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.**
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 Master George Alexander 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 an entirely 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?
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I’ve been running into this concept of Combat Tai Chi a lot lately. First, I read an interesting post over at Formosa Neijia discussing an obsession people are developing with the combat applications of Tai Chi. Dave Chesser makes an argument that Tai Chi shouldn’t be thought of in the same context as marine combat.
I also visited Zyaga at Martial Thoughts and saw a fantastic video showing what tai chi for fighting would actually look like. I felt so inspired that I thought I’d share the same video here. Enjoy, and prepare yourself for combat tai chi.
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Continuing from Part 1 of the Nicklaus Suino Interview:
MA: When you visit Japan these days, do you return to Yamaguchi Sensei’s old dojo, or do you travel around to different locations (or perhaps both)?
NS: Yamaguchi-Sensei passed away in 2006 and his dojo is actually no more. When I visit Japan, I train in iaido with a few of his contemporaries and/or students. I also try to visit other instructors with whom I have trained over the years, either socially or for training. Luckily, I have good martial arts contacts in Tokyo, so I’m able to visit a variety of instructors.
MA: It’s quite sad to hear that Yamaguchi Sensei’s dojo has closed its doors. It’s a bit like losing a second home, no doubt. Could you talk a little bit about those contemporaries who have helped shape your martial arts training? Who would you say have been your main influences?
NS: I try to pick up something from every martial arts teacher I meet, and many, many people have helped me along the way. A few of the most notable figures have been the following:
Mike Kroll, Ed Fronczak, and Tony Springfield at the Ann Arbor Y Judo Club in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, who taught me to have fun with training and to have confidence in my abilities.
Karl W. Scott III of the Asian Martial Arts Studio, who taught me how to analyze martial arts techniques.
The late Walter Todd, one of the early pioneers of martial arts in North America, for his irreverent attitude and deep understanding of the principles of judo.
Sato-Shiyuza, Chief Director of Kokusai Budoin, IMAF, for his undying devotion to the ideals of his martial arts forefathers, and his enormous patience.
Tabata-Sensei, former President of the Fuji Judokai at the Kanagawa Kenritsu Budokan, who could tell you which technique he was about to throw you with and then do it, every time (I threw him 3 times in 4 years).
John Gage, highest-ranking Nihon Jujutsu deshi of Sato-Shizuya, training partner of many decades, who I have thrown and by whom I have been thrown as many times as we have hoisted beers together.
MA: What made you decide to become an author, and has the process of writing books been a large challenge?
NS: I wrote THE ART OF JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP mainly to help me remember the major checkpoints of the techniques of Eishin-Ryu Iaido. Three major publishing houses expressed interest in it, so it was fairly easy to get the book out. It turned out that AJS became a hot seller, so Weatherhill approached me about writing a practice drills book (which became PRACTICE DRILLS IN JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP).
When that book also did well, it was easy to convince them to publish BUDO MIND AND BODY and STRATEGY IN JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP. I’ve been lucky that a lot of martial artists have taken an interest in my writing. With all the positive feedback and support, it’s easy to get motivated to write. Of course, you have to be prepared to put in a few hours every day for a year or more to get a book written.
MA: I’d like to switch gears just a bit and ask you some concept questions. We have a lot of budo and sword practitioners out there and I’m sure they’d love to hear your take on these issues. First – Do you believe swordsmanship should be studied as a combative art, an art of character perfection, or some mixture of the two? (The focus on jutsu vs do).
NS: I believe the best benefits of martial arts training come from training very hard over an extended period of years with the combative aspects informing your practice. When an art is practiced as a pure movement art, without the implicit goal of defeating an opponent, it becomes decadent.
At the same time, when one has reached a fairly high level of expertise, only careful reflection about the relationship between character and practice can help one further improve. In other words, there is no “do” without “jutsu” and “jutsu” cannot be fully realized without “do.”
Iai demonstration where both killing strokes and mental stillness are exhibited:
MA: You stress great importance on duty and selflessness in budo. Are there any guidelines or rules that you constantly remind yourself in order to stay true to the way?
1. Every person is a manifestation of the universal spirit. Therefore, treat others well.
2. Nothing in martial arts (or in life) is possible without the help of many other people.
3. Being a “Sensei” is a privilege that must be earned every day, not a right.
4. Extraordinary skill requires extraordinary effort.
5. Avoid self-deception; truth is the best teacher.
MA: Although swordsmanship doesn’t bear directly on modern day self defense needs, have you found it useful in increasing your day-to-day martial abilities?
NS: Absolutely. Effective martial arts requires a clear understanding of how the human body generates force. Iaido is a highly systematic method for applying force with a sword through proper alignment of the body. The principles learned in iaido can be directly applied in every other martial art I have learned, including karate, jujutsu, and judo. Likewise, practice of those martial arts has helped me become a better swordsman.
MA: In your mind, what can Americans do to better follow the original intent of budo and the study of martial arts?
NS: There are some really extraordinary Americans in the martial arts. In general, however, we don’t seem to have the patience to get really good. While martial arts training can be a lot of fun, the most profound benefits of training come only through years of concentrated hard work and selflessness.
The old rules still hold true: find a really great teacher and practice ceaselessly your whole life!
MA: Suino Sensei, thank you again for taking time out for us! This peek into the world of budo is extremely valuable for those of us trying to follow the way!
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