“Soul of karate, is kata".So goes the cliché. How many times have you heard it, and like the boy who sees the king’s new clothes, longed to shout out; ”But he’s bollock naked”. Worse still, how many times have you repeated that truism, yet in your heart of hearts, longed that it were really true! Well, perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps if you put karate at the soul of your kata, things might look a little different. This is only a theory, but here’s the way I see it.
Picture the scene, a battle worn landscape in feudal Japan/China/Okinawa. (It doesn’t matter which, we’re all suckers for Oriental mysticism. Try selling your art as having its origins in feudal
Eventually, some of these students become quite good. They want to become teachers themselves. With the blessing of the master, off they go into the wide world with this kata in their toolbag and spread the word.
Over time individuals forget a bit, make it up by adding a bit they think looks right. Perhaps they find one part doesn’t work for them at all, so the cut it out altogether, or modify it to suit their personal abilities or body shape. The next generation never saw the original (which by now has been modified by the master anyway, because he’s changed his mind, changed his style, or forgotten it himself). In a very few months (really, I mean it- that’s all it takes) there are a dozen different versions of the same form knocking around. Each is being taught in earnest, and each is based upon the principles as understood, by the teacher from his teacher in turn.
In time the “Ryu” (for that’s what it has become) is so big that the various branches and sub branches cannot possibly refer back to each other, and the kata has evolved into a plethora of sub-species.
In this hypothetical scenario, nobody is suggesting anything other than an honourable intent in the succession of teachers, but nevertheless the kata has changed both in form, and often in intent from the original. Now the fifth-generation instructor has to try to remember or deduce exactly what the old master had in mind when he said “Hold your hand in that position, and move your foot like that”.
In the end, in order to justify his position as teacher, he desperately “invents” a bunkai for each obscure tweak of the knuckles, blissfully unaware that when he was taught it, his instructor had already developed arthritis in his wrist, and was actually trying to do something completely different!
To illustrate my point, I’ll indulge myself with a bit of name-dropping. Back in the early 80’s I attended a course under Terry O’Neill and Frank Brennan headlined “Kata Bunkai”. We started with Frank, who had us practicing Sochin. As you can imagine, his form was excellent, but I don’t recall him actually showing any applications. We then moved to Terry, who declared “I don’t know anything about kata. If you want to learn about kata, go and talk to him”, and gestured towards his colleague. “What I can teach you about application, is the spirit you need to show” he continued. Mr O’Neill then bade us stand up and pair up and one partner turn and face a wall. That partner was to go wild, screaming and bashing the wall in frenzy. At Sensei’s command, the other partner would tap us on the shoulder. We were to immediately turn, and take our “attacker” to the ground. The lesson here is that the intense, passionate commitment shown in this drill should be exactly that shown in your kata practice. If by turn your kumite, shiai and kihon could contain the same passion, you have a complete training package.
That’s what I mean by putting karate at the soul of your kata. So forget the “hidden Bunkai” palaver for a minute. If you work Taikyoku, or Nijushiho, or Saifa, or whatever, with unbridled aggressive commitment every time, all the time, it WILL improve your karate. Try it, you might surprise yourself.