Kata are not answers. I don’t view them as a procedural list - they are not a “what to do” series of techniques, but rather a “how to.”
In studying them we have to be careful not to lose the vitality of what makes them important to begin with. Sometimes I fear they are relied on as an instructional set and “performed” or merely “reenacted.” They should not be. Instead, they ought to be brought to life and made viable.
Kata are tools to ask better questions. As such, they are a wonderful means of spontaneous creativity, a measured study in the efficiency of organization for internal and external alignment, a lesson in the practical to tactical (I like to say “tacticality”), as well as a tutoring in history.
We had a great session the other night - a brain buster as we took it from the perspective of “method” rather than “technique.” The first thing we did was open the book and look at the notes. We happened to be using Soke’s, Unarmed Fighting Techniques of the Samurai. I handed the book to a student, he paged through it, and picked out Ken Nagare, from the Togakure ryu:
The opponent comes in to cut down from daijodan with a long sword. Immediately execute the technique for falling face down, and strike the solar plexus with the right fist. Turn to face the opposite direction using the method for falling, turn, and stand. Assume zanshin.
Ukemi in Togakure ryu is a shinkengata, which is about real fighting. We read the notes in English, although I would have appreciated turning to the back of the book to translate Soke’s original notes. As my Japanese is rust-covered, we relied on the English translation. Mind you, we did not allow the translation to dictate our training. We let our Taijutsu do that.
|Aww, come on ...|
The first go through is intentionally difficult and a mess. As the guys were using fukuro shinai there was a lot of head and body mashing and then the inevitable turn to speed and power to counter said mashing. The result is utter confusion. I like the confusion. It’s a solid way for students to recognize their progress and see just how far they can come once clarity is established. So, we clarify.
First, we looked at the attack. Uke, the swordsman, is trying to lead - shape – the response and options of Tori, the fellow trying not to die by the sword. This involves shaping responses and providing the kinds of options to keep safe and make the opponent less safe. As such, we follow two main rules:
1. Be Honest: Strike as you would strike, not as some generic attacker is “supposed” to. The “uprightness” of honesty here is in being “authentic” of self. In essence, not simply “striking to strike” in the context of training, but instead “striking to kill” because that’s what you would be doing in life or death circumstances. That may involve all manner of crafting your movement so you cannot be denied the kill – leading, maneuvering, whatever.
2. Be Tactical: Only strike in a way that is necessary to insure that honesty. Move in the least amount with maximum results.
The result, if you could not guess, was that Tori failed to “strike the solar plexus with the right fist” so long as Uke didn’t cut like a dummy. In fact, Tori failed miserably, over and over again. It was great. Very good attacks. And exactly where we need to be.
“But wait a minute,” you may be asking, “What’s the point?” If Uke’s attack is so good that its kill cannot be denied, then how are you supposed to “do” the kata? Great question. The answer to it is what makes training kata so valuable to begin with.
Shaping the body, the cut, and the moment in such a way - an attack with no openings - as to prevent Tori from being able to complete the kata is to recognize and direct us to the challenge of its response. The answer we come to is to the reject the idea of trying to “do” the kata at all, take the sword, wanting to “strike the solar plexus with the right fist,” or whatever.
From a Tori, defender, point of view, we must try to lead Uke by creating a new and better line that they have no choice but to follow. The only way to surmount the terrible odds of a superior weapon and position is to allow them to "kill" you. If they are intent on leading you, we must allow them to do it to their satisfaction. This is the only way to get ahead of them and shape the space, the moment, so their only choice – if they wish to remain honest and tactical – is to do exactly and only exactly what you allow for them so they can fulfill their action. And if, for whatever reason, they do not remain “honest and tactical,” they are easy pickings because this all comes down to who is better at shaping the space (the moment).
The practical of all this is that once Tori understands well positionally where all the mashing, killing, and death is, they can then establish a position where all of that is not. Then, slowly, as Tori and Uke begin to move toward each other, Tori can begin shaping themselves to breach Uke’s “no opening” attack by using the very same strategy Uke is using but with one difference: Self-risk in the form of ukemi or as the kata says, “the technique for falling face down.” How and what this is exactly is something you should discover for yourself through training. Having me explain it defies the point.
By expanding their self-risk, Tori is able to place Uke in a compromising spot. If executed well enough, Uke will find themselves at a crossroad: Either they must attack or retreat. But attacking means compromising their “tacticality” as does retreating – neither option is good, although both seem reasonable. It is at that point, Tori can successfully fulfill the kata, no matter Uke’s choice. In fact, the guys were so successful, that we were able to craft all manner of henka from the original kata and wound up moving in several different but equally successful ways, even at the hands of a continually so-called “no openings” attack.
The successes by Tori were then in stark relief to their frustration of being mashed earlier by Uke’s shinai. Now, in a complete reversal, it was Uke’s turn to be frustrated, for no matter how well they shaped or tried to lead, the moment continually belonged to Tori. The “insurmountable” and “undefeatable” attack was surmounted and defeated, even to the point of playing with and being creative with the manner of its defeat.
Here’s a quick rundown:
1. Establish an honest, tactical attack by Uke shaped to kill Tori that cannot be denied.
2. Establish a safe position for Tori, outside the range of attack.
3. Have Tori maneuver toward Uke incrementally from far to close.
4. Through maneuvering, establish the “moment” at which Tori can gain advantage and shape Uke's attack to deliver the technique in the kata.
5. Shape henka.
|Camo jumpsuit - check. Lollypop - check. Headband - check.|
Awesomeness - hell yeah.
On a scale of zero to ten, zero being death, ten being the combined ability of every Sho Kosugi character from every Ninja movie he ever made, ever, (BTW you will never be this awesome) try to establish oneself as going not from zero to ten, but from zero to one - possible injury, but not death. The way we compensated for this is by training as if we had armor on, at least, at first.
By bypassing to ten and trying to perform the kata “perfectly,” which in reality means no honesty and no tacticality, folks miss the incremental nature of building and shaping the space because there is essentially no consequences for failure. In other words, (actually those of Shidoshi Kris McKinney) don't let the kata fool you into being dishonest. The more we examined this the more we could understand how to go from “one” to “two” and “two” to “four” and so on. Effectiveness giving way to efficiency.
There was a lot to discover, much more than this - in fact, it made our brains hurt. By not following the “technique,” and instead following the “method,” the principles manifested and the kata went from the page to viability.