rice paper; and in case you’ve never handled rice paper, it’s about this thick -
The Benefits of Minute Evasions
By cutting your evasion so close, your opponent is naturally open. Having committed to their attack, their body is in a state of movement. By placing yourself as close to them as possible without getting struck, it becomes a fairly easy matter to counterattack.
Another benefit is conservation of motion. The further out you make your block, or body movement, the further back you have to return in order to strike. By keep everything virtually natural, you are already placed in a position for striking. This allows you to counterattack a fraction of a moment later than the actual attack.
Training For Evasion
The best way I’ve personally found to train this nuanced movement is through swordsmanship. There really is no substitute for the lightning strikes of a shinai blitzing toward your head; your block deflecting it so narrowly that it still scrapes your hair.
But, as I’ve continued my training, I’ve integrated this practice into my other arts, like karate and kobudo. This leads me to confidently state that a practitioner of any art can cut down on their movement and improve their distancing.
Here is one fun little drill if you feel like working on this concept: stand arm-length away from a partner. Have your partner strap on some gloves, and throw straight punches toward your chest. At first, keep your arms at your side. As the punch comes in, allow yourself to pivot at the waist, making the punch bounce off at an angle. It should feel like the punch just barely glances you.
As you get more comfortable, make your pivot occur a bit quicker, so that the glove barely touches you.
As you get even more comfortable, make it so the punch just scrapes your gi, and nothing more.
Be careful, if you pivot too fast and the punch touches nothing at all, you’ve lost the concept – you’ve lost one sheet of rice paper. Your opponent may pick up on your early intentions and compensate.
Best of luck in your training!