It’s not that you don’t do it. I’m sure that if you are a form practitioner interested in bringing a functional purpose beyond postural exercise to your forms then you do. It’s just that some people seem to pay no more than lip service to actual analysis when arriving at their applications. For me bunkai is about methodology and criteria. I’m very strict about what I teach, for what purpose I teach it, the context of each tactic, and why I choose to drill some applications and not others.
In my Pinan Flow System series of books I discussed many of the criteria I use when assessing potential applications as to whether I deem them worthy of inclusion in my teaching and training repertoire. To borrow an analogy from recent popular culture, my bunkai process sits like Thor’s hammer Mjolnir in the Avengers’ Headquarters, and impressive characters like Captain America, Iron Man and Hulk attempt and fail to lift it. Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark remarks “The handle is imprinted, right? Like a security code. “Whoever is carrying Thor’s fingerprints,” I think, is the literal translation.” and some might think that in similar vein my bunkai process only chooses applications that I have formed myself, but as Thor observes “Yes, well, that’s a very interesting theory. However, I have a simpler one. You’re all not worthy.” Thor’s honesty (and that Mjolnir does accept other worthy people) is demonstrated later in the film by the character Vision also lifting the hammer. In similar vein I will obviously use good material from other people that meets my analysis criteria. I’m always looking for it when I cross train, and I have referenced in books and videos other instructors such as Rick Clark or Waldo Zapata when I have taken or adapted a drill that I’ve seen them do that lifts my Mjolnir.
So what do I look for through my bunkai? I’m certainly not trying to retrospectively work out the purpose someone in the past saw in a single movement or sequence. Past use or historical accuracy does not guarantee effectiveness or appropriateness in our environment. I have seen in one demonstration of another art an application which I think is such a good fit for a kata sequence that it is highly likely to be the ‘original’ envisioned use; unfortunately it is only appropriate for one on one encounters on soft ground and so I will not drill it – it fails the criteria of my bunkai. If I was teaching seminars in kata application for MMA matches I’d probably train and demonstrate it.
My analysis criteria to find applications looks for movements and tactics meeting as many as possible of a number of combative principles. Here are mine with brief explanatory notes. This is the Mjolnir used to forge my applications.
HAOV Relevant – focusing on habitual acts of violence, whether for pre-emptive use in pre fight posturing, or recovering the initiative from the most likely forms of initial attack, delivering an effective follow through in the event of tactic failure, or dealing with likely secondary or tertiary attacks from failures are important to me because that is the environment for which I am training my students. The physical acts of violence within HAOV may include defending against ‘professional’ or skilled tactics, but I do distinguish between habitual and historical. Purely focusing on the physical techniques is martial arts training not self defence, teaching them alongside patterns of crime, avoidance, deterrence, negation/de-escalation, legal underpinning, aftermath etc. is where more accurately you are teaching self defence as part of personal safety/self protection.
Legally Underpinned – this is not the weak option. This is not about increasing your risks in a situation, it is about decreasing your risks afterwards. This is about understanding force and how to use it effectively within the law. It’s about having a training methodology that results in drills that lessen the risk to practitioners should they have to engage in non-consensual violence. This is an important aspect of self protection. You’re not in an action flick; violence has consequences.
Effective, Efficient and Easy
Minimising Risk of Harm (defender) – I don’t often stress this because I think it is obvious. Protect your head! Don’t rely purely on your technique working. I shudder every time I see someone hit or enter while demonstrating a kata application without doing this. I slap myself if I get so distracted by teaching that I don’t do it in demonstration. If both hands are engaged then not doing this makes sense, but both hands should not be engaged if your head is in or going through a potential striking line.
Technique Multiplicity with Transferable Skills – You don’t want a huge repertoire. You want a small repertoire that can effectively be used to do a lot of different things. You also want the training efficiency that comes from transferable skills.
Utilising Predictable Response – This isn’t simply about how people are likely to attack you if you stand one way rather than another, it’s more about understanding how people really move when things work and when things don’t. You need to hit people and grapple with people to find this out.
Taking and maintaining the Initiative
Inherent Redundancy – Things go wrong, things fail. It might be due to size, strength, angle, or intoxication. You have to have back ups.
Vital Points Targeting – I’m not really talking about Kyusho here, although there are overlaps. Go for weak points. Maximise the efficiency of your movements. This is the secret ingredient in the icing on the cake – the ingredients and cooking of the cake is more important overall.
Adrenaline Tolerant – It’s got to work under pressure. Raising your heart rate can simulate some aspects of this but it’s not the same. While I’d like to see it with bigger group samples to draw firm conclusions, I’ve seen similar increases in combination lock opening times between 5 minutes of hard aerobic exercise and 1 minute of verbal argument followed by 3 second fight simulations in scenario training.
Low Maintenance – It should be simple. That doesn’t mean it can’t have several stages and turns. A lot of things look or feel complex until you’ve done them a few times (watch beginners trying to turn their hips or coordinate arms and legs), but it should be easy to keep at a high skill level.
Stable Posture – Your techniques should not compromise your balance.
Unbalancing – We should always be looking to reduce the other person’s ability to unbalance us, hit us, or brace against a hit.
Multiple Person Awareness – you can only effectively fight one person at a time, but doing so should hinder the ability of others to join in rather than make you an easy target. Some favour close range for this, others favour long range. I certainly favour movement, changing angles and head protection with any free arm.
Holistic Integrity – A technique can be great, but if it doesn’t fit with everything else you do it’s near useless to you. Techniques and tactics need to fit together and be able to flow into each other (see redundancy). An application may look cool, but does it force you to make a completely different initial response to normal?