Sunday, April 8, 2012

Kata: perception and experience

At a training session a couple of weeks ago sensei asked some of the black belts to critique her Hangetsu kata. One of my fellow yudansha suggested that the first set of moves did not come across as strong enough, perhaps lacking the dynamic tension that usually accompanies the techniques. Sensei took the point but said that she was engaging the tension and felt it, and this brings up an aspect of kata that I feel quite strongly about - the experience of doing a kata for yourself against the perception of an outsider who can mostly only view the kata as a performance.

My belief is that kata is not a performance for others, which is why I'm not interested in competition karate (and I'm not saying there is no skill in competition kata - of course there is). I'm not fanatical about ending on exactly the same spot on which I started the kata, and I don't consider my kata a failure if I put in an extra shuffle into an attacking technique, or if I occasionally target a nukite at the throat rather than the solar plexus.

What matters is how it feels to me as I fight along the embusen. I use the word 'fight' here quite deliberately. When I do a kata, it is a fight. I am delivering fighting techniques in order to practice them in movement, but I also take on a serious martial attitude and try to put 100% into every technique. I 'see' the enemy, I imagine the move against an invisible force. The fight is internal.

I said that I don't necessarily do every technique perfectly, but I do attempt to. That is also part of the fight - overcoming my physical failings to try and execute the moves with precision as best as I can. Technical perfection is not the be-all and end-all of kata, but you shouldn't use that as an excuse for bad technique. You know when you've missed the mark, or when you've 'phoned it in', and when you do, the only loser is yourself.

In relation to that, this is not a defence against criticism or constructive comments, which are helpful - and a good teacher or fellow student can always point out areas of improvment. If I felt that a mae geri I did within a kata felt particularly strong, but someone later pointed out that my heel was off the ground, I would note that and next time try to combine the strong front kick with better stability - the fight goes on. Similarly, if sensei felt she was putting in good dynamic tension, but her sempai suggested it could be better, that will make her question her technique and focus on it next time.

Still, we've all seen those YouTube comments where the writer criticises the performance (and it becomes a performance as soon as it is for the benefit of a viewer, even if unintended) because a fist is an inch too high, or the move appears to lack kime, and I think the majority of those comments show a lack of understanding of what kata is really about. They are interested only in show, and kata is not show.

Many of these comments are from students of one style criticising another style that they don't understand, or are totally ignorant about. Just look at the comments under almost any Shotokai kata ...

"... it's like a poor japanese imitation of tai chi, except tai chi would whup your ass... go learn a real style"
"umm but wheres the impact?"
"His limbs are a bit flimsy, more hard work on overall basics, speed and Kimi, and it will be there."
"Is this a joke?..."
"... no kime! this is a power kata not a dance?"
"looks like shotokan ... but with no effort, my 9 year old does it like that"

All these commenters are showing, in my opinion, is their ignorance of another style and, probably, a bit of self-delusion about their own ability too!

Another aspect is the physical limitations of the person doing the kata. A person who can only kick knee-high is doing no less of a kata than someone who shows off by doing all their yoko-geri a foot above their own head level. No two people have the same physical ability, no two people do a kata the same way.

I am always pleased when I finish a kata and felt my techniques were nearly faultless, when every punch snapped and my kicks felt as though they could take someone's head off; when I jumped and spun and landed like a cat, and when my kime caused a glance or two. Rare, but nice. I have also had a kata recorded on video that felt as though it was a real battle, where I lived every technique, and then viewed it later to see it looked about as vibrant as a wet fish (that's another thing about video, of course, it automatically strips off a layer or two of vibrancy no matter how good the kata).

There's always room for improvement, but kata aren't for collecting on video to impress - what matters is the sweat and intention and what it adds to me as a karateka, how it improves me, not how it entertains or impresses others.

It's nice to see a showy kata, but it's a diversion. Kata is all about making yourself better.

There are two different things going on here.

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