Kata is often viewed by both detractors and supporters as a dead beast. Supporters respect its usefulness through the technical repertoire it provides while detractors point out (and they do have a point) that the same skills could probably be learnt more usefully, effectively and efficiently through the dynamism of sparring. There are of course many Kata techniques that are never seen in sparring (the majority of them I suspect), primarily because the rules (and the range and limitations they enforce) do not permit it, but also because the techniques themselves are either inadequately understood or too hard to control in the struggle of close range combat.
It is through bunkai (and oyo – if you really want to distinguish between the two) that we attempt to realise the intent of the techniques of the Kata. Bunkai is often very different to the sort of sparring described above, adhering more to a beginners one step or two step dance than a challenging dynamic exchange of techniques. I often see tremendously contrived bunkai where an attacker has to make several specific techniques in sequence in order to the assigned bunkai to work – fine if these reflect techniques or combinations of techniques that the defender in question is likely to face (whether in self defence or in sport) but pathetic if they require a rigid sequence, technique combination, timing and distancing that match no plausible attack. Then we have the current flavours of our time: bunkai involving the use of pressure points and bunkai utilising grappling techniques. I have no problem with either of these (since both have a traceable past in early Karate texts such as the Okinawan Bubishi); they do however need to reflect attacks and positions that both defender and attacker could find themselves in (again either in a sport or self defence situation) and are reliable under extremes of pressure and adrenaline.
So can bunkai be brought alive and applied in unpredictable training? This does depend upon the definition we choose to use for alive. I’d say it’s where either practitioner has the freedom to use whatever techniques they want (with no pre-arranged technique type (for example punch or kick) or range, but I do wish to add a caveat. Much of traditional Karate technique relies on impact. By this I refer to the fact that when you hit a person, their body moves and their posture changes. The movement of the target as a result of impact will naturally affect the choice of any following technique and thus alive training should either be almost full contact with both participants wearing good quality body armour or touch with both participants endeavouring to move as if they had been hit. The latter action takes some training and fast reflexes in static and dynamic bunkai practise and is probably near impossible in alive training – hence for me if both are to deliver powerful techniques then protection is required – that way each person will move naturally since all they will have to consider is the fight (well – almost, but I’ll get on to that) rather than how they should move if hit.
There is a further catch, and this comes down to the purpose of the bunkai. If the bunkai is solely being practised to become a better Karateka or sport competitor then all that I have said above is fine, if however the bunkai is being practised for self defence then the situation above only applies to the defender since the attacker should predominantly be constrained to the use of habitual acts of violence.
If you look at the make up of Karate Kata you can see that there are comparatively few punching techniques overall compared to other body movements. This may come as a shock, it may not be something you’ve really considered, but if you don’t believe me – go ahead and count. In close proximity many of the techniques that seem too cumbersome to utilise in ‘real’ sparring take on a new dynamic as they push and unbalance and turn other people both before, during and after making contact. Distance changes everything. It’s difficult to use a straight or reverse punch when you are almost chest to chest with someone (or if you are), the so-called blocking techniques come into their own. Start a trend – call them receivers and alter your student perception of them from day one.
Can we make bunkai alive? The answer is yes, but we do need to decide what level of compromise we are prepared to accept. If we want to keep techniques directed towards the eyes then obviously a visor is needed. If we want to use controls then some form of verbal safety escape cue is required (if you train to tap on the street what happens if your attacker taps you while in a lock?). If you want to hit to the head then you need to pull techniques on impact and wear gloves and head protection, otherwise you won’t be training for long, but if you want to be able to grapple you’ll need to restrict the padding on your gloves.
Once you start exercising Kata in this way you’ll be amazed at how the movements can take on a life of their own – how in many cases the precise sequences of existing forms actually do work (in many different ways) in their precise sequences. The training can be done dynamically without safety equipment, and I have taught my flow drills in both the UK and the USA in this way, but I would advise anyone wishing to take the big step to aliveness to get some high quality body armour – and given the techniques of Kata, I’d advise coverage for the legs, knees, groin and back, in addition to the normal head and torso protectors.
Should Kata bunkai be trained alive? If you are training for self defence or for any form of close range combative contest my answer would be yes. Alive training pressure tests you and your ability to apply techniques and keep thinking in a manner that no other training can. Alive bunkai carries a relatively high risk of injury compared to other forms of practice and thus, in my opinion, should be restricted to students with sufficient experience (and previous pressure testing) to exercise control. Dynamic bunkai training in set drills is a reasonable alternative until students reach that level. In general in Karate we are used to seeing three levels of sparring, pre-arranged static sparring, pre-arranged dynamic sparring and freestyle. Why don’t we train bunkai in the same way?
Kata doesn’t have to be dead.