Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What's wrong with that guy's kata?

Along Fitzgerald Lake in the fall.
[I was going to stop at 108...but maybe I'll just post one or two more. After all, what significance do numbers have anyway?]

Winter's coming. I can tell because the last hard rain took most of the leaves off the sycamore tree in the back yard. It's been a wonderful fall. The leaves have been beautiful, especially walking the trails out around Fitzgerald Lake. Since I retired, I feel as though I've finally got the time to really look at things. Like leaves. Millions of leaves out in this little hundred acre wood--well actually it's a little bigger than that. But it's easy to approach these paths with the wonder of a child on beautiful fall days. And I find myself stopping to pick up and examine leaves the way my children did when they were two or three or four years old.
This position, coming before
the techniques under
consideration, is the
same in each school.

No two leaves are exactly the same, at least in the fall when they change colors and the slow and inevitable process of decay begins. Of course, there's an analogy lost in there somewhere, covered over with piles of autumn leaves. It reminds me of something my daughter said the other day, watching her brother finish a bowl of ice cream that he had said he wasn't going to eat. Something about Newton's first law of motion or was it Galileo's concept of inertia? Anyway, it got me to thinking about kata.

The final position is
also the same.
For years, I've wondered why there were differences, some subtle and perhaps insignificant and some quite glaring, between how the different schools of Okinawan Goju did kata. If Higa Seiko sensei and Miyagi Chojun sensei both studied under Higashionna sensei, and Yagi (Meibukan), Toguchi (Shoreikan), and Miyazato (Jundokan) all studied under Miyagi and/or Higa, then why were there differences in how some of the Goju classical kata were preformed? The only explanation I could imagine (if we rule out faulty transmission) is that different teachers' understandings--or perhaps execution--of the bunkai informed (or changed) the way they did kata. Or, put another way, they each had different ideas how best to accomplish the same thing. Over time, these subtle differences became more pronounced, until certain moves in kata took on what became, by appearances at least, obvious differences. That is, perhaps they all knew the same bunkai (one specific  bunkai, I would suggest), but each did it a little differently, depending on body type, movement, etc.

(4) Shodokan version.
A case in point is Sanseiru kata. Of the classical Goju kata, Sanseiru seems to exhibit the most striking differences between the four major schools of Okinawan Goju: Shodokan, Meibukan, Shoreikan, and Jundokan. One of the more glaring examples of these differences might be this double open hand move found in the middle of the kata (4). It is done first to the left (west) side (shown) and then to the right (east) side. In the first of these, as it is done in Shodokan schools (Higa), we see a left, palm up chest block with a right, hooking upper-level palm strike, in basic stance. In the other three schools of Goju, the kata shifts into a right foot forward shiko dachi, with the right arm, hand open, in an upper-level block, and the left hand, palm up, striking with a nukite (5). (See illustrations.) They look very different, both the feet and the hands. But suppose neither one is actually wrong, except in what they imagine is going on. Suppose they are actually executing the same bunkai!?

(5) Other schools.
As I suggested in a previous blog ("The Structure of Kata: putting two and two together...or not"), this is not the initial sequence or uke (receiving) technique but the controlling or bridging technique. And instead of the left hand blocking and the right hand attacking (Shodokan), or vice-versa (the other schools), both hands are grabbing the opponent's head; the lower hand grabbing the chin, while the upper hand grabs the head. Utilizing the position of either of these accomplishes the same thing. (Note: It's important to mention here that we're seeing both techniques without the corresponding entry technique.)

So, if one looks at it this way, it suggests that the teachers that originally learned from Higashionna sensei or Miyagi sensei, and went on to establish their own schools, knew and practiced the same bunkai, even though the katas look quite different. And it also fits the general tenor of techniques in the Goju classical subjects.

The problem then, if this is the case, is not with the differences found in the different schools but in later followers who never learned the original bunkai and had to fend for themselves in attempting to interpret movement that was perhaps idiosyncratic and certainly a bit cryptic without the original teacher there to explain it. In other words, the differences in kata do not necessarily point to differences in bunkai. Which, I suppose, in the best of liberal traditions, suggests that it may be more fruitful to find commonality in things that differ to some degree than to dwell on differences in things that seem by and large so similar. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all bunkai are correct, just that that guy's kata, as different as it may look, may be just as "correct" or at least fundamentally the same. What was it Robert Frost said? Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...and in the end, they led to the same place?

When it comes to leaves, however, I can't help noticing--and appreciating--their wonderful variety and stunning beauty. I may turn into a rabid leaf peeper yet. And isn't it ironic that
we take notice of their incredible beauty in the fall, just as they're on the verge of dying?

[Well, that's my two cents anyway. Hope I didn't give too much away. Then again...]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Structure of Kata: putting two and two together...or not

Final technique of the opening
sequence of Seiunchin kata.
I was thinking about structure the other day--how we put things together. I suppose in some sense structure is how we make sense of our lives, how we connect things. Writers think about structure a lot, I imagine. You have to when you tell a story. You can begin at the beginning, slowly and painstakingly making your way to the end in the order that things occur, or you can meander this way and that way, filling in details, providing explanations, making sure there are no loose ends, but by all appearances a seemingly chaotic or at least random order. Very few stories, in fact, seem to stick to a linear model. Writers are always experimenting with narrative structure. They have to, I suppose,because they already know the end of the story.

There's a sort of narrative structure to Goju-ryu kata as well. The problem is that the structures differ; not all of the katas conform to the same structure, which, of course, is a strong argument to bolster any research that would suggest that the classical subjects of Goju-ryu, though part of a system, were created by different people at different times. If Goju classical kata were created by a single individual at one period in history--as the Pinan kata are said to have been the creation of Itosu--then they would probably conform to similar patterns, like the Pinan katas. But they don't.
Thematic double open
hand technique from
Shisochin kata.

That being said, there seem to be certain rules that each of the Goju kata do conform to. For example, techniques which are shown twice in a kata are shown on both the left and right sides, but the finishing technique of the sequence is only shown once, at the end of the second repetition. Techniques that are shown three times are usually base techniques (as we see at the beginning of Sanseiru) or thematic (as they seem to be in Shisochin) or indicative of the number of bunkai sequences seen in the kata (as in the case of Seisan and Sanseiru). And techniques that are shown four times (as in the elbow/forearm techniques of Seiunchin) should be treated as two pairs of techniques (though Suparinpei seems to be a whole other kettle of fish).

The other element of structure that seems to be followed in all of the Goju classical subjects is that the turns and changes of direction in kata are not arbitrary but instead indicate the direction of attack and how one should step off the line of attack. And certainly there are others.

Yet even when these "rules" are applied, we still see differences in kata structure within the Goju system as a whole. Saifa and Seiunchin begin with actual bunkai sequences--though two of the opening sequences of Seiunchin are incomplete, the finishing technique being shown only after the third sequence, which in itself is a structural difference from Saifa. Shisochin and Sanseiru begin with basic techniques (three open hand techniques in one and three closed hand techniques in the other), not bunkai sequences per se, that share a thematic connection with the rest of their respective katas. Seisan begins with three sets of three basic openings, while Kururunfa sticks its three basic techniques after the openings that are shown on both the right and left sides. And Seipai begins with a complete bunkai sequence, sort of like Saifa, but only shown once.

Furthermore, Saifa has only four complete bunkai sequences, while Seiunchin has five. Shisochin has
Controlling or bridging
technique from
Sanseiru kata.
three--though there is some variation and repetition even then--just as Sanseiru and Seisan, whereas Seipai has five and Kururunfa, four.

The problem is that you need to understand the structure of a kata in order to understand its bunkai and not fall into the kind of piecemeal analysis that so often characterizes what we see on the Internet and frequently leads to questionable interpretations of kata technique. For example, the last technique of Saifa kata--the step, turn, and mawashi--is probably the finishing technique of the previous sequence, which is itself shown on both sides, beginning with the block, sweep, and hammerfist strike, rather than an independent technique or additional bunkai sequence of its own. Why? Because that's the way the "mawashi uke" technique appears to be used in all of the other classical subjects of Goju-ryu. Not proof, of course, that there isn't an exception, but a strong argument perhaps.

But structure can also "hide" bunkai, and often does in Goju kata, particularly when the initial or opening technique (uke) is separated from what should follow it, the controlling/bridging technique and finishing techniques. This is what we see in Sanseiru kata. Or, when the opening techniques themselves get split up--something we see in the four-direction double arm movements of Shisochin
One of the four double
arm opening moves
of Shisochin kata.
kata--effectively "hiding" how the opening techniques and directional changes are employed.

The question, of course, is why the creators of these kata put them together this way. There's no question that it has led to a great deal of confusion. Did they do it to intentionally hide techniques? Or is it just the most efficient and fluid way to execute the techniques? I've tried to reconstruct kata, stringing complete bunkai sequences together, and it often gets awkward or doesn't finish facing the original front direction. Perhaps it was to emphasize that sequences and combinations could be taken apart and put back together in different ways. Or perhaps they were interested in showing an escalating level of violence--that is, the second of a paired sequence shows a much more violent response. For example, in the final sequence of Saifa kata, the first side shows a block, sweep, hammerfist strike, and undercut, but the second side adds a punch, head-twisting neck break (mawashi), and knee kick. So was the intention to hide technique, or was this common structure the most efficacious and time-saving method of preserving technique? These are, of course, questions that are impossible to answer, but the importance of understanding the structure of kata is obvious.