Monday 9 November 2009

Karate-Do Kata: Depth & Substance

My teachers instructor, Nakayama Masatoshi Sensei lavishly described Unsu kata in the following way (in ‘Best Karate Volume 10’). “In Unsu there are constant transformations, signified by the name meaning “Cloud Hands.” All parts of the body are used as weapons, with feints and provocations leading to unique combination techniques and multi directional kicks.”

This and last weeks training has largely been dedicated to Unsu kata, and primarily the rendition of Unsu that Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei taught , which differs significantly from the version now seen in competitions. Like the other standard Shotokan karate-do kata, Asai Sensei had a different take on it. However, I think this is typical amongst the masters of karate-do, based on their application preferences, and unique physical attributes. With little analysis it is easy to establish, that even though ‘standard' technical form must be adhered to, we must still develop our ‘own karate’. Little do some people know, as many kata as Asai Sensei introduced and engineered, he was actually 'kumite focused'. To him, the kata he passed on were for this purpose, martial arts-fighting technique.

It is therefore not hard to understand why Asai Sensei didn’t like posing in kata, such as the overly long pauses now commonly seen. Nor did he like ‘technique changes’ in the 26 kata as established by the JKA (Japan Karate Association). He believed that by working inside of the highly refined Kyokai framework, that one would gain the most benefits. For example, such things as doing thrust kicks instead of snap kicks in Gankaku, jumping high after the mikazuki geri in Kanku Sho, over exaggerated breathing and robotic movements infuriated him. He would say such things as “People must work with the kata, not change it to work in with themselves or come across as being athletic”. He wasn’t saying, “don’t make the kata your own” but rather “use the kata as a tool to improve yourself... Don't change the exterior, change the interior!"

Whilst I’ve practiced Unsu for many years, I certainly do not claim to be good at it, nor any other kata in the ‘performance sense’. My goal is, and has always been, to continue seeking to improve my skills, via kata and all the other forms of training, keeping foremost in mind that kihon is kata, and kata is kumite. Asai Sensei's perspective was if each technique in kata, is kumite focused, it may not win competitions, but who cares? Its depth and substance will far exceed the most intricate/flashy ‘performances’. Therefore, "if kata is kumite, it is truly beautiful”, and will be appreciated by those who understand true karate.

© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

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