EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
Welcome to issue 123, we have two interviews in this edition. Both interviews were kindly conducted exclusively for SKM by Dr Anton Sàlat. The first is with JKA sensei, Seizo Izumiya 7th Dan a senior instructor at the JKA Honbu dojo in Tokyo. I have never had the pleasure of training under him but I have heard many reports that he is an excellent instructor with some quite original training ideas.
I know Shinji Akita from his time in England as Kawasoe sensei’s assistant. Shinji’s karate is very clean technique, typical JKA style Shotokan. He studied at Takushoku University which explains that, Naka sensei was there at the same time. They all have that very obvious JKA karate style, with an emphasis on good form, alignment, kime and basic technique as the underlying basis of their karate. It has been said that karate students from Takushoku University all look the same.... I can see the point, it’s a particular style of technique and movement that distinguishes them, it comes across mostly when they do basic techniques.
It’s like classical ballet dancers will all look similar to the untrained eye but in fact they are all completely different with their interpretation of ballet, just like the Takushoku students, but the basic movements look the same. This is quite an interesting point, because many years ago I remember people saying that it was very easy to recognise a Shotokan student here in the UK, just from their style and movement. They all had very long, exaggerated stances. I think this has changed quite a lot in recent years. Karateka have realised that they can’t all fit the same mold, it all depends on their individual body genus. It used to be a case of, ‘square pegs, in round holes! Good instructors these days stress the importance of making karate suit your own body type and not the other way around.
It was interesting to read what Izumiya sensei said in his interview about hip-replacements which are very common here in England and in Europe – and in the West in general but apparently not so in Japan. It’s quite debatable but all the people (karateka) that I know of who have had hip replacements were, or possibly still are what we would call, ‘kickers’. People who definitely favoured kicking techniques both in competition and in general training. Maybe there could be something in this, who knows. Poor technique also counts!
I’ve never heard of other sports having this same problem, so maybe over-training in keri waza could be the cause of this. It appears that only older, non-active people usually need this operation so it seems strange that so many middle aged karateka who have trained for many years have had to have this type of surgery. The good news is that from what I have seen, they usually get back to normal training whereas after knee operations one has to compromise, especially with keri waza. Most karate related injuries are caused by wear and tear after years of continual training. Unfortunately not much can be done about this, only taking more care.
Good Health, Good Training, Editor.
PRESENTING BUT NOT PARTICIPATING. By John Cheetham.
There’s been so much discussion and debate regarding the application, analysis and meaning of kata over the last few years, bunkai/oyo etc, yet there seems to be little or no debate or analysis regarding the ‘performance’ of kata, as if this aspect is now meaningless! What a regretful thing to happen I feel.
To see a kata ‘performed’ or should I say ‘demonstrated’, really well, is a joy to behold in my opinion. And I am not talking about WKF kata performances in competition which to me really are meaningless. All those pauses (for half an hour) are ridiculous as far as I am concerned, where the hell that came from God only knows! They are however fantastic athletes with great agility but the WKF Kata in general leaves me cold!
Now, although I have mentioned kata competition and the word ‘performance’, this article is most definitely not about competition kata. This is about grass roots; doing your kata in the dojo with your peers or at home alone, or watching your fellow students doing their kata or your sensei demonstrating his/her kata.
This is about trying to ‘express’ yourself by using kata as the vehicle. Trying to free yourself from the confines of technique and detail and go beyond that. It’s like the Shu-Ha-Ri of kata: First; you learn the movements of the kata, second; much later, you internalise the kata, and third; finally you free yourself and make the kata your own and develop your own way of expressing and interpreting the kata. All this sounds easy but it is incredibly difficult to achieve. Which is why karate-do is a lifetime pursuit.
I remember watching Shirai sensei perform kata Sochin at a demonstration many, many years ago and it was an experience not to be forgotten. It had so much intention, fluency, softness and power all rolled into one, the complete package. It was quite simply, memorable.
I have to mention kata competition again unfortunately but I don’t see those same qualities these days, only finite detail, technical excellence, brilliant athleticism and in my view, false drama!
I don’t know about other instructors but trying to get across to students to ‘let go’ when they are performing their kata as opposed to ‘thinking’ about every movement is quite a task! We want them to be ‘expressing’ their kata, feeling it. They are often so worried and concerned about correct technique or timing the sequences correctly and tiny details etc, that they miss the whole point of the kata and hence the feeling it should create to an onlooker. They don’t tell the ‘story’ of the kata.
I read once that the four basic tenets of karate are: speed, strength, technique and beauty. I’m not sure I agree entirely with that but it’s a good starting point. It’s also said that four basic tenets for kata are: intention, fluidity, beauty and technique. We will all have our own personal opinions on what constitutes the four basic tenets of both karate and kata, and I’m sure that there would be quite diverse opinions on this.
The late Goju-Kai Master, Gogen Yamaguchi 10th Dan (nicknamed the Cat), said that one way of describing the level which students are at with their kata, is by saying that….. “They are still in the dance”, that is, unable to emote or express their feelings at will. He also said,
“When you say that a student ‘comes out of the dance’ this is the highest compliment one can receive. The eventual perfection of the katas leads not only to physical and spiritual sensitivity but to complete control of all parts of the body. The forms attain new meanings: they enable a student to meditate while in action.”
Now, this all may sound very esoteric, but let’s face it, what we are doing here is not some kind of brute force combat system based purely on physical strength, we are trying to develop a physical art form, a classical system and the performance of our kata is of paramount importance in this endeavour, and I feel it is becoming slightly overlooked.
Surely before a student starts delving into the applications of a particular kata they have to have a good grip on the movements and techniques of the kata in question. Otherwise how can they even grasp the essence of the kata? And the only way they can absorb these techniques and movements is through countless repetitions of the kata involved. They have to develop a ‘feel’ for the kata before they can attempt understanding what it’s all about or what their own personal ideas of application could be.
I have seen many dojo spending hours on pointless, unrealistic applications of the more advanced kata (and by lower grade students at that) when they can’t even perform a half decent Heian kata!! Let’s get our priorities right, the performance and personal, individual interpretation of a kata is equally as important as guessing at what the real application was. Which in fact is what has happened. Application or analysis of kata is pure guess work on the part of the individual. The real meanings and strategies are far more profound and much deeper than most of what passes as application. I thought Mike Clarke’s article in the last issue – ‘Conversational Kata’ described this depth brilliantly, it was an educational piece in my opinion.
I like to see a good performance of a kata, where the intention is obvious, the feel for the whole demonstration is tangible, where you almost ignore the technique or any tiny fault details but the performer gives you something magical, way beyond technique, they connect with you through their interpretation, they tell you a story, they involve you regardless of any technical mishaps.
I watched a Dance programme on TV recently and one of the judges said something really interesting when he offered his critique to one of the dancers, he said, “You are ‘presenting’ the dance but not actually ‘participating’ in it.”
I thought that was an excellent analysis, and describes exactly how many students perform their kata, they become obsessed with the details (presenting) and miss the whole point of the ‘feeling’ and ‘intention’ of the kata (participating).
So for me the performance of a kata is still massively important, equally as important as the applications, in fact it’s all we are left with in old age. You are not going to be doing 200 repetitions of gyaku zuki or mae geri, or fast, furious kumite when you reach 75/80 years of age! No, you will be performing your kata as wonderful, meaningful exercises, which keep your techniques and body movements honed and true, you will be using kata as a tool for self-expression. You will be participating in the ‘art’ of karate-do.
Kata are the jewels of karate so don’t get bogged down with too much detail, try and capture the feel of the story. I think seeing a good kata is like observing a single technique; a good kick or a good strike, see it as one picture, not in parts or sequences. Judge it as a whole not as if it is several parts put together.
Many kata performers these days are technically far better that years gone by but for me they have lost something. They have lost the essence of the kata, they have lost the history, it’s all too perfect, too cosmetic.
I sometimes like to watch the old JKA Movie films from 1956, where all the greats of Shotokan are performing their kata. It’s quite raw compared to today’s performers, but it has something very unique to my mind and unfortunately it’s been lost. They didn’t seem to be worried about perfect technique or minute details, the emphasis was on telling the kata story, the essence, I don’t see that with today’s performers.
Two standout demonstrations of realistic kata from those old JKA movie films were Enoeda sensei’s Bassai Dai and Kase sensei’s Jion. Unfortunately there are no photographs available from those old movie films to my knowledge, although I imagine there maybe something in the JKA archives, but the actual films are available on DVD from SKM Merchandise on our website. So, here we have a few of the images from the actual films. The quality is not good, but who cares, this is Shotokan history here and who better than senseis Enoeda and Kase to portray it.
The kata performances of today’s athletes is technically superb, there is no question about that. It far outweighs the old days but the tradition and classical essence should not change, they are what they are. They are the artistic part of what we do. And we are doing a Martial ‘Art’ after all.
I may have gone of track a bit here but what I want to stress is, let’s not ignore the actual performance of our kata.
Of course we know that the applications and strategies came first. These numerous techniques, movements and postures were put into extremely clever, aesthetically choreographed forms which are still practiced hundreds of years later. And they definitely don’t need changing. They are what they are and should remain that way. And I believe as I said before, in the end, practicing our kata is all we are left with.
So, finally, what I am saying is, don’t become so obsessed with the applications of the kata to the detriment of being able to demonstrate a truly meaningful kata, with your own interpretation, full of intention and self-expression, don’t just ‘present’ your kata, make sure you ‘participate’ in it. Like everything in life, find a good balance between the two.