Bunkai is a critical part of traditional kata training. In kata, a person learns a series of techniques strung together to form fighting concepts. Some kata contain many techniques, 30-40, some contain far less. But these techniques are merely a physical exercise if we don’t come to understand what they represent. Bunkai brings us to a higher level of understanding by prompting us to analyze motion, body position, attack, defense, and much more.
Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to get stuck in “base-level” bunkai. By that I mean, an explanation of technique that only represents the most obvious possible interpretation. For example, you may hear someone (or yourself) walking through bunkai saying “now my opponent punches to my face, so I block up. I step in and punch. kiai. Then I turn left and a new opponent kicks at me. I block down…step in…punch…kiai.”
This type of analysis is useful for beginning students (and please remember – a black belt represents those who are ready to begin), but there is so much more to be gleaned from kata. There are many bunkai concepts I would like to explore – but here is one that I think might be able to help you right away. After you have learned a kata and the base-level bunkai, try scenario thinking. Put yourself in situations and scenarios where the techniques of this kata can be applied. Furthermore, imagine your opponent as more than an amorphous blob. Provide him with real, visceral characteristics.
Go through your bunkai once and imagine your opponent as an enraged, knife wielding attacker. Also imagine that your family is close by. If you don’t eliminate the threat, all of your lives are in mortal danger.
Now go through that same bunkai, but this time imagine you are confronted by an angry dad at a soccer game who starts putting his hands on you.
Your technique should be different…right?
Let’s take it a step further. Here are three main ways that you can break down your bunkai to really explore what’s happening:
This one is for those who practice martial arts with deep lineages. In order to completely understand the root of our arts, we must put ourselves in the mind frame of the masters. Why did they create and practice these kata? Who were their enemies?
If you study a weapons (or kobudo) art, don’t forget to consider what those folks would be facing. An Okinawan farmer may be facing another farmer with a bo…but it’s more likely he would be facing a Japanese Samurai with sword or spear.
Standard bunkai is useful for everyone, and represents what we most often see. Standard bunkai pits you against relatively equal opponents with a knowledge base roughly the same as yours. These type of attackers are in good state-of-mind and are skilled fighters, capable of punches, kicks, and attack/defense. By imagining (or using someone else) who is as good as you, you can constantly strive for improvement.
Modern bunkai must be applicable in our everyday environment. Your modern bunkai should put you in your workplace, your home, your frequented shops and bars. Modern bunkai dares us to imagine all kinds of attackers – men, women, short, tall, drunk, high, with knives, broken bottles, pool cues.
It also forces us to use our surroundings to their most efficient degree. A bo practitioner will not find a bo in his everyday life…but he will find brooms and pool cues. A sai practitioner will definitely not find a sai lying around, but he will find ice scrappers and short, stout tree limbs.
(special thanks to my green figurine friends, whom I’ve slightly altered from their originals here – http://www.perry-miniatures.com)
Let your mind bend around the possibilities. Soon you will find yourself analyzing bunkai as you go about your day. Kata will begin to breath and take life. Eventually you’ll be ready for the next step – making kata extemporaneous and part of your reactionary combat.
But that’s a whole other post!
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In Okinawa Kenpo lineage, we practice both Sanchin and Seisan kata. Anybody who has trained in them realizes quickly that these are very different from ordinary kata. The breathing is intense, the body is tight, and the spirit is wound like a coiled snake. The positive influence on health and martial arts ability is fairly well accepted, but the origins are a cause of debate. I'd like to analyze a little bit about the backgrounds of both, starting with one important fact – they both stem from Naha-te.
It is widely believed that Naha-te was heavily influenced by Fujian White Crane style, originated in Southern China. Therefore, it could be logically asserted that white crane style has had influence upon both Seisan and Sanchin. This actually stands to reason as both kata exhibit Chinese flavors in their execution such as open hands and circular movements.
It is also pertinent to compare these kata to Hakatsuru, the white crane. This kata is known to have strong Chinese roots. I have seen two men perform Hakatsuru kata – Seikichi Odo (on tape) and George Alexander (in person). The white crane style had a softer flow than ordinary Okinawa kata. Many of the techniques were performed open hand. The breathing was reminiscent of the hard breathing as seen in Sanchin, but more shallow and not nearly as tense in the body. These styles definitely seem related, but you can tell that the Okinawans integrated their own theories (like iron body and closed fists) when making Seisan and Sanchin.
As for comparing Seisan and Sanchin against one another – it's no doubt they are sister kata. The distinctive breathing and slower, deliberate movement give it away. However, upon closer inspection, there are important differences as well. (From an Okinawa Kenpo standpoint) – The stancing is different. Seisan uses a more traditional front stance, while Sanchin uses an aptly named sanchin-dachi, utilizing heavy pidgeon toeing, short length and width, and slight kneebend. Here is a visual -
Furthermore, the deep breathing is not identical. Sanchin utilizes a '3 battles' method, in which 3 exhalations are made as the practitioners tightens the extremities, then the inner boddy, and finally the hara area. Despite having exhaled 3 times and tightened more and more on each breath, there should still be a small reserve of air in the lungs. Sanchin can be a punishing kata, but the practitioner should not be out of breath at the conclusion of the kata.
Seisan utilizes less triple exhalation and more single exhalation (That being said, I have seen some of the kata done with triple exhalation, especially at the beginning). Seisan also uses a crescent stepping method instead of sanchin-dachi movement. Crescent stepping is also known as half-moon stepping because the foot traces a half moon on the floor as it moves in toward the front foot, then out as it steps forward. This is believed to be a significant connection to the term Hangetsu, as Hangetsu can be translated as "half moon" and likely refers to the movement in the kata.
For those of you familiar with the term or kata Hangetsu -
"Hangetsu kata is the echo of the Sanchin tradition" – From what I know, Funakoshi Sensei integrated Hangetsu into Shotokan karate instead of Sanchin. Hangetsu is considered a later version of Seisan, but it integrates more Sanchin characteristics than the old style Seisan, specifically at the beginning. So Hangetsu is a version of Seisan that replaced Sanchin for Funakoshi; however, it also integrates some Sanchin theory. It's easy to see how that can get convoluted.
Whatever style you happen to train in, dig deep to see if it traces back to Naha-te. Some styles trace their lineage very clearly back to Naha-te, like Goju-ryu. Other styles have to analyze who their teachers learned from because the old okinawan masters cross-trained with each other constantly. For example, Choki Motobu was regarded as a shuri-te practitioner, and yet Sanchin was a part of his repertoire.
For some further reading regarding white crane and how it relates to seisan and sanchin, consider this online article by George Alexander – http://www.worldbudokan.com/Articles/ChinaOriginsWhiteCrane1.htm
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I guess there are some perks to being a part-time freelance writer. Also to being a huge nerd. On April 22, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara of Mythbusters came to Penn State Berks and I was there to meet them.
PSB (that’s Penn State Berks for those not hip to the lingo) is my alma mater, and by a freak chance I checked their events bulletin board a few months ago and noticed that two mythbusters were coming to town. Unfortunately, I had initially misread the post and thought that Kari and Grant had already came and gone, and that fate was torturing me by showing me this post too late. A few hours later I reread the post and realized that I was an idiot, and that the event was scheduled for April (which hadn’t arrived yet).
In a bolder-than-usual fashion, I set out to meet them. I love Mythbusters and watch it often; every cast member of the show plays a unique role in creating a very entertaining dynamic. So instead of simply getting tickets, I wanted to actually be involved. The only way for me to do that was to fall back on my freelance writing credentials. I contacted the man in charge and arranged to be part of the press.
I’m not a reporter by any means…but I have had enough experience to be properly prepared for these sorts of things. I generated a healthy list of questions, some for Kari, some for Grant, some for both. I put on a nice collared shirt, and grabbed my digital camera. That’s all a reporter needs, right?
I wasn’t sure what to expect upon arrival. At a few previous interview events I’ve been to, a bunch of us media-types sat in a conference room with the celeb-person and we all talked communally and asked questions. I figured this would probably be similar, but couldn’t be sure. When I showed up, Grant popped out of a nearby bathroom and walked into the media office. I flashed him a look that said “I’ll be speaking to you shortly my friend,” but which he probably interpreted as “creepy.”
I went in, met with the event coordinator, and he escorted me into a private office where Kari and Grant were waiting. To my delight and surprise I was granted ten minutes of personal interview time with them! In a professional, relaxed, and all around cool manner (…pretty much) I introduced myself. We sat down and I asked them a couple of my preset questions. I tried to stay away from obvious ones that they probably hear constantly and would likely be covered in the presentation to follow. We also chatted a little about the campus, the area, and why they decided to go on a campus tour.
Before I knew it my time was up. I shook their hands and wished them luck in their presentation. It was a pretty awesome experience, but I didn’t have time to enjoy it. I needed to address my next concern – getting into the show itself.
I noticed that people getting in line had physical tickets, and I had none. I tracked down the coordinator and secured a press-pass ticket (to my relief). I was a little worried that my journey would be cut short half way through. I went into the auditorium and took my seat. After an introduction and blooper real of Mythbusters, Kari and Grant took a long Q&A session and revealed some very cool behind-the-scenes info about the show. I don’t want to go into too much presentation detail here, hopefully I can write up a real article about the event and link to it.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any really good pictures. I snapped a few crappy ones though – I’ll post those once I figure out if they are usable or not.
After all was said and done, I’m very happy I took the leap and met with Kari and Grant. They were awesome and hopefully Mythbusters stays on the air for a long time to come!
***update – my interview was published with associated content, check it out here – http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/738599/penn_staters_get_a_behind_the_scenes.html?cat=49
images – http://www.tvguide.com/images/pgimg/mythbusters20.jpg, http://www.mythbustersfanclub.com/mb2/images/stories/grant-bunny3.jpg
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