Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thought experiment

The story goes that what we know today as Karate we owe to intrepid Okinawans who travelled to China to pick the brains of Chinese masters. Later generations of karate masters based their authority and expertise on how close their relationship was to the original travelers to China, which brings me to a joke told to me by my friend, Bob the chef.

It goes something like this:

A new monk, let's call him Brother Al, is assigned the task of copying ancient manuscripts by hand. The original manuscripts, too valuable to be handled by the monks, are kept in a vault where they've been stored for ages. Only copies are available to the monks in the copy room. Brother Al, being a sharp guy, his joining a monastery not withstanding, asks Abbot Bud, most senior of monks,"Abbot Bud, how can we ensure the accuracy of our work if we only copy from copies?"

Abbot Bud ponders the question as Brother Al looks on. Alarm builds in Brother Al as Abbot Bud's demeanor changes from beatific calm to wide-eyed concern. "Good question, Brother Al, mind the other brothers while I run down to the vault." And with that, Abbot Bud hikes up his robes and sprints as fast as his sandaled feet can carry him across the stone floor. Hours pass, no Abbot Bud.

A concerned Brother Al and two other monks, Josephus and Reggy, make their way to the manuscript vault and find a distraught Abbot Bud. A page of illuminated vellum is crumpled in his tight fist. "It was never ib, it was never ib, it was never i frickin b" Abbot Bud repeats, his eyes swollen with tears. Josephus and Reggy steady Abbot Bud while Brother Al smoothes the wrinkled page. "He's right, my brothers," Al reads, "it's e b r, the word is supposed to be celebrate."

I often think kata can be like ancient manuscripts with transposed or missing letters, even missing pages. Here's a thought experiment-if the first transcription of the kata "manuscript" was flawed, how would you know?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Omote, ura and the poetry of kata

The art in kata is not in the visual appeal of it's dance like moves, nor in the simple kinesthetic appeal of moving. For me, good kata is very much like good poetry, where instead of a few words we have a few gestures communicating volumes. It's the economy that I appreciate.

Misunderstanding kata is like expecting poetry to read like prose. Kata is not prescriptive-if attacker does "x" you respond with "y." The newer, so called fighting kata, attempt this. The traditional kata are a bit more complex. An appreciation of symbolism, pattern and structure is requisite. There is a reason beginning readers start out with "Fun with Dick and Jane" books instead of say the words of Robert Frost. First get command of the language, then develop an understanding of its nuances.

Symbols? A punch is a punch, a kick is a kick. This is true if your karate is merely kick boxing in pajamas. At first, I thought the problem in understanding kata lay in the Japanese concept of omote, what is out front and observable, and ura, what is behind and unseen. This suggests perhaps a conscious effort by early karate masters to conceal secrets. Maybe in the old days, today I believe it's analogous to a failure to appreciate poetry. It is difficult to understand metaphor and simile with a limited vocabulary. There's no spark of recognition.

My prescription, increase your martial arts vocabulary by cross-training. Then go back to your kata and see if that has not made all the difference.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Te Waza: Nukite is not a spearhand

The opposable thumb and a big brain enabled our ancestors to survive in the wild. Key to their survival was tool building. It went from fire hardened wooden points to stone tools and eventually through the various metal ages. The progression was always towards better efficiency. In some styles of Karate, we see a regression rather than a progression in the use of hand technique, te waza. Of course, our understanding of karate is that it is an art of unarmed combat; however, this is no reason to believe that through effort and a casual disregard for physics and material science we can transform our bodies and hands into shields and spear points. This kind of thinking, to me, suggests a misunderstanding of kata bunkai.

The nukite in Pinan sono ni is often explained as a spearhand strike to soft body parts of the attacker: eyes and throat. First I would ask, what is the significance of teaching eye jabs? The Three Stooges, if you are familiar with these exemplars of slapstick comedy, demonstrate the simplicity of the eye jab with only two fingers and no training, and yet we have karate masters stabbing pots of gravel, bundles of bamboo and other targets all in an effort to transform multi-jointed fingers into a stabbing tool. Neanderthal man might ask, "why not just use a pointy stick?" A pencil is handy enough. Also, if empty hands are the only tools you have, why run the risk of jamming your fingers if you miss a soft body part and hit something hard?

I am pretty certain that in most cases spearhand strikes are not strikes at all. Jab an eye if you must, but stabbing pots of gravel in preparation is overkill. In the case of Pinan sono ni, the nukite is preceded by an open-handed block. The movement is strikingly similar to the Kyokushin's mawashi uke. So what's the point of the nukite in Pinan sono ni? My suggestion, an entry technique. The downward blocking hand parry's or slaps down the opponent's outstretched arm (presumably a punch or grab), the "nukite" traps, controls, grabs whatever it can. The open hand is open to whatever tactical opportunities present themselves, and not, I would argue, so that the finger tips can stab. In Pinan sono ni, the nukite is immediately followed by a turn of the body. Pay attention to turns in every kata. To me, they suggests throws, particularly when you consider what the hands are doing in the kata immediately prior to and after the turn.

Coincidentally, Te Waza in the Judo world refers to throws precipitated by hand motion. My favorites include ippon seioi nage and tai otoshi. There are many other throws in Judo, all involve turning, precise hand and foot placement, lowered centers of gravity, kinda like kata, only the emphasis is on optimal leverage rather than esthetics. Striking? That's the simple stuff in kata that hardly need elaboration.